Mon | May 20, 2019

Oliver-Leighton Barrett | Drought, mismanagement and political instability in Venezuela

Published:Saturday | February 16, 2019 | 12:12 AM
A woman poses for a photo as she lines up to receive bags with food subsidized by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government near the international bridge of Tienditas on the outskirts of Urena, Venezuela, on the border with Colombia last week.

Most of the storylines are driving the international community’s understanding of the Venezuelan crisis centre on the Maduro regime’s gross mismanagement of the economy, and its clean break from democratic laws and tradition. However, there are some background factors that have gone less noticed.

The Venezuelan government’s inability to manage its strained water resources in the face of a drought that the nation’s meteorologists characterised as “the worst in at least 40 years”, for example, is a largely unwritten part of the story that deserves to be aired.

Venezuela’s ongoing water shortage (and the energy crisis that it spawned in the hydroelectricity-dependent nation) has not received attention proportionate to its contribution to one of the worst disasters the hemisphere has witnessed in recent memory.

According to Venezuela’s Ministry of Electricity, between 2013 and 2016, Venezuela’s rainfall measured 50 per cent to 65 per cent lower than normal. This rainfall deficit left the country dry and dramatically reduced Venezuela’s capacity to generate electricity via its hydroelectric power generators.

The shortage of reservoir stores led to the government imposing rolling blackouts and water rationing in 2016, compounding the stress already felt by the majority of Venezuelans due to the economic contraction and its attendant food crisis.

According to Circle of Blue, the outages affected “every industry and are a factor in the country’s slipping economy, soaring inflation, and food and supply shortages.”

The protracted dry spell darkened every corner of national life at a time when many Venezuelans had already started to feel the acute impacts (including malnutrition) of intensifying food insecurity.

An underperforming agriculture sector, featuring a 60 per cent decline in the domestic production of rice, corn and coffee since 2007, already had the nation of 32 million teetering on disaster in 2013 when drought effects started to be felt.

WHAT OR WHOM IS TO BLAME?

Nicolás Maduro continues to blame the collapsed economy on several factors, most notably: depressed global oil prices (well above $100 a barrel in 2014 to just over $54 today); Mother Nature for visiting a relentless drought on the country, and an economic war waged by his nemesis, the United States.

His political opponents, as well as many objective measures, blame two decades worth of farm nationalisations, currency manipulations and a government takeover of food distribution as a few of the most obvious causes for the ongoing humanitarian crisis, which currently includes a mass migration of over three million citizens – one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history.

The charges of water and energy mismanagement are consistent with what is already widely reported about the government’s mishandling of the nation’s vital oil sector (95 per cent of Venezuela exports are crude/petroleum related).

As household pipes ran dry, Venezuelans didn’t blame climate change, they blamed, reasonably, the man many have taken to calling the ‘Usurper’, Nicolás Maduro. While a drought placed pressure on the country, it was the Maduro government’s approach to handling it, and many other social, political and economic ills, that have driven so many Venezuelan citizens to call for change.

Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett, US Navy (Ret). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com