Henry Ford once griped that “History is just one damn thing after another.” Well, yes in the sense that all events have prior causes. Seen in historical perspective, Venezuela provides an example. Spanish “conquistadores” showed up in what would become Venezuela in 1522 and the area remained under Spanish rule until 1811. For the next century and a half, Venezuela went through the whole lamentable experience of the Spanish American republics. Two things sent Venezuela down a different course. First, at the dawn of the petroleum revolution in 1914, drillers discovered immense oil reserves. Second, in 1958, Venezuela broke with the regional pattern of dictatorships and established a democracy. The two developments interacted constantly thereafter.
Oil exports came to amount to 80 per cent of the country’s exports, drawing-in vast amounts of money. That money accounted for about two-thirds of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and better than half of the government’s revenue. It didn’t get distributed very equitably, but it did create a lot of jobs and an expanded middle class. After 1945 relative prosperity made Venezuela a magnet for immigrants from southern Europe and other South American countries.
After several previous swings at the pinata, Venezuelans established a democracy in 1958. The oil money helped ease social conflicts until the “oil shocks” of the 1970s left the country richer than ever, richer than people could imagine, richer than anyone could manage. Spending soared, borrowing soared, the 1980s brought a fall in oil prices, a fall in incomes for ordinary people, and struggles over how/whether to pay the country’s debts. The turmoil continued through the 1990s until Hugo Chavez won the presidency in 1999.
Chavez led Venezuela until his death in 2014. His policies nicely illustrate Margaret Thatcher’s rebuke to the British Labor Party: “Socialism is fine until you run out of someone else’s money.” In this case, the first “someone” was the oil industry; later “someones” were private businesses and the middle class. Since the death of Chavez, his acolyte Nicholas Madura has doubled-down on Chavez’s policies. Economic chaos led to massive suffering across all of society. Mounting political resistance has been met with violence and populist authoritarianism.
It will surprise no one that lots of Venezuelans left the country. The big surge began with young professionals who saw no future for themselves in Venezuela except poverty or jail. More recently, it has expanded to include people from the lower classes. These are the very people that Chavez, then Maduro, claimed to be trying to help.
The number of Venezuelans living abroad rose from 400,000 (2005) to 600,000 (2015); then it jumped to almost 1.7 million (2017). Since then it has continued to rise to perhaps 6 million people. Another way of looking at it is through the lens of total population. Total population rose from 24,192,000 (2000) to 30,082,000 (2015), then fell to 28,436,000 (2020). That is, population grew by about 400,000 a year until 2015; so it should have been about 32 million in 2020. Instead, it fell by about 2 million in absolute terms and by 4 million in comparison to what it should have been.
One refugee crisis among the many of our age, but no less tragic or noteworthy.
 William Neuman, Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela (2022).