Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Beyond
On March 5, 2013, Hugo Chávez, the president of
Venezuela, died after losing a battle against cancer.
Chávez had been president of Venezuela since 1999. A
former military officer who was once jailed for engineering a failed coup attempt, Chávez was a self-styled democratic socialist who won the presidential election by
campaigning against corruption, economic mismanagement, and the “harsh realities” of global capitalism. When
he took office in February 1999, Chávez claimed he had
inherited the worst economic situation in the country’s
recent history. He wasn’t far off the mark. A collapse in
the price of oil, which accounted for 70 percent of the
country’s exports, left Venezuela with a large budget deficit and forced the economy into a deep recession.
Soon after taking office, Chávez worked to consolidate
his hold over the apparatus of government. By 2012, Freedom House, which annually assesses political and civil
liberties worldwide, concluded Venezuela was only
“partly free” and that freedoms were being progressively
curtailed. In 2006, for example, Parliament, which was
dominated by his supporters, gave him the power to legislate by decree for 18 months. In late 2010, Chávez yet
again persuaded the National Assembly to grant him the
power to rule by decree for another 18 months.
On the economic front, the economy shrank in the
early 2000s, while unemployment remained persistently
high (at 15 to 17 percent) and the poverty rate rose to
more than 50 percent of the population. A 2003 study
by the World Bank concluded Venezuela was one of the
most regulated economies in the world and that state
controls over business activities gave public officials
ample opportunities to enrich themselves by demanding bribes in return for permission to expand operations or enter new lines of business. Despite Chávez’s
anticorruption rhetoric, Transparency International,
which ranks the world’s nations according to the extent
of public corruption, noted that corruption increased
under Chávez. In 2012, Transparency International
ranked Venezuela 165th out of 174 nations in terms of
level of corruption.
Consistent with his socialist rhetoric, Chávez progressively took various enterprises into state ownership and
required that other enterprises be restructured as “workers’ cooperatives” in return for government loans. In addition, the government took over large rural farms and
ranches that Chávez claimed were not sufficiently productive and turned them into state-owned cooperatives.
In mid-2000, the world oil market bailed Chávez out of
mounting economic difficulties. Oil prices started to surge
from the low $20s in 2003, reaching $150 a barrel by mid2008. Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest producer, reaped
a bonanza. On the back of surging oil exports, the economy grew at a robust rate. Chávez used the oil revenues to
boost government spending on social programs, many of
them modeled after programs in Cuba. These included ultracheap gasoline and free housing for the poor.
In 2006, he announced plans to reduce the stakes held
by foreign companies in oil projects in the Orinoco regions, to increase the royalties they had to pay to the
Venezuelan government, and to give the state-run oil company a majority position. Simultaneously, he replaced
professional managers at the state-owned oil company
with his supporters, many of whom knew little about the
oil business. They extracted profits to support Chávez’s
social programs but at the cost of low investments in the
oil company, and over time its output started to fall.
Notwithstanding his ability to consolidate political
power, on the economic front, Venezuela’s performance
under Chávez was mixed. His main achievements were to
reduce poverty, which fell from 50 percent to 28 percent
by 2012, and to bring down unemployment from 14.5 percent at the start of his rule to 7.6 percent in February
2013. Profits from oil helped Chávez achieve both these
goals. However, despite strong global demand and massive reserves, oil production in Venezuela fell by a third
between 2000 and 2012 as foreign oil companies exited
the country and the state-run oil company failed to make
up the difference. Inflation surged and was running at
around 28 percent per annum between 2008 and 2012,
one of the highest rates in the world. To compound matters, the budget deficit expanded to 17 percent of GDP in
2012 as the government spent heavily to support its social
programs and various subsidies.
Following Chávez’s death, his handpicked successor,
Nicolas Maduro, took over the presidency. Maduro continued the policies introduced by Chávez. Things did not
go well. By 2014, the country was in a recession. The
economy contracted by 4 percent that year, while inflation surged to around 65 percent. The situation continued to deteriorate in 2015 and 2016. Exacerbated by a
sharp fall in oil prices and hence government revenues,
the economy was forecasted by the IMF to be 23 percent
smaller in 2017 than it was in 2013, the worst decline in
the world. By 2015, widespread shortages of basic goods
had emerged. In 2016, an estimated 75 percent of Venezuelans lost weight, averaging 8.7 kg per person, because of
a scarcity of food. Unemployment was rising. Inflation
increased to 741 percent by the end of 2016 (the highest in
the world). The poverty rate was back up over 30 percent.
To cap this litany of disaster, the value of the Venezuelan
currency, the bolivar, fell from 64 per U.S. dollar in 2014
to 960 per dollar by 2016.
Parliamentary elections held in December 2015 resulted in large losses for the ruling United Socialist
Party. For the first time since 1999, the opposition
gained a majority of seats in Parliament. Maduro’s
Part 7 Cases
r esponse was to have the supreme court, which was
populated with Chavez appointees, exercise “parliamentary power” while declaring the legislature to be in
contempt of the court. In effect, Venezuela has become
a full-fledged dictatorship.
Case Discussion Questions
D. Luhnow and P. Millard, “Chávez Plans to Take More Control of Oil away from Foreign Firms,” The Wall Street Journal,
April 24, 2006, p. A1; R. Gallego, “Chávez’s Agenda Takes
Shape,” The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2005, p. A12;
“The Sickly Stench of Corruption: Venezuela,” The Economist,
April 1, 2006, p. 50; “Chávez Squeezes the Oil Firms,” The
Economist, November 12, 2005, p. 61; “Glimpsing the Bottom
of the Barrel: Venezuela,” The Economist, February 3, 2007,
p. 51; “The Wind Goes Out of the Revolution—Defeat for Hugo
Chávez,” The Economist, December 8, 2007, pp. 30–32; “Oil
Leak,” The Economist, February 26, 2011, p. 43; “Medieval Policies,” The Economist, August 8, 2011, p. 38; “Now for the Reckoning,” The Economist, May 5, 2013; “Heading for a Crash,” The
Economist, January 23, 2016; Matt O’Brian, “Venezuela Is on
the Brink of Complete Economic Collapse,” The Washington
Post, January 29, 2016; “How Chavez and Maduro Have Impoverished Venezuela,” The Economist, April 6, 2017.
Under Chávez’s leadership, what kind of economic
system was put in place in Venezuela? How would
you characterize the political system?
How do you think that Chávez’s unilateral changes
to contracts with foreign oil companies will affect
future investment by foreigners in Venezuela?
How will the high level of public corruption in
Venezuela affect future growth rates?
During the latter part of Chávez’s rule, Venezuela
benefited from high oil prices. Since 2014, however,
oil prices have fallen substantially. What has the affect of this has been on government finances and
the Venezuelan economy?
During the Chávez years, many foreign multinationals exited Venezuela or reduced their exposure
there. What do you think the impact of this has
been on Venezuela? What needs to be done to
reverse the trend?
By 2016, Venezuela’s economy appeared to be on
the brink of total collapse. What do you think needs
to be done to reverse this?
Political and Economic Reform in Myanmar
For decades, the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar
(formerly known as Burma) was an international pariah.
Ruled by a brutal military dictatorship since the 1960s,
political dissent was not tolerated, the press was tightly
controlled, and opposition parties were shut down. Much
economic activity was placed in the hands of the state—
which effectively meant the hands of the military elite,
who siphoned off economic profits for their own benefit.
Corruption was rampant. In the 1990s, America and the
European Union imposed sweeping economic sanctions
on the country to punish the military junta for stealing
elections and jailing opponents. The de facto leader of
the country’s democratic opposition movement, Nobel
Peace Prize–winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was repeatedly
placed under house arrest from 1989 through 2010.
None of this was good for the country’s economy. Despite having a wealth of natural resources—including timber,
minerals, oil, and gas—the economy stagnated while its
Southeast Asian neighbors flourished. By 2012, Myanmar’s
GDP per capita was $1,400. In neighboring Thailand, it
was $10,000 per capita. The economy was still largely rural,
with 70 percent of the country’s nearly 60 million people
involved in agriculture. This compares with 8.6 percent in
Thailand. Few people own cars or cell phones, and there
are no major road or rail links between Myanmar and its
neighbors—China, India, and Thailand.
In 2010, the military again won elections that were
clearly rigged. Almost no one expected any changes, but
the new president, Thein Sein, was to defy expectations.
The government released hundreds of political prisoners,
removed restrictions on the press, freed Aung San Suu
Kyi, and allowed opposition parties to contest seats in a
series of by-elections. When Aung San Suu Kyi won a byelection, thrashing her military-backed opponent, they let
her take the seat, raising hopes that Myanmar was at last
joining the modern world. In response, both America and
the European Union began to lift their sanctions.
Thein Sein also started to initiate much-needed economic reforms. Even before the 2010 elections, the military had begun to quietly privatize state-owned
enterprises, although many were placed in the hands of
cronies of the regime. In 2012, Thein Sein stated that the
government would continue to reduce its role in a wide
range of sectors, including energy, forestry, health care,
finance, and telecommunications. Land reforms are also
under way. The government also abandoned the official
fixed exchange rate for the Myanmar currency, the kyat,
replacing it with a managed float. From 2001 to 2012, the
official exchange rate for the kyat varied between 5.75
and 6.70 per U.S. dollar, while the black-market rate was
between 750 and 1,335 per U.S. dollar. The official fixed
exchange rate had effectively priced Myanmar’s exports
out of the world market, although it did benefit the military elite who were able to exchange their worthless kyat
for valuable U.S. dollars on very favorable terms. Implemented in April 2012, the managed float valued the kyat
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