Well, voting is underway today – in Venezuela. The troubled South American nation hasn’t gone to the polls to vote for a new government, however, but a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. A few months ago, when these proposals were unveiled, an unofficial referendum was held in which seven million Venezuelans voted; 98% of them rejected the proposals, but the proposals are going ahead regardless. And Remoaners think they’ve got it bad here. The move to convene the constituent assembly followed the decision in March when the Supreme Court announced its intentions to take over the National Assembly, which is run by the opposition. Although the protests that greeted this announcement caused it to be reversed, President Nicolas Maduro was accused by the opposition of attempting to stage a coup, and it is Maduro’s determination to carry on regardless that seems to be tearing Venezuela apart, even if problems run much deeper and go back much further.

Venezuela is hardly unique amongst South American countries in experiencing ongoing difficulties when it comes to democracy, but external events have also contributed to its current crisis. With 95% of its export revenues dependent on oil, the diminishing global value of the commodity has hit it hard. Widespread food shortages have been the most devastating manifestation of the economic collapse, with figures estimating almost 75% of the population has lost an average of 8.7 kg in weight in the absence of proper nutrition, whereas only 15% of medicines are readily available. The hyperinflation that has struck the nation as of last year has seen consumer prices rise by a staggering 800% and the annual inflation rate has been estimated at 160%. As if things weren’t bad enough, the country also has an appalling murder rate.

Anyone who happens to be a regular listener of Radio 4’s wonderfully eye-opening institution, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, will be familiar with Venezuela’s decline in recent years, though the powder keg atmosphere has finally erupted into violent protest this year and the country now appears to be at breaking point. The portrait of society in a state of collapse that ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ has documented often seems uncomfortably reminiscent of the chaotic circumstances in Germany after the First World War, the ones that created the conditions for the rise of Nazism.

Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor in the Presidential office, the late Hugo Chavez, had written the Venezuelan constitution in 1999 that his successor now seeks to overturn. Chavez used to carry the constitution around in his pocket, the ‘little blue book’ he was prone to brandishing whenever a camera was on hand. As architect of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, which had ideological allies in other Socialist South American nations such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Chavez embodied the classic anti-imperialist revolutionary leader in a Castro vein that has regularly proven popular amongst those opposing the foreign policies of South America’s northern neighbour. When the great Socialist experiment invariably runs into a brick wall, blaming US intervention in the country’s affairs in remains the default excuse, and Chavez knew how to play that one.

The legacy of Chavez’s populist reforms, which were initiated when the Venezuelan economy was riding high on astronomical oil revenues – and included the nationalisation of major industries, excessive public spending, and the establishment of social programmes to improve the health and education of the population – began to reveal themselves in a less benign light at the point when Chavez lost his battle against cancer in 2013. They may have appeared admirable on paper, but Chavez failed to curb endemic corruption in public office and the police force, not to mention lowering the murder rate; a master of propaganda like Hugo Chavez was able to paper-over these cracks in his Socialist vision, but his successor has not been so fortunate. In many respects, Nicolas Maduro inherited an unenviable economic time-bomb not unlike the poisoned chalice Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown in 2007, though one suspects UK-style austerity would seem like affluence to most Venezuelans today.

Nicolas Maduro’s response to the crisis has been perceived as the President desperately trying to save his own skin rather than putting the interests of the country first. The aborted attempt to silence the opposition by taking over the National Assembly hasn’t deterred his determination to convene a constituent assembly that will have the power to override the democratic institution he failed to seize control of. Over 6,000 candidates are standing for the constituent assembly, none of them from the opposition, which has boycotted it wholesale. But while international condemnation of the election has been summarily ignored, one of Venezuela’s prominent neighbours Colombia – only just emerging from its own turbulence – has also refused to recognise the result when it comes.

The President hasn’t done himself any favours by cracking-down on more physical opposition to his power; since street protests began in April, upwards of 3,000 protestors have been detained and dozens have been killed. The most high-profile presence on these protests has belonged to ‘The Resistance’, a masked group claiming to be the protectors of peaceful protestors; they generally head the marches and are prepared to fight fire with fire when confronted by police and security guards. A ban on demonstrations hasn’t had much of an impact, with the barricades manned again on streets in the capital Caracas as the government continues to insist the constituent assembly will be the only solution to the anarchy of recent months. But Venezuela has so many more problems than that, and genuine solutions are in short supply.

© The Editor


EscobarAnyone remember the World Cup in Colombia in 1986? If you do, you must have been ingesting a sizeable amount of hallucinogenics at the time, for it never happened. It was certainly scheduled as such following Spain in 1982, but the established pattern of never awarding the event to a country that had previously staged it was finally broken when FIFA opted for Mexico (hosts in 1970) at the eleventh hour. Up to that point, the World Cup tended to alternate between the soil of South America and Europe, the traditional powerhouse continents of world football; the first such tournament had been held in Uruguay, after all.

Having had Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina all host the World Cup, Colombia was the next South American name out of the hat – winning the bid as far back as 1974; but by the time the 1982 tournament had ended, it became apparent that Colombia was in no fit state to take on the challenge four years later. Economic reasons were cited, but there was a hell of a lot more to it than that. The brutal murder of Colombian international Andres Escobar upon his return home from scoring an own-goal at the 1994 World Cup sadly proved FIFA all too right.

Today’s announcement of a ceasefire between the largest rebel forces of the left (FARC) and the Colombian Government could potentially end a conflict that has spanned a staggering 52 years. FARC (an acronym derived from the Spanish spelling of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) formed in 1964 as the paramilitary wing of the Colombian Communist Party and has largely based itself in the plentiful rural areas of the country for the past half-century, springing as it did from an impoverished agricultural community confronted by immense inequalities and suppression of all subversion within Colombian society. However, any hopes that FARC could replicate recent revolutionary events in Cuba at the time of its formation were dashed by the pact between the Colombian Government and wealthy landowners, who had already guaranteed US support against any guerrilla rebellion. Instead, the whole unedifying bloodbath has dragged on and on for five devastating decades.

The history of South and Central America is, with a few exceptions, largely a lesson of post-colonial mismanagement of the most disastrous manner over the last century and-a-half. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the various British trading outposts dotted around the globe had yet to morph into overseas territories, the Spanish Empire was at its height, ruling over great swathes of land in the Americas; but by the turn of the nineteenth century, Spain was in terminal decline as a world power, overtaken by Britain and (especially) Napoleonic France. The Peninsular War of 1807-14 was a decisive conflict contributing towards the eventual defeat of Bonaparte, but only Britain emerged from it stronger than it had been before; the strain of the Napoleonic Wars on Spain and Portugal was a precursor of the strain of the Second World War on the UK, resulting in the loss of colonies neither country could afford to govern when in turmoil at home.

The independence of South American countries previously under Spanish and Portuguese rule in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century has parallels with the loss of British colonies in Africa during the mid-to-late twentieth century, and what happened next also has a ring of familiarity to it. The country that became Colombia had, under Spanish rule, been known as the Viceroy of New Granada, a huge colonial possession that also comprised modern-day Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela as well as parts of Brazil, Peru and Guyana. Left to its own devices following Spanish withdrawal in 1819, the future Colombia went through a series of name changes that must have given rise to several headaches for cartographers of the era – the Republic of New Granada, the Granadine Confederation, the United States of Colombia and finally, in 1886, the Republic of Colombia. There was a split with Panama, following the Thousand Days’ War of 1899-1902, when the borders of modern-day Colombia were established, but the constant changing of names reflected a deeper degree of uncertainty in the country as to its identity.

The USA had played a part in the split with Panama, tied-in with the construction of the Panama Canal, and despite a subsequent war with Peru, the new nation of Colombia was largely peaceful until the period of the late 40s and early 50s known as ‘The Violence’, when the country’s two major political parties engaged in a civil war and claimed the lives of over 180,000 people. The cessation of hostilities in the 1960s gave rise to somewhat superficial peace, though various guerrilla groups of both left and right below the surface were forming to take violence onto a new and bloodier level altogether.

The current conflict – though after half-a-century of it, the term ‘historic’ could also be applied – is reputed to boast a death-toll of more than 260,000, so any indications of genuine peace on the horizon are bound to be imbued with a great deal of good-will and optimistic hope on the part of the long-suffering Colombian people. As a continent, South America is oozing untapped potential and possesses the ingredients to eventually emerge from the lengthy shadows cast by drug barons, civil wars, pseudo-Marxist dictators and unhealthy US interference in the same way that Eastern Europe began to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Bloc at the end of the twentieth century. But so much damage has been done since it wrestled itself free from Spanish and Portuguese rule that it could take at least another couple of generations before anything remotely resembling success can be discerned.

In the case of Colombia, a country with a richness of biodiversity that encompasses the Andes, Amazonian rainforests and coastlines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as a healthy ethnic and linguistic mix, one can only hope some kind of stability can be achieved that will help it rise anew from decades of unnecessary bloodshed. Who knows, perhaps it can one day get round to staging the World Cup it was forced to surrender back in 1986. The world is crossing its fingers for a long overdue happy ending.

© The Editor