A messy analysis of the crisis in Venezuela

By Liz Lebron

Gabriel Hetland, professor of Latin-American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies, and Sociology at SUNY Albany, spoke in the ACE Lounge March on the situation in Venezuela.
Gabriel Hetland, professor of Latin-American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies, and Sociology at SUNY Albany, spoke in the ACE Lounge March 14 on the situation in Venezuela.

The crisis in Venezuela is messy, complicated and not entirely its embattled president’s doing, an expert on Latin America said at a recent lecture at New College.

Gabriel Hetland, professor of Latin-American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies, and Sociology at SUNY Albany, spoke with New College students March 14 in the ACE Lounge about the roots of the crisis and its implications for U.S. foreign policy. Hetland studies the “the evolution of the party system in contemporary Venezuela, and looks at the promises, pitfalls and challenges facing Chavismo.”

The recent power blackouts in Venezuela put the media spotlight on that country’s political and economic deterioration.

U.S. officials have used video footage of Venezuelans traveling on foot to neighboring countries to purchase household necessities, siphoning dirty water from creeks for use in their homes, and sorting through trash in search of foodstuffs to argue for sanctions and possible military action against Venezuela. For his part, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and has accused the U.S. of exploiting economic conditions in Venezuela to get U.S. military into the country and stage a coup against him.

Hetland argues, most recently in an article in The Nation, for a more nuanced and “messy analysis” of the crisis in Venezuela. While Hetland does not exonerate Maduro of responsibility for his role in the blackout or the broader economic collapse, he says Maduro is only partly to blame for that country’s economic and political troubles. U.S. sanctions and support for violent opposition to the Maduro administration, Hetland posits, also contribute to the country’s woes.

“Only the most myopic analysis could ignore the government’s clear responsibility for the perilous state of Venezuela’s electric grid,” said Hetland.

The country, for instance, invested over $9 billion in the Tocoma Dam, a back-up facility for the Guri Dam, which supplies over 80 percent of Venezuela’s electricity. The Tocoma Dam’s failure to activate when the Guri Dam failed plunged the country into darkness and caused deaths at hospitals throughout the country.

U.S. media outlets largely reported the story as a crisis of Maduro’s making, and opposition leaders within Venezuela were happy to appropriate that narrative to promote their own agenda. Hetland warns against this simplistic interpretation of the situation in Venezuela. Blackouts have been common for some time, as Hetland noted while conducting field work there for his dissertation, and one reason for their frequency is that U.S. sanctions have blocked the necessary fuel to produce electricity from entering the country.

“U.S. actions are a direct reason this blackout has been so prolonged and devastating,” said Hetland. “To be blunt, Washington is directly responsible for increasing Venezuelans’ suffering.”

However Washington and Caracas resolve their differences, Hetland hopes they avoid military conflict in the already embattled country.

“The most dangerous form of magical thinking comes from the increasingly open calls for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela,” wrote Hetland in The Nation. War on Venezuelan soil would result in “massive damage to public infrastructure, thousands of deaths, and lasting social and psychological wounds.”

The Social Science and Humanities divisions sponsored Hetland’s talk, along with International and Area Studies area of concentration.

— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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