A few days ago, Argentinians commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of rock idol Gustavo Cerati. The singer’s premature death from a brain hemorrhage after a concert in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, left his fans across South America despondent and searching for answers.
The revered rock star had the unfortunate fate of falling ill in Venezuela. A new book on Cerati makes a strong case that the singer was a victim of Venezuela’s never-ending collapse.
The author of Cerati: La biografía, Argentine journalist Juan Morris, claims Cerati did not get the right medical attention. As it became evident that Cerati’s brain was hemorrhaging, he was taken to one of the best private clinics in Caracas – the Centro Médico Docente La Trinidad. The clinic, though, didn’t have electricity, was lacking medical specialists and staff, and the medical staff at hand were slow to give him life-saving care.
Whether it’s the constant electricity blackouts that leave large swaths of the country in the dark for hours or the country’s hemorrhaging of quality medical personnel, Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution has taken a huge toll on the country’s health care. The government has all but snuffed out private investment in public and private health care. As a result facilities have deteriorated so much that thousands of doctors have fled the country to work elsewhere. It is not a stretch to think that, had the Bolivarian revolution not existed, Cerati might still be alive.
Latin American countries have ignored Venezuela’s plight for years. The nation is mired in a deep recession, with triple-digit inflation, shortages of many basic necessities, and the worst crime wave in the region. More worryingly, the government of President Nicolás Maduro seems unwilling to change course, undermining democracy in the process by throwing obstacles in the way of anyone in the opposition who suggests an alternative path. Yet Venezuela’s South American neighbors (Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia in particular) have either validated Maduro’s moves or looked the other way.
The costs of this appeasement are large, and bound to keep growing.
The current crisis at the Venezuela-Colombia border is another sign that the Venezuelan collapse is beginning to spill over beyond the country’s borders. A few weeks ago, a shooting incident at the border area, in which several Venezuelan military personnel were wounded, made Maduro blow a gasket. He immediately sealed off a large segment of the border with barbed wire.
Not content with that, the Venezuelan army began deporting Colombians they claimed were in the country illegally, and demolishing their homes. Soldiers marked homes to be demolished with a “D” and posted videos of the demolitions on YouTube. Joining the rising chorus of concerns over the forced deportations, the United Nations issued a statement saying some of those included in the sweep were refugees from Colombia’s civil war that had sought a safe haven inside Venezuela.
The Colombian government has expressed its outrage over the flagrant mistreatment of its nationals. It has angrily denounced the Maduro government in several regional and international forums, and its Solicitor General has announced he will try to take Maduro to the International Criminal Court. Yet all of this follows years in which the Colombian government has appeased, and even facilitated, Maduro’s, and his predecessor Chavez’s, shenanigans—often in the name of maintaining cordial neighborly relations and keeping Santos’ peace negotiations with Colombian guerrilla forces on track.
Finally, Colombia is learning that ignoring the Venezuela debacle next door carries heavy costs. When will other governments in the region reach the same conclusion?
Venezuela has become an important transit point for illegal drugs. According to the testimony of high-ranking defectors such as bodyguards, judges, and former ministers, the Venezuelan state has become indistinguishable from a major drug cartel. It is as if Pablo Escobar has a seat in the UN Security Council. As a consequence, the chavista revolution eats up a large number of hours of attention from the continent’s diplomats, financial institutions, firms and governments forced to deal with issues of drug and weapons trafficking, as well as money laundering.
Should this continue, governments around the region are likely to find their budgets and policy attention increasingly eaten up by the lawlessness within Venezuela, and the attendant outflow of those fleeing the South American economic and political basket case.
According to estimates, more than a million Venezuelans have left the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere. In Panama, a country of only 3 million people, the Venezuelan exile community is estimated to include 200,000 people. Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica are also housing significant, and growing, members of the Venezuelan diaspora.
Until now, Venezuelan emigrants have been mostly a blessing—young professionals and entrepreneurs bringing their skills with them. In some cases, such as in Colombia’s burgeoning energy sector and the tar sands in Canada, they have brought capital and expertise.
But soon it’s going to be the less well-off or well-intentioned. After the professionals will come the thugs—the murderers and drug smugglers, many of them in cahoots with the current ruling class in Venezuela.
Venezuela currently carries one of the highest risk premiums in the world – the interest on Venezuelan debt is enormous because of the high likelihood that Venezuela will not honor its international obligations. Bond markets have basically assumed Venezuela will default on its foreign debt next year. Firms such as Panama’s Copa Airlines and Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht have become exposed to the Venezuelan economy and are suffering due to the deep recession there and the country’s overbearing regulations. And even though markets know Venezuela is different from the rest of the continent, financial contagion could become an issue for the region’s corporations.
But Venezuela could be a star performer if it got its act together. The country has enormous potential in both natural resources and human capital, most of it unfulfilled. Not only does it boast the largest unexploited oil reserves in the world, it also has 30 million consumers basically excluded from the region’s tourism, retail, banking, and industrial sectors.
With the right policies, the market opportunities for a prosperous Venezuela, ruled by responsible, competent leaders, would be worth billions of dollars for the continent’s multinational companies. The failure of the hemisphere’s governments to grasp the basic concept of the high opportunity costs involved in letting Venezuela implode is not just astounding – it is dangerous over the long term.
From visiting rock idols to the poor migrants to regional corporations to neighboring governments, all are being affected by Venezuela’s accelerating downward spiral. Venezuela’s collapse is no longer strictly an internal affair. It’s high time the region stopped treating it as such.