Voice of America [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Voice of America [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

© 2019 Robert Osburn 

Citizens of Zimbabwe (southern Africa) and Venezuela (northern South America), once known as successful, thriving countries, are starving. And now, in early 2019, the populations of both have reached the boiling point, frustrated by authoritarian dictatorships that recklessly assault those protesting incompetent corrupt, and brutal leadership. In the past several weeks, as dozens have died at the hands of the militaries in both countries, Venezuela’s crisis has reached a tipping point that may have great significance for the future of Zimbabwe as well.

The similarities between the two nations abound:

  • They are led by authoritarian duos (Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, the late Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela) whose capacities for violence are the inverse of their capacities to develop their respective economies.

  • Perhaps a quarter of Zimbabwe’s population (16.5 million) and five million of Venezuela’s 32 million citizens are economic refugees abroad who, by virtue of foreign remittances, help to sustain what little is left of their economies back home.    

  • Both countries have massive natural resources and thus suffer from the resource curse(abundant natural resources fuel violent struggles for power and lowered economic development).  Despite the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela’s oil production has fallen by about 50% as workers and others have looted production facilities.   Zimbabwe has rich farmland, 50% of which has also been taken out of production. Like Venezuela, it has massive unmined gold deposits, thus serving to only reinforce the aforementioned curse.

  • Corruption in both countries is astronomical.  Out of 180 nations around the world, Zimbabwe ranks among the 20 most corrupt, and Venezuela is worse.  After 34 years working among international students, I promise you that their citizens are desperate and frustrated as a result.

  • Religiously, about 88% of Venezuelans claim to be Christian (as of 2011), of which almost 20% are Protestant. In Zimbabwe, almost the exact same percentage (88) claim to be Christian, but in Zimbabwe almost 80% are Protestant. Why has Christianity had such a positive impact on the development of Western countries, and  virtually none in much of Africa and Latin America?

  • The economies of both countries have shrunken considerably since the beginning of autocratic political leadership (around the year 2000 for both countries), perhaps as much as 50% in Venezuela. Both countries explicitly reject economic lifelines from the West (which come with conditions, like the re-establishment of democracy) and instead seek support from authoritarian leaders in China and Russia.

  • Since their productive capacities have shrunken along with their economies, they import almost all consumer and industrial goods.  The result is either massive inflation (Venezuela) or a growing shortage of US dollars (both countries), so that their leaders resort to slight-of-hand currency tricks that fool no one but themselves.

The question is: Given the similarities in the two countries, will events on the streets of Venezuela, where a massive anti-Maduro demonstration is planned for Saturday, February 2, 2019, influence events in Zimbabwe?  And how are Christians to make sense of these realities, especially as redemptive change agents?

Utilizing the five-part model of Christian social change that I have developed, let me highlight each part and suggest some conclusions:

  • Discipled followers of Christ who can be mobilized for change: The prospects appear to be only somewhat better in Zimbabwe than in Venezuela, in part because Protestant leaders in Zimbabwe are very well-educated. 

  • Churches consciously modeling for the larger nation how to promote human flourishing: I see little evidence this is happening in either country.  In Zimbabwe, one Protestant denomination is headed by an autocratic dictator long aligned with his country’s authoritarian leaders.  

  • Widespread promotion of a Christian worldview: I’m not aware of any major efforts along this line in Venezuela, as there have been for several decades in neighboring Colombia.  In Zimbabwe, Foundations for Farming is a Christian-inspired effort to develop the country’s agricultural potential, and while the nation’s population is eager for instruction in Christian worldview, there are still few systematic efforts along these lines.

  • High-performing network of leaders from different sectors of national life: Venezuela has been a case study of failure in this regard. A constantly divided opposition has tremendously hindered efforts to democratically replace Maduro.  Two centuries ago, William Wilberforce and the Clapham community sometimes met daily to plot unified strategies for cultural, educational, political, and economic reforms in England.  They succeeded in part because of their unity, which was, in turn, a product of shared faith in Jesus Christ.

  • A valiant, sacrificial leader who epitomizes the virtues of the effort for change: At the present time, this is Venezuela’s strong suit.  35-year-old Juan Guiado, an engineer trained at George Washington University in Washington DC, has in the past 10 days been recognized as interim leader of Venezuela by the USA and dozens of other nations, even while Maduro retains the support of the military.  Guiado is known to be humble, a unifier, sincere, a fighter, and an optimist, according to a fellow legislator.  Zimbabwe has several possible leaders of the same quality (and both are known followers of Christ), but for now they are either imprisoned (which often means torture) or hiding. 

Will Venezuela’s impending political change signal a possible way forward for Zimbabweans?  We can only watch, pray, and consider how the five-part Christian social change model could be more intentionally developed for the sake of nations that long to be blessed (Genesis 12), discipled (Matthew 28), and healed (Revelation 22).