The Big Picture

The Battle for Venezuela

The Big Picture examines the present-day crisis in Venezuela by exploring the divisions rooted in its past.

Venezuela is gripped by crisis. Economic collapse and political meltdown have devastated a country that was once the wealthiest in the region, and still, today boasts the world’s largest oil reserves.

Latin America’s once ‘model democracy’ now struggles to maintain order and feed a divided people.
But the seeds of its current demise were sewn a century ago, when the events of its formative years ensured that the fate of Venezuela would be written in oil.

As the country developed into a functioning “petrostate”, other vital elements of its modernisation were left distinctly under-developed.

“Even though Venezuela really begins to develop its oil economy, the Venezuelan state doesn’t benefit hugely because, in essence, it’s only charging rent for the land,” says Julia Buxton, author of The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela.

After the discovery of oil, decades of oppression by military regimes and dictatorships saw the rise of an increasingly unequal state. As the rich got richer, benefiting from opportunities for development facilitated by oil, a vast swath of Venezuelan society, remained excluded from the growing wealth.

“You start to see the very clear parameters of two Venezuelas: the Venezuela that benefits from oil, and the Venezuela that actually still remains in the shadow of the oil industry. And that Venezuela is rural and that Venezuela is poor, that Venezuela is illiterate, that Venezuela is seeing and looking at the evolution of the other but is not benefiting from it,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin studies at Pomona College, California.

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However, as the promise of a united, democratic Venezuela was beginning to be fulfilled, with the nationalisation of industries and the creation of a state-owned oil company, as well as extensive investment in social programmes and housing projects, this lavish spending is supplemented by borrowing, resulting in loans and more loans.

What has been the effect of economic policies that have by turns, looked to nationalisation, free-market capitalism and forms of socialism as well as diktats from the International Monetary Fund, on the fate of Venezuela? Why have successive democratic governments failed to unite a country which, half a century ago was seemingly moving towards first world prosperity?

The Big Picture: The Battle for Venezuela examines how the exploitation of oil created the modern nation of Venezuela and, how the oil industry helped create this divided society as well as endemic inequality. We chart the effect of industrialisation and the flux between dictatorships and democracy, highlighting the legacies of prominent leaders such as Hugo Chavez, to shed light on the troubles afflicting Venezuela today.