Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Pivotal Moment in Venezuela

In the largest blow to the late Hugo Chavez's Socialist Party since its founding in 1999, it was announced yesterday that Venezuelan voters had handed the country's opposition party a supermajority in the National Assembly. The Democratic Unity coalition will now have the power to name the president of the Legislature, approve or reject the government's budget, and even hold a referendum on the president's leadership, after 16 years of political imprisonments, a hostile Socialist majority, and overall oppression.

The victory is a striking bellwether indicative of the various crises Venezuela currently sees itself in: an economy on the verge of collapse, an impending shortage of food, and a devastatingly failed healthcare system. Former President Chavez's handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has managed to hold on to power since he took office in 2013, but has overseen a country with an increasingly grim forecast virtually since then. With more than 70% of the electorate turning out to vote - a record in recent years - it is clear that the people of Venezuela are fed up and ready for a change.

President Nicolas Maduro with supporters. Courtesy of Yahoo

The question now is whether or not the Democratic Unity will be able to facilitate the change that Venezuelans so desperately need--and the reason they voted with such decisiveness. Venezuela's economy has been in a virtual free fall for months, primarily due to plummeting oil prices. Crude oil - by far Venezuela's most important commodity - has dropped 65% in the past 18 months, sending shudders around the globe but none more apparent than in the South American country. According to the IMF, due to this decrease, Venezuela's economy is expected to contract 10% and 6% in 2015 and 2016 respectively, with inflation over 100% for 2015.

Venezuela's healthcare crisis is arguably more acute. Thousands of citizens do not have access to even the most basic medical supplies and medicines, and in March 2015, the Venezuelan advocacy group Doctors for Health found in a national survey that 44% of operating rooms were not operational and an astounding 94% of labs didn't have the equipment or supplies necessary to be operational. They also found that 60% of basic medical supplies were either partially or wholly unavailable. According to Human Rights Watch, because Venezuela does not have a developed pharmaceutical industry, it relies on imports for most of its medicines, and has in the past several years planned poorly and mismanaged storage of medical supplies and medicines.

The healthcare crisis is only compounded by an increasing lack of food in the country. An August poll found that 30% of Venezuelans were eating just two meals a day, and that 70% had stopped buying basic food products because they were too expensive or unavailable. Like the healthcare crisis, Venezuela's food shortage has triggered protests - some turning violent - throughout the past year, with little in the way of a substantive response from the government.

Waiting on line for food. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

However, the Assembly does not have much influence over the economic policy of the country, and therefore, in addressing these crises. That power will remain in the hands of President Maduro, despite talk of new laws passed to spur economic growth, provide pensions for elderly currently without them, and the removal of finance cabinet ministers. President Maduro will be tasked with improving the economy, cutting oil production to stabilize the price, and incentivizing foreign direct investment and small business growth. He will be responsible for heeding both the cries from his citizens but also the recommendations from NGOs and advocacy groups, working to increase pharmaceutical imports while expanding the industry domestically, and resolving the food crisis immediately.

Above all, though, in order to truly reverse the economic malaise, the President and the Assembly will have to work together. The likelihood of that today appears scarce. President Maduro has vowed to fight the opposition with whatever it takes; likewise, the opposition won their election on the message that President Maduro and his party were broken beyond repair. Both must put their differences aside now and govern in a manner that is effective and restores the public's trust. Venezuela is in dire straits; there is no time for political posturing. A successful collaboration between the two will almost guarantee a step in the right direction for the country--something its citizens voted for, and something they are counting on.