Venezuelan Folly, From Oil Riches to Food Beggary

Venezuela is one of a handful of petrol states that imagined they could live it up forever off crude oil cash. After oil prices sank, decades of neglecting agriculture has now left a nation literally starving.

Venezuelans carry food across the Colombian border last December.
Venezuelans carry food across the Colombian border last December.
Jorge Castro


Venezuela is one of the world's richest countries, the fifth biggest exporter of crude oil and the third among the United States' energy suppliers. Its proven crude reserves are the second biggest globally, after Saudi Arabia.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the world went through a commodities super-cycle that produced record-setting high prices across the board, from metals to fossil fuels and farm products. When Hugo Chávez was president of Venezuela (1999 to 2013), the country earned more than $1 trillion from oil sales, and everything duly revolved around crude which alongside its derivatives, constitutes 98% of Venezuela's exports.

That figure exceeds the amounts earned in the 1970s (under the liberal President Carlos Andrés Pérez), when the world suffered several oil shocks and crude oil went from two dollars a barrel to $10 in a decade. It was a time when almost anything seemed possible for "Saudi Venezuela," and the South American nation came close to having all it wanted.

Today, it is a country stricken hard by a fall of more than 70% in crude prices in the last three years. It has practically lost its importing capacities and cannot meet domestic demand for food, of which some 70% comes from abroad. What situation this leaves Venezuela in is nothing less than hunger, especially among the poorer classes and most particularly those living in and around the capital Caracas.

Venezuela is going through an acute process of disintegration of its economic, political and social structures, which is leading it toward becoming a so-called failed state. Its crisis is a stark reminder that a country's food security depends essentially on domestic factors, notably its public policy. The crucial element here is the presence of a functioning state able to act and govern, rather than factors like supply and demand. And today, that state is sorely lacking in Venezuela.

Food crises are an essentially domestic, not global problem.

When it comes to food and food policy, there are two types of countries or regions in the world. There are those that enjoy excess production, and those with deficits, which must import food. The excess producers in the Western hemisphere are, typically, the United States and Canada in the north and Argentina and Brazil in the south.

There are also countries that have stopped exporting food and become importers, and since 1990 the International Monetary Fund has observed 27 countries that have undergone such a change. Food shortages erupt when countries that have undergone this strategic shift lose some or all of their ability to finance imports. This is the source of the catastrophic situation seen today in Venezuela.

Food and farming products are a scarce commodity on the international market. Only 8% of the world's food production is traded abroad, and this comes almost entirely from countries with a surplus. That confirms again that food crises are an essentially domestic, not global problem.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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