William Neuman, Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela. St. Martin’s Press. 2022.
Price: USD $29.99 | 352 pages
William Neuman’s Things Are So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela is a welcome addition to the chronicles of Venezuela’s Chavista experiment. In many ways, it makes a very readable sequel to Raúl Gallegos’ excellent Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela (2016), which provided a gritty read on the rise and fall of oil in Venezuela, and the state’s ensuing economic mismanagement. Neuman’s book incorporates many of those themes but significantly provides one of the more comprehensive profiles of Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chávez and remains in power.
Neuman is well-qualified to write on Venezuela, considering he has been a reporter for The New York Times for more than 15 years, including a stint serving as the paper’s bureau chief while based in Caracas. He knows his subject, filling the pages with insightful interviews of regime supporters and detractors. The book’s name came about after Neuman talked with a Venezuelan woman who has seen her country’s fortunes go from bad to worse but reserves her opinion that things can deteriorate further. That sense of pessimism resonates with most Venezuelans, especially the over five million who have left the country.
Neuman embraces the oil-as-a-national shaper argument. He states, “It’s not so much that Venezuela produced oil; it’s that oil produced Venezuela. The country that emerged from the depths of this underdevelopment was in almost every way shaped by the economics of oil and the social and political relations that oil imposed on it.” Neuman supports his assessment by chronicling the atrophy of the country’s other economic sectors, taking to heart the words of Venezuela’s first democratic oil minister who stated that oil is “the devil’s excrement.” In Venezuela’s case (as in so many other petrostates), the country’s fixation on oil translated into widespread corruption and a heightened vulnerability to external shocks tied to the rollercoaster-like ride of international oil prices and the related dangers of the “Dutch Disease.”
In Venezuela, the relationship between oil money and public spending has gone hand-in-hand. Neuman writes, “In the eyes of its citizens the Venezuelan state is little more than an ATM—the magic box that stands between the oil in the ground and the outstretched palm, the device that performs the alchemy of turning oil into money in my pocket.” During much of Chávez’s time in office (1999-2013), oil prices were buoyant; the country’s charismatic leader was able to grandiosely direct money to his pet projects (many of them white elephants), target the lower classes for government largesse (which helped build support for the regime), and buy weapons from the Chinese and Russians to help him quell domestic discontent.
The about-face for the regime came when Chávez died of cancer in 2013, leaving the Bolivarian legacy to Maduro, who, despite considerable adversity and a painful economic decline, has remained in power. While the collapse of international oil prices in 2014 was a major blow to Venezuela, so was Maduro’s inability to make decisions. Neuman noted, “One of the things that everyone noticed about Maduro, after he became president, was that he seemed to hate to make decisions. The warning lights were flashing, the economy was deteriorating, but Maduro refused to change the policies that he’d inherited from Chávez.”
Readers then arrive at the question of why Chávez picked Maduro as his successor? Neuman offers various viewpoints: that the vice president was picked because the Cuban advisors thought that they could control him; Maduro and his wife (a formidable politician within Chavista circles) maneuvered him into being an indispensable man for the ailing president; Chávez needed to pick a non-military man to maintain the political balance within the regime; and Chávez had made certain that he derailed other potential rivals to his dominance, leaving only his vice president. Observers and readers alike can still speculate which theory they find most compelling, yet what is certain is that Maduro is still in power, and if he reaches 2023 in office, he will have lasted a decade.
Maduro’s ruling style, characterized by a willingness to use force and putting off decisions, has hurt the country, especially when oil prices went into freefall in 2014 and stayed low over the next several years. Neuman notes, “For Maduro, governing was about survival. He focused on proving to the doubters that he was up to the task.” Those doubters included those from within the regime’s ranks, some of whom likely wanted his job, and others from the opposition who accused him of winning his first election through fraud. The result meant that Maduro’s government approached each problem with short-term solutions.
Neuman quotes Temir Porras, a former high-ranking Chavista, to illustrate how even the faithful became disillusioned with the country’s direction under Maduro: “Maduro governs week by week. One week after another he goes about building an administration that might wind up lasting twelve years. It’s like a guy who battles day after day to stay in power and finally he’s there for years, but in the end, those are lost years, because they were all spent in this state of immediacy, of short-term thinking.”
Maduro’s failure to tackle economic issues led to the erosion of legitimate commerce and promoted the development of illicit economic activities. Small and medium-sized mining enterprises in the country’s interior were especially vulnerable, and their assets have largely fallen into the hands of criminal syndicates or groups willing to work with corrupt military officials. Neuman points to the hierarchy of the illicit gold industry: “Everyone knew their place in the great flow of riches. The dirt-poor miners at the bottom, the sindicato tough guys, the privates and the officers in the National Guard, the pranes, and far away, where they didn’t have to get their boots dirty, the government officials who received their portion.”
The book does have just a few weaknesses (which are minimal)—the Cuban, Chinese and Russian roles in Venezuela’s decline are limited to near-cameo appearances (despite the billions of dollars the two extra-regional actors pumped into the country and Havana’s security role). Neuman portrays the U.S. role as negative, without much discussion beyond the ham-fisted nature of the Trump administration. Moreover, the criminal activities of the Venezuelan elite (including the military) are at times glossed over.
All in all, Neuman’s Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse is a welcome contribution to the literature on Venezuela’s time of troubles under the hands of Presidents Chávez and Maduro. He has done an excellent job in capturing the grittiness of a country that has gone off the developmental tracks. I highly recommend this book to anyone that has an interest in Venezuela.
Scott B. MacDonald is the chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and founding director of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.