Venezuela Is On The Brink Of Collapse
The country’s democracy and economy are in chaos. The first in a series of articles examining the crisis in Venezuela
The scene repeats itself almost daily in several Venezuelan cities. Large crowds march down main streets, demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro. They come upon barriers set up by police and government forces who use tear gar and fire metal pellets to disperse them. The protesters, some equipped with gas masks and hand fashioned shields, fire back with stones, and even projectiles made from their own feces.
The political crisis in Venezuela has been at a near stalemate for almost two and a half months. Protests, and the government’s brutal repressions of them, have claimed the lives of at least 72 people, while leaving thousands injured. According to Foro Penal Venezolano, a human rights and legal aid NGO in the country, the government has also illegally detained and imprisoned at least 186 activists, protesters, and others who have taken action against the government.
Protests fomented after March 29th, when the Maduro-backed Supreme Court attempted to dissolve the National Assembly, the majority of which is made up of members of The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), the alliance of parties opposing Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). The court’s actions triggered a massive outcry, with opposition members and protesters taking to the streets. The Court’s reversal of the decision did little to assuage protesters, who view President Maduro’s actions as an attempt to create a dictatorship and demand his removal.
Though the protests were precipitated by Maduro’s actions in late March, this was just the latest turn in a country facing a much larger crisis for years. What was once one of the continent’s richest, with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, has turned into one of the region’s poorest and most corrupt. Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, had for years been subverting democracy in the country, creating an authoritarian pseudo-socialist system rooted in vast patronage networks and runaway government spending. High commodity prices (oil accounts for 95 percent of exports) and Mr. Chavez’s own charisma allowed him and PSUV to maintain popularity, despite Chavez’s dissolution of parliament’s upper house, repression of opponents.
Mr. Maduro could not say the same. He came to power at about the same time as global oil prices took a nosedive from triple digits to below $50 a barrel. Despite this, he has chosen not to deviate from the patronage of “Chavismo.” However, not only were oil revenues lower, but Chavez had spent much of the country’s cash reserves.
The government was thus forced to print money, which caused inflation to spike (estimated to have topped 800 percent last year, the highest rate in the world). As prices rose, the government instituted price controls on many basic goods and fixed the currency exchange rate. This only made a bad situation worse. Not only were businesses not able to produce goods at a profit, but imports became prohibitively expensive. GDP shrank by 19 percent last year, and Venezuela’s massive brain drain makes turning the economy around even more difficult.
The result was a massive shortage of basic necessities, from bread to baby formula to toilet paper. This prompted the government to ration food and other goods, with individuals forced to seek them out in groceries on certain allotted days, often to no avail. The food crisis has caused Venezuelans to skip meals and lose an average of 19 pounds in the past year.
Even more serious is the resulting public health crisis in the country. Venezuela faces a shortfall of about 80 percent of needed medicines. According to Human Rights Watch, a majority of hospitals lack basic medical supplies, and thousands of patients are on stand by awaiting procedures. A fifth of doctors have left the country. The Health Ministry recently released official statistics, revealing huge rises in infant mortality, maternal deaths, Zika, and other major diseases (the Health Minister was promptly fired after the data came out).
Poverty and desperation have made many turn to crime. Venezuela now has the third highest murder rate in the world, in addition to topping corruption lists. Drug cartels and other criminal organizations have entrenched themselves in the country; Venezuela’s Vice President has even been accused of drug trafficking. Government-sanctioned colectivos, armed gangs who patrol the streets on their behalf, have been able to set up illegal black markets for many scarce items. They have also been able to commit crimes with little standing in their way. The chaos of the protests themselves has also provided an opportunity for looting by regular Venezuelans as well.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country. Many have sought better fortunes in neighboring Brazil and Colombia, and others have migrated to Spain, Argentina, or the United States. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have been granted asylum in the US, most of them living in the Miami area; Doral, a Miami suburb is colloquially known as “Doralzuela.”
President Maduro takes no credit for either the economic or the political turmoil his actions have caused, blaming both on a Western plot aimed at ending the Bolivarian revolution started by Hugo Chavez.
His latest response to the protests has further been to call elections for a constituent assembly, in an attempt to rewrite the constitution, supposedly to create peace. This has only served to exacerbate tensions. Venezuelans see this plainly as a crude power grab, and an attempt to further pare back democratic institutions. Eighty-five percent of the population have rejected a change to the constitution, while Maduro’s own approval ratings hangs around 20 percent; the other 80 percent would prefer he resign. Even members of his own party are starting to come out against him.
Despite his unpopularity, it will be very difficult to remove Mr. Maduro. He maintains a firm control of almost all facets of government, most importantly the armed forces. Both Maduro and Chavez before him increasingly relied on the military as their main source of legitimacy as they made Venezuela into an authoritarian state. Military leaders were provided high ranking positions within the government, which they parlayed into very profitable businesses of their own. Though some former officers have begun to side with the opposition, the generals will not be keen to bite the hand that feeds them.
There appears to be no doubt that a resolution to Venezuela’s predicament has to end with the ouster of Mr. Maduro. But when and whether this can happen, and who will take his place, remains to be seen.
Special thanks to Maria Dolores Vallenilla and her sister Maria Theresa for their help with this series.
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