Mugabe and Maduro share much in common, starting with the rare ability to gut the resources of a promising national economy and disregard the will of the people. But there is an important difference that may explain who survives another day.
BUENOS AIRES — They are allies that share some big problems on both the political and economic fronts: Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
In 2008, Venezuela's foreign currency reserves stood at $49 billion. Today the reserves have been depleted to $9.7 billion, and are expected to fall below $2.5 billion next year. In 2012, its exports, mostly energy-related, totaled $98 billion, compared to $30 billion today. Little analysis is needed to attribute these and other negative indicators on sharply falling oil revenues — and conclude that Venezuela is a giant mess of a nation. The chaos, and the socialist regime's apparent confusion, has grown even worse in recent days after the rating agency Standard and Poor's declared Venezuela to be in "selective default" on its debt.
The report rattled markets (perhaps more than it should have) over the possibility of a complex renegotiation of a sovereign debt that may be as high as $120 billion. The Bolivarian regime run by President Nicolás Maduro seems destined to keep spiraling further downward. The country's fate has an impact on the regional economy and geopolitical consequences involving Russia and China that are already taking shape in the backstage of this drama.
Interestingly, this is coinciding with a similar crisis further afield, in Africa. Zimbabwe's embattled dictator Robert Mugabe has characteristics that bear resemblance to his Venezuelan peer. The two countries have had close relations since Hugo Chávez took power in Venezuela in 1999, and have since shared a similar catastrophic economic path.
Mugabe had arrived much earlier, back in the 1980s, riding in to power like Chávez on mass frustration with difficult living conditions and high hopes for the changes he might engineer. He has instead given his country a perennial economic crisis, and five, then 12-digit inflation rates, depending on calculation methods.
The Harare government began issuing banknotes for 100 million local dollars, worth just a few U.S. dollars, until the local currency simply became useless and disappeared. In Venezuela last July, in the last days of a tumultuous month when the government had its fraudulent Constituent Assembly voted in, the U.S. dollar was worth around 5,000 Bolívars (at the free-market rate). Days later it had climbed to 18,000, then within hours to 25,000 Bolívars. As of this writing it was trading for around 73,000 Bolívars.
A revolutionary discourse never as true as was stated.
This year's four-digit hyperinflation rate will double in 2018, bound to dissolve the local currency. Like Venezuela, Zimbabwe devalued its currency and nationalized private firms, clinging to a revolutionary discourse never as true as the words that were used. Mugabe launched a single party and dismissed the need for an opposition, as he settled permanently in his palatial offices, not unlike Venezuela's last two presidents have done since.
When government supporters lost Venezuela's parliamentary elections in December 2015, the regime came up with its own murky alternative to an opposition-controlled parliament: the Constituent Assembly. Today the country is a dictatorship barely covered by a democratic veneer. Mugabe also lost the legislative elections in 2008, but simply ignored them and held new ones.
To consolidate their positions, both regimes have imposed total censorship and recruited militias, made of war veterans in the African state, and off-duty policemen and hoodlums in the South America one.
Today, these similarities have reached their limit. An interesting difference may be discernible and able to explain to some extent why Mugabe may be about to fall, for good, and why Maduro and his clan are surviving. Zimbabwe's wealth is not oil, but diamonds, of which it is the eighth biggest producer in the world. The sanctions the West has imposed to punish the regime for its excesses have pushed it into a fluid alliance with China, which has become a massive investor that also wields political influence.
Last March, apparently under the influence of his wife Grace and her economic and political allies, Mugabe ordered the immediate cessation of contracts involving Chinese companies. He had informed Chinese President Xi Jinping of his intentions shortly before Xi's visit to Harare in December 2015. And now comes the coup, though its authors refuse to call it that.
Venezuela, meanwhile, keeps itself afloat with a renewed, and equitable, alliance with both China and Russia. This is doubly interesting when one observes the extravagant way in which Caracas is demanding a restructuring of its debts. The man tasked with negotiating this is Vice President Tareck El Aissami, whom Washington has alleged is involved in drug trafficking. The U.S. Treasury has also further restricted financial entities from negotiating any more debt with Venezuela, which adds to the impasse.
Both regimes have imposed total censorship and recruited militias.
The ruler can of course simply cancel payments and see what happens, but that would mean that the courts would order seized all of Venezuela's foreign assets — including its ships, 18,000 or so gas stations and two refineries in the United States — in response to claims by bond holders. In such a scenario, the state oil firm PDVSA would collapse, and the rest of the economy with it.
In this perfect-storm scenario, a vulture fund could buy a significant portion of the bonds issued by Venezuela and PDVSA, with an eye on actions already being filed against two entities perceived as one and the same. The fund could then demand immediate payment of debts and force Venezuela into bankruptcy given its inability to pay. An alternative is that, as a party that has traditionally paid its debts, Venezuela is just gambling by letting the price of its bonds fall by turning them into high-risk/high-return options. It may hope that its Russian and Chinese patrons, the two main individual creditors, will take up a purchasing opportunity that is not just economic but includes regional influence. And as The Economist recently noted: at a bargain price.