Friday, June 10, 2016

Venezuela crisis evokes memories of Cuba's 'Special Period'

Venezuela crisis evokes memories of Cuba's 'Special Period'
10 June 2016
From the section Latin America & Caribbean

The crisis in Venezuela shows little sign of easing up.
Inflation is among the highest in the world, there are long queues for
basic goods and the atmosphere on the streets is becoming increasingly

Meanwhile politicians on both sides are so hostile to each other, a
political solution remains remote.
For years, the opposition in Venezuela has claimed the country was
"becoming another Cuba" but such claims were rarely given much credence,
or dismissed as hyperbole.
But the BBC's Will Grant, who has lived in both countries, says there
are growing parallels to a specific point in Cuba's past.
Suffering and austerity
Etched into Cuba's collective memory is its infamous Special Period.

A reference to the years just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it
is a time forever synonymous with suffering, austerity and hunger on the
communist island.
Without its wealthier benefactors in Eastern Europe, Cuba struggled to
provide enough food for its people.
The stories from those days are legion. People remember selling family
heirlooms to buy food and even stray cats ending up in the cooking pot.
Whether the tales are apocryphal or not, Cuba was certainly on its knees
economically, and largely remained that way until a leftist former
soldier took power in Venezuela.
Once Hugo Chavez became the president of Venezuela, which has the
largest proven oil reserves in the world, things quickly started to look
up for Cuba.
Mr Chavez aligned closely with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and began to
fill the gap that the Soviets had left behind.
Troubled ally
These days, though, Venezuela is the more troubled of the two socialist
What's gone wrong in Venezuela?
Having lived in Venezuela at the height of Mr Chavez's power, when oil
was worth more than $130 a barrel, and having last visited Caracas in
April 2013 when Nicolas Maduro was elected president, it was quite a
shock to see for myself how quickly things have deteriorated.
While the place was always chaotic, run by a sort of live-television
ad-hoc form of policy making, I have never seen it quite like this.
We encountered the first queue, snaking back for over a block, almost as
soon as we emerged into the west of the capital from the airport.

It did not take long to see lots more.
As in Cuba, the government subsidises and controls the prices of certain
basic goods.
Now, with inflation spiralling, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans
spend their days waiting outside stores for bread, flour, baby milk,
cooking oil, nappies and toilet paper.
Worse still, many join those queues based on rumour alone, in the
forlorn hope of finding those products on the shelves only to be turned
away empty handed after hours in the blistering sun.
Blessing in disguise
Needless to say, in such circumstances, tempers can easily fray.

"We don't sell the subsidised goods," explains Sonia, a 40-year-old
storeowner who provided us a little refuge from the pushing and shoving
unfolding in the street outside her shop.
As we stand on her roof terrace, a healthy distance away from the
soldiers who had tried to stop us from recording and to confiscate our
equipment, Sonia explains how she and her husband were initially
disappointed that they had not been granted the concession to sell
government-regulated products a few years ago.
But now, she says, it has saved them from the madness that their
competitors on the other side of the road are dealing with on a daily
basis - desperate crowds and armed troops at the door, the spectre of
looting constantly hanging over them.
"People can end up killing each other in these situations," she
comments, tears forming in her eyes.
"It's sad, so sad to live like this. We have young daughters and at
times, even we have to resort to buying from the black market."
As we watch the troops corralling the queue into order, Sonia points out
people she says are "bachaqueros", price speculators and black
marketeers who wait in line to purchase food not for their families but
to sell on at a huge profit.
The black market for basic goods has been thriving in Cuba for decades.
It now looks set to become a common feature in Venezuela too.
"Venezuelans are good people", she says. "We really don't deserve any of
'Petty dictator'
Meanwhile, President Maduro came to a regional summit in Cuba to drum up
support in his war of words with Luis Almagro, the head of regional body
the Organization of American States.

The latter recently said the Venezuelan president was in danger of
becoming just another "petty dictator in Latin America" and proposed
invoking the organisation's democratic charter against him.
Cue some pretty earthy language from President Maduro: "I suggest you
put this democratic charter in a very thin tube and find a better use
for it, Mr Almagro. You can shove that democratic charter wherever it fits."
Of course, back when Cuba was battling through its darkest economic
days, Venezuela was very cosy with Washington. President George Bush Snr
visited Caracas in 1990, Bill Clinton seven years later.
As Nicolas Maduro left Cuba, an island which first formed his socialist
ideals, the irony cannot have escaped him - one country recently
entertaining the US president as a friend, the other on the brink of
economic collapse.
Venezuela's Special Period may only just be starting.
Listen to From Our Own Correspondent on BBC World Service or on BBC
Radio 4 on Thursdays at 11:00 and Saturdays at 11:30. Or catch up on the
BBC iPlayer or get the podcast.

Source: Venezuela crisis evokes memories of Cuba's 'Special Period' -
BBC News -

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