It is a common feature of totalitarian regimes that their leaders face no accountability. In order to exercise total control over a state, totalitarian regimes systematically erode financial, judicial, and political systems designed to check the power of the executive. Such regimes also seek to establish a monopoly on information. Venezuela is no exception to this rule.
Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, is both the primary earner of foreign currency in Venezuela and the primary source of government revenues. While its earnings were previously passed to the Ministry of Finance, Chavez decreed that the spending would be done directly by PDVSA under his personal control, with no accountability or transparency over how the funds were spent. On Chavez’s instructions PDVSA stopped publishing its consolidated financial statements in 2003.
This began a period of theft and graft almost unmatched in the modern era. Without published financial data, it was impossible to track where PDVSA’s (and by extension Venezuela’s) money was going. By 2006 $22.5 billion had been transferred to overseas accounts, of which $12 billion was entirely unaccounted for. Chavez is suspected of either stealing this money outright or using it to buy political support abroad. Of course, this sum does not include the billions in subsidised oil funnelled to Cuba to pay for intelligence and other services.
Chavez was also an early adopter of the fraudulent development bank idea that would be made famous by the 1MDB scandal. In 2001 Chavez set up BANDES, a development bank, and FONDEN, a development fund. Billions of dollars of oil money were washed through these institutions over the years, and in 2011 it was discovered that $29 billion had gone missing from FONDEN. Nobody has heard of FONDEN, but by comparison the 1MDB scandal that has captured the attention of the global media involves a paltry $4.5 billion. It is a depressing reality that Chavez was ahead of the curve in his corrupt financial schemes, and that the rest of the world is behind the curve in bringing the Chavista regime to account.
Chavez also ensured that his government was no longer accountable to the judicial system. Independent and honest judges were replaced with regime stooges. This resulted in the farcical spectacle of the Supreme Court judges singing the Chavez campaign song “Uh, ah, Chavez no se va” (Chavez is not going) at the end of their inaugural session in 2006. Chavez issued orders to judges, treating them as subordinates. When a judge released an illegally detained prisoner, Chavez had the judge arrested, despite there being no legal basis for doing so. Consequently Chavez, Maduro, and other regime leaders act with total impunity. In 2003, Chavez dismissed 18,000 PDVSA workers for striking, something not only outside his authority but also a breach of Venezuelan labour law.
Chavez also ensured an absence of electoral accountability by rigging the electoral system. The members and staff of the Venezuelan National Electoral Council, which runs elections, are all committed Chavistas. As early as 2004-5 the electoral register was extensively corrupted, as it contained almost 17 million registered voters; mathematically impossible in a country with a population of 26 million, 60 percent or more of whom were too young to register. Moreover, the Electoral Council collected information on how individuals had voted and allowed the Chavista government to access these lists. Of course, this resulted in Venezuelans who had voted “the wrong way” losing their jobs, being refused identity papers, or being otherwise discriminated against. Without a secret ballot, Venezuelans are afraid to vote against the regime, ensuring that it could cling to power on the back of fraudulent elections.
The media is not able to hold the government to account as it is now under the total control of the regime. In 2004 Chavez enacted the ‘Law on Social Responsibility of Radio Television’ giving his regime the authority to control radio and television content, these restrictions being extended to the internet in 2010. These controls have been applied both by brutal censorship and closure of independent TV and radio stations, but also through the regime using corrupt funds to buy up independent media.
Lastly, Venezuela has become a country about which accurate data is no longer available. Basic data such as official figures for GDP, imports and inflation were last published in 2014, poverty statistics in 2013 and health statistics in 2015. When the health minister in 2017 released data showing a 66% jump in maternal deaths she was promptly fired. By controlling data, the regime is able to deflect criticism that suggests the country has experienced an economic collapse such as that of Zimbabwe in the 1990s.
It would not have been possible for Venezuela to have experienced such a total socio-economic collapse without the complete erosion of oversight and accountability. Without accountability, Chavez and Maduro have been able to enrich themselves and their followers, turn Venezuela into a Cuban proxy state, and cause the deaths of thousands and exodus of millions of their countrymen. Resolving this situation will rely on the restoration of proper checks and balances, as without them any future regime may stray down the same path. One must hope that soon Venezuela can overcome these obstacles and shine as an example of stable governance for Latin America.
More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website.