John Oliver on Venezuela and its presidential troubles


John Oliver explains why we should care about Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro and talking birds in the latest episode of Last Week Tonight.

Venezuela is going through a tough time. That’s severely understating the problem, of course. From a foreigner’s perspective, it often seems as if we only ever hear about the South American country when something terrible is happening there. That includes news reports on the country’s tanking economy, its increasingly dire food shortages and people stealing helicopters in protest against their government.

Oh, and John Oliver really wants you to know that some Venezuelans are deploying some of the grossest Molotov cocktails you can imagine. It’s a really bad time down there, apparently.

It’s admittedly hard to keep up because of the “hurricane” happening in the U.S., said Oliver on Last Week Tonight. Still, it’s important to tear our gaze away from the fires at home and consider the ones abroad.

That includes complicating your views of the struggling country. After all, plenty of reporters have linked the troubles in Venezuela to its socialist government. “But this is not just a story about socialism, “ said Oliver. “There are plenty of socialist countries that look nothing like Venezuela.”

If it’s not socialism that’s twisting the knife, then how has Venezuela been brought so low? And how does Nicolás Maduro, current president of Venezuela and apparent banana enthusiast, know he’s going to win an upcoming re-election bid despite a pathetic amount of support from the Venezuelan public?

Hugo Chávez

It ultimately comes back to former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Even though Chávez died of cancer in 2013, he remains a generally beloved figure in Venezuelan culture. That’s thanks in part to Chávez’s charisma and, eventually, his government’s stranglehold on the booming oil industry. That last point turned out to be key to Chávez’s plan. Over time, the government bought more and more shares of oil companies, to the point where Chávez was blithely firing people on TV because they had opposed him.

Chávez is still revered by many people — to the point where one guy got the former president’s eyes tattooed on his forehead. Sounds pretty extreme, but the Chávez government did manage to nearly halve the poverty rate.

“Some of Chávez’s programs could have been sustainable if he pursued sound economic policy,” said Oliver.

Guess what? He didn’t. Instead, Venezuela became one of the most corrupt countries in all of Latin America (and that includes Colombia). Still, things might have been okay, assuming that oil stayed steady and Chávez stayed alive. Neither situation occurred, given that Chávez died just a year before oil prices began to plummet.

Maduro doesn’t make it better

This is the situation inherited by Maduro, who then proceeded to make it all much worse. Maduro has tried to draw upon some of the Chávez charisma, though, even claiming that the spirit of Chávez visited him as a little bird. He told this story on television, complete with bird whistle sound effects.

Also, Maduro has doubled down on some of Chávez’s worst policies, such as when he tried to simply create more money. He then appeared surprised when inflation exploded. The International Monetary Fund now predicts a 13,000 percent increase in inflation for Venezuelan currency.

As a result, Venezuelans are struggling to find basic necessities, like medical care or food. In fact, 75 percent of the population has lost 20 or more pounds, to the point where everyone calls it the “Maduro diet.” The Maduro government’s response? Eat some rabbits.

No, seriously: Maduro enacted a plan wherein Venezuelans could raise and then consume rabbits. When people began to think of the animals more as pets than food, officials reminded everyone that rabbits are just “two and a half kilos of meat.”

America’s role

If you’re Maduro, then, what do you do? Blame nearly everyone else, with special ire reserved for the United States. He has variously said that the U.S. is sabotaging Venezuelan ATMs and even injected Chávez with cancer.

Oliver took particular ire over these allegations: “America’s undoubtedly done some awful things in South and Central America… but, refreshingly, what is happening in Venezuela is actually not our fault.” It’s like saying OJ Simpson murdered Princess Diana, said Oliver. It’s not unthinkable, sure, but it definitely didn’t happen.

With all of these glaring faults and significant pushback from Venezuelans, how is Maduro poised to win the 2018 presidential election? He basically owns the government. Maduro can create a political assembly that automatically supports him, despite the will of the Venezuelan public.

What can we do? Again, there’s precious little that Americans might be able to enact. The Trump administration has imposed some sanctions, but that can just harm the Venezuelan people, rather than the banana and empanada-snacking Maduro. Thankfully, Oliver has someone that might actually catch Maduro’s ear: a bird.

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“Hola, Maduro. It’s me: a bird.” It’s definitely not Wilmer Valderrama in a well-made bird suit. “I’m here to tell you: you’re in some serious trouble, compadre… I should know, I’m a bird.”

Will it work? Don’t get your hopes up, though you never can know for sure. Perhaps Maduro secretly watches HBO while chowing down on food that’s largely inaccessible for his people.