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What should India Learn from Venezuela?

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is one of the most highly urbanized countries in Latin America. It emerged from the collapse of Gran Colombia in 1830 (the others being Colombia and Ecuador) and for most of the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela was ruled by generally tolerant military strongmen. They were highly influential and allowed some social reforms in the country and heavily promoted the oil industry.

Things took a turn when Hugo Chavez, president from 1999 to 2013, and his hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, took over through authoritarian control over other branches of government. During their more than two decades in power, the socialist party PSUV founded by Chávez gained control of many key institutions including much of the judiciary, the electoral council, and even the supreme court.

While at the same time, democratic institutions have deteriorated, threats to freedom of expression have increased, and rampant political polarization has grown over the years. Venezuela is neck-deep in a political crisis with two rival politicians, clashing against each other and claiming to be the country's legitimate leader.

In December 2016, the opposition party won a majority in the National Assembly, and the legislature became a source of defiance against President Maduro's side - who was re-elected in 2018 but the poll was widely dismissed as corrupted and rigged. National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó labeled Mr. Maduro a "usurper" which means ‘to seize and hold (the power or rights of another, for example) by force or without legal authority and declared himself interim president in January 2019.

Even though more than 50 countries across the world recognize the legitimacy of Guaidó, the Venezuelan military which is a key player in the country continues to remain loyal towards Mr. Maduro - who still continues to remain in the presidential palace and is in charge of the country.

In the midst of this severe socio-political and economic crisis, which has been going on for several years, and has only become significantly worse due to political turmoil - The USA is in support of Mr. Guaidó and has imposed sanctions on Mr Maduro, his inner circle, and Venezuela's oil industry, making it hard to get fuel and foreign currency.

Most of the opposition parties had boycotted the legislative elections held in December 2020 and as a result of this, a coalition led by Mr Maduro's PSUV party won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly. Despite his large international support, Mr Guaidó does not wield much power in practical terms.

At present, some of the current concerns and persisting problems of Venezuela are an increasingly politicized military, high crime rate, violation of human rights, high inflation, widespread shortages of basic consumer goods (eg. medicine), overdependence on the petroleum industry with its price fluctuations, and irresponsible mining operations that are endangering the rain forest and indigenous people and all these issues have caused about 5.6 million people to flee from the country in search of a better life.

With relation to India, the diplomatic relations between India and Venezuela were established in 1959 and Venezuela opened its embassy in New Delhi in 1962. In the year 1968, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Venezuela as a part of her eight-country Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region tour. Due to geopolitical compulsions (the national emergency of the 70s in India and the ‘lost decade’ of the 80s in South America), the relations could not be further developed to their potential. Nonetheless, President Hugo Chavez’s visit to India in the March of 2005 provided the much-needed impetus to reset the relations.

The relation between India and Venezuela is primarily driven by India’s demand for oil and Venezuela’s position as the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. There are some other non-oil-related commercial exchanges between the countries 0eg. electrical cables and iron pellets) but they are small. India exports pharmaceuticals, calcined petroleum coke (CPC), textiles, and automobiles to Venezuela.

This brings us to the main question - What can India do or learn looking at the political & humanitarian crisis that is ongoing in Venezuela?

India’s diplomatic relationship with Venezuela is primarily based on oil and under the present circumstances it is unlikely to deepen in the near future. Brazil and Mexico continue to hold more importance in the Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) region than Venezuela and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The political turmoil that Venezuela is going through should be a wake-up call to us to examine our own governments and check people in power since too much power is just one step away from being under authoritarian rule. While we may not suffer from as grave a crisis as Venezuela does, we too have our own fair share of problems such as economic disparities, unemployment, etc.

The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has meant that India has started looking to other nations of the region for energy resources since The political situation there will affect us as well through trade. However, if global oil prices increase again, Venezuela’s economy will recover and the commercial relationship between the two countries will resume. As India’s oil demands grow and because Venezuelan crude oil is more economical than for example - the lighter grade African variety, and since Venezuela possesses bigger oil reserves than Africa, it is important for New Delhi to maintain a stable but apolitical relationship with Caracas.

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