If you have the feeling that you’ve been reading about Venezuela heading deeper and deeper into crisis for a very long time, let me assure you, you’re not alone. The satirical news site El Chigüire Bipolar, Venezuela’s answer to the Onion, once “reported” that as the country keeps hitting rock bottom, it just keeps finding oil underneath and pumping it out to finance yet more digging into the bedrock.
That piece came out in 2013.
The latest twist in the saga comes from Norway, which is leading a new diplomatic initiative to try to broker a political settlement. The initiative has been met with almost universal skepticism. As representatives of the government and the opposition prepare for the possibility of direct talks in Oslo, shell-shocked Venezuelans simply sigh.
It’s a movie we’ve seen many times before. The ending always breaks our heart.
The diplomatic effort comes a few weeks after a strange attempted rebellion raised more questions than it answered. Although the putsch seemed to fizzle, reports that high-ranking members of the security forces were on board appear to be credible. Certainly, the clique surrounding Nicolás Maduro seems shot through with poisonous distrust.
Meanwhile, Venezuela bleeds.
Commentators long since ran out of superlatives to characterize the scale of the crisis. The word “collapsed” has been bandied about so long, it’s now drained of meaning. Yes, the economy collapsed, with gross domestic product contracting more than in any economy anyone can find outside of wartime. Yes, the currency collapsed: Inflation is running at millions of percent per year — so fast, the specific number is no longer really knowable. Yes, our oil industry collapsed and our democracy collapsed and our hospitals collapsed and, as millions flee to neighboring countries, our demography itself is collapsing.
All of these things are true. And yet, the word misleads. Collapse implies finality. Once something has collapsed, logically, it stops collapsing. But Venezuela doesn’t stop collapsing. The process is continuing.
The unrelenting pace of decay has made Venezuelans very suspicious of any sign of hope. The nation as a whole seems gripped by a kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder. Only, again, there’s nothing “post” about it.
This is the context of the latest diplomatic initiative to break the catastrophic political deadlock between the government and the opposition. It’s a documented fact that the government has used negotiations in the past as a tactical gambit to wait out domestic protests and ease diplomatic pressure as it prepares for the next round of repression to further consolidate its dictatorial grip on the country. Venezuelans have every right to be skeptical in the extreme — indeed, it would show a staggering naivete if they weren’t.
And yet, we have to ask: Could this time be different? Could Norway succeed where the Organization of American States, the Catholic Church, Spain and Uruguay have all failed?
The answer is yes. And the reason goes back to that Chigüire Bipolar joke about hitting rock bottom, finding more oil and keeping on drilling.
The regime has always owed its extraordinary resilience to its oil riches. No matter how bad things seemed, the government always had enough oil money coming in to keep going.
That’s no longer true.
Tough U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry have left the government in Caracas facing an unprecedented cash crunch. Oil exports — which represent more than 90 percent of export revenue — have dropped by some 40 percent since January.
With no money to pay off the generals and goons who have for years kept massive protests at bay, the Maduro regime is facing pressures it has just never known before. In the past, the regime had always tended to make up for in cruelty and violence what it lacked in cash. The usefulness of that strategy may be in serious doubt.
Maduro now has powerful reasons to negotiate of a kind he has never had before. To be clear, the vast majority of Venezuelans have come to see optimism as a luxury they definitely cannot afford. Even to express the hope of change tends to feel like writing a check the nation lacks the spiritual funds to honor. But is the Norwegian effort doomed to fail from the start?
No, it isn’t.