Read a newspaper story about a country or its economy “coming to a standstill” and, for the most part, you can be sure you are facing a journalistic flourish. Economies are said to “come to a standstill” when they merely fail to grow but otherwise keep ticking along as usual. Because this figurative usage is so widespread, it’s tricky to explain what has happened in Venezuela in 2020, the year when the country came to a terrifyingly literal standstill. The way this economic freefall coincided with a harsh crackdown on political dissent accounts for the odd fact that the pandemic was only the third worst disaster to hit Venezuela in 2020.
Venezuela’s Unprecedented Economic Collapse
In Venezuela, the virus doubles as pretext. Since March, the government of President Nicolás Maduro has implemented an uncommonly aggressive, long-lasting, and punitive lockdown, ordering much of the economy to shut down. But, like the king imagined by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a monarch who made sure never to be disobeyed by ordering the sun to set just as dusk approached each night, Maduro’s lockdown orders merely make official the thoroughgoing collapse of Venezuela’s economy.
Between 2013 and 2019, Venezuela experienced the worst slump economists have ever been able to measure anywhere (outside of wartime), with GDP shrinking by a shocking 62 percent. A country that had had a mass consumer middle class as recently as eight years ago saw hunger visit nearly every household, with firms shutting down en masse and virtually everyone coming to depend on sporadic government food handouts to survive.
And that was before the real crisis started, set off by the vicious one-two punch of U.S. sanctions on the oil industry and the coronavirus pandemic. For a regime with a long history of covering up bad public health news—whether it’s about malaria, diphtheria, HIV, or anything else—Venezuela’s official statistics on the prevalence of COVID-19 cases are meaningless. Nor would it be possible to say if increased caseloads overburdened the country’s healthcare system: it collapsed under the weight of underinvestment and economic dysfunction long before the pandemic set in.
Oil industry sanctions had catastrophic effects in two ways. Most obviously, barring U.S. companies from buying oil deprived Venezuela’s classic petrostate of the vast bulk of its revenue. Counterintuitively, though, the sanctions’ deeper impact came from barring oil industry–related exports to Venezuela. Without the additive chemicals, repair parts, and service contracts Venezuela needed to run its refineries, they were put out of commission one by one. And the same sanctions prevented Venezuela from importing refined gasoline, leading to widespread shortages of fuel.
Thus, the standstill. The old joke about how, if communists took over Antarctica the snow would run out, is actualized every day at Venezuelan service stations across the country. According to author interviews, even in Caracas, but especially in provincial cities and towns, the internal combustion engine has fallen into disuse in Venezuela.
Faced with the simple impossibility of fueling the buses, cars, and trucks that would normally ferry people between homes and workplaces and ship goods between ports and stores, the government has taken refuge in the virus, actively banning people from using services it could no longer provide.
Maduro’s Ruthless Crackdown
The Maduro regime’s approach to lockdowns has been characteristically punitive. In the southern state of Bolívar, police patrol the streets in “coronabuses”—rounding up anyone breaking the 6:00 p.m. curfew and shoving them in jail. For public health, it is risible: social distancing is a nonstarter in Venezuela’s notoriously overcrowded jails. For social control, though, it does the job.
At the national level, the long-running political standoff between government and opposition has largely lost relevance, as the government has redoubled autocratic control and has stepped up repression against dissidents. A recent Human Rights Watch report notes that, since the start of the crisis, the regime has “arbitrarily detained and prosecuted dozens of journalists, healthcare workers [who have criticized its response to the pandemic], human rights lawyers, and political opponents who criticize the government.” And a sobering piece in the New York Times notes that regime death squads have begun branching out from attacking the opposition and now routinely take aim at dissident socialists who dare to question Maduro’s choices.
In this climate of fear and extreme deprivation, organizing politically to challenge the regime has become virtually impossible. Opposition leader Leopoldo López fled the Spanish embassy in Caracas, where he had sought refuge after the failed 2019 uprising, and turned up in Madrid. López vowed to carry on his fight from exile, but it was hard not to see his decision to bolt as a kind of concession.
A sort of simulacrum of legislative elections took place on December 6, drawing little interest from voters. The election was not competitive: the opposition’s spots on the ballot were taken over by regime sympathizers, resulting in an empty, Soviet-style vote where all options on the ballot ultimately support the government. The sham election will put an end to the legislature elected in Venezuela’s last free and fair election, held in 2015, when opposition parties took two-thirds of the seats—and were quickly barred from passing laws or exercising oversight by the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans who fled the country’s crumbling economy between 2017 and 2019 find themselves stranded abroad as jobs disappear and borders close. Those who have returned home to Venezuela have been branded “bioterrorists” for introducing the virus into the country and forced into quarantine facilities where conditions are described as “inhumane.”
To be sure, Venezuela’s slow-burning metamorphosis into a police state long predates the coronavirus pandemic. But the virus, in conjunction with the fuel crisis, has hastened that transformation. At the beginning of this decade, Venezuela still shared at least some vestigial traits with the region’s democracies. Today, it shares basically none.