Venezuela is on the brink of a complete economic and political collapse, which has been building up since the early days of Bolivarian Socialism.
How does one know that things are going bad in Venezuela? – By the fact that there are no reliable ways of knowing it. Good economic data about Venezuela is conspicuous by its absence. It seems that President Maduro has made it State policy to not publish data. The last time that the Venezuelan central bank published inflation data was in January 2015 and it was 63% at that time, already the highest in the world. By the end of 2015, it was estimated by the IMF that inflation rates would have reached 275%
The Venezuelan economy and the government is in complete shambles and the only question is, as a Washington Post article points out, is which one will collapse first. A combination of bad policies and global situation has put Venezuela on the edge of the precipice.
The Venezuelan economy is driven by oil. In fact, it has the world’s largest oil reserves and like many oil-exporting countries today, is suffering due to low global crude oil prices. However, this is just the proximate cause. The seeds of destruction were sown with the extreme socialist measures taken by the late populist President Hugo Chavez. When oil prices soared in 2000s, it offered Chavez the funds to pursue a hyper-populist and socialist reforms in the economy. The Chávez government pursued a series of “Bolivarian Missions” aimed at providing public services (such as food, healthcare, and education) to improve economic, cultural, and social conditions. Very soon, fiscal spending ballooned in a view to retain loyal political support. Two cent gasoline, free housing, highly subsidized food from government controlled supermarkets and a whole range of such populist policies were practiced.
The first part of his inequality reduction was to conduct land reforms. Many productive agricultural lands were seized with the belief that land belongs to the state and not private individuals. With this move, a sizeable area of productive land previously owned by individuals were now sitting idle under government control, which led to reduction in food supply.
Further, the Chavez government set price controls on about 400 food items in 2003, in an effort to “protect the poor”. In March 2009, the government set minimum production quotas for 12 basic foods that were subject to price controls, including white rice, cooking oil, coffee, sugar, powdered milk, cheese, and tomato sauce. As it has been throughout history, price controls lead to massive shortages and to the creation of underground economies. In January 2008, Chavez ordered the military to seize 750 tons of food that sellers were illegally trying to smuggle across the border to sell for higher prices than what was legal in Venezuela.
As many socialist countries in the past will bear witness, one set of distortions introduced by the government will lead to many more and an attempt to correct those leads to further distortions. Price controls led to supply shortages. A few of the supermarkets that could manage to get its hand on essential supplies charged a price higher than what was stipulated. The government seized all of these supermarkets and the shelves have been empty ever since. This was a pattern that was found across all industries. A few examples:
- Price controls caused shortages in the cement industry and led to a downturn in construction activities. The government nationalized the cement industry, including hostile take over of multi-national companies, which completely eroded business confidence in Venezuela, and led to a marked decrease in cement production.
- The largest electricity producer in Venezuela was a private US firm, which was later nationalized. In 2013, 70% of the country plunged into darkness with 14 of 23 states of Venezuela stating they did not have electricity for most of the day
- Similar cause and consequences were seen throughout Venezuela. Cable and telephone companies were nationalized – led to government censorship; Steel companies were nationalized – led to drop in production and capacity underutilization; Food plants – shortage of processed food; bank nationalization – a banking crisis in 2009-10, etc.
The biggest development that has led to present crisis is the complete take over off their biggest oil company. Even though the Petroleos de Venezuela was State-owned previously, it was at least run professionally before Chavez took over. People who knew what they were doing were replaced with people who were loyal to the regime, and profits came out but new investment didn’t go in. Accusations of nepotism were ripe. The result was that the company did not receive any new investments, which made the much-required technical upgradation impossible. Consequently, oil production in Venezuela declined by as much as 25% between 1999-2013.
The current economic crisis is a direct result of economic mismanagement in the past decade. Price controls led to reduction in supply and export bans led to shortage of foreign exchange needed for imports. The result is empty shelves on most retail outlets and a severe shortage of food supplies and being on the route to galloping inflation rates. Two to three hour-long lines in front of government owned supermarkets are not an uncommon sight. The government even deployed security personnel to kick out shoppers from the lines and introduced a two day per week limit for buying groceries.
Excessive government spending has led to deep fiscal imbalance and huge external debts. Many analysts are betting on a Venezuelan default by the end of the year, which will cripple the economy’s ability to rebound from the current crisis.
When faced with huge debt with no ability to raise revenues and limited borrowing opportunities, countries inevitably resort to one thing: printing notes and Venezuela has been doing it relentlessly. This has caused the Bolivar to drop 95% in the last two years, from 64/$ to 959/$ in the beginning of 2016. Given this, the IMF estimates inflation rate to touch 720% in 2016, which will no doubt intensify civilian protests in the country.
The need of the hour is economic reforms in order to dull the pain of an intensifying crisis. However, even if Maduro is prepared to bring in some much-needed reforms (which he probably is not), the opposition will not allow him. The opposition has just won the Congressional elections, which has given it a veto-proof majority, and they are determined to stall any plans that the ruling government may have.
The possibility of the opposition blocking Maduro’s reforms is a moot point. Maduro has far too much conviction in his socialist ideals and doesn’t look like he is too eager to change his policies. In fact, he passed a law, which has made it impossible to remove the Central Bank Governor that he has chosen and surely, he has chosen a remarkable candidate. He has chosen a central bank governor who doesn’t believe in the concept of inflation. As the Washington Post quotes the governor:
“When a person goes to a shop and finds that prices have gone up, they are not in the presence of ‘inflation,’ but rather parasitic businesses that are trying to push up profits as much as possible. Let me be clear, printing too much money never causes inflation. And so Venezuela will continue to do so”.
Please Mr Maduro, ask any Zimbabwean how this went down. Many economies have been on a similar path in the past and it is not pleasant. Venezuela will keep printing money until it runs out of money to buy printing paper. Hyperinflation (with inflation rates in millions) will ensue, before a complete economic and societal collapse, which will include asset stripping, rent seeking, and resource capture and hoarding by those who have power. In the end, generations in the future will suffer.
Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution and tweets @anupammanur