In nearly two months of political unrest in Venezuela, at least 32 people have died. The unrest began in western Venezuela on the 4th of February and grew into a nationwide movement denouncing the economic crisis, high inflation, crime and police brutality.
Why do they protest?
Anti-government demonstrations started in Tachira and Merida in February 2014 and were the largest in a decade. Then the Caracas ones started to demand the release of those detained during previous marches, and soon turned deadly. Now, it is not weird to see burning barricades in eastern Caracas’ streets.
Apparently, the protests started after students of a local university in San Cristobal (Tachira) took to the streets and clashed with the authorities, following the alleged attempted rape of one of their female classmates.
Students then started protesting against several subjects; high inflation (around 56.2% in December 2013), food shortages, government-lead media blackout (as many TV channels had been removed or threatened to be expel for its coverage of the protests) and high crime rates and violence levels (the country has the fifth highest murder rate in the whole World). Some others want President Maduro’s resignation.
The excessive and unlawful force used against protesters has alerted institutions, both local (Foro Penal Venezolano) and international (Human Rights Watch). Prosecutor General Mr. Ortega talked about the detention of some security forces members and other officers. Some motorcyclist’s gangs, pro-government, had also been accused of violent attacks. The government blames “fascists” for the attacks.
Who is who in “La Salida”
The opposition main figures are being targeted. Maria Corina Machado (Vente Venezuela), has been one of the most visible leaders of the opposition demonstrations against President Maduro. Venezuela’s Congress on the 18th of March requested a criminal investigation of Ms. Machado for crimes including treason in relation to her involvement in anti-government protests.
Leopoldo López (Voluntad Popular), considered by many the leader of anti-chavista democratic opposition, is in jail after surrender himself to the military, awaiting trial on charges of intentional arson, incitement to violence, damage to public property and conspiracy. According to Mr. Maduro, “he created a road map to topple the legitimate government, so now he’s in jail and he has to go through justice.” Government officials had also blamed Mr. López and other opposition leaders for fueling the violence and not doing enough to stop it. At its turn, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international human-rights groups condemned his arrest as politically motivated, as he is imprisoned even when there is no evidence linking him with a crime.
The opposition group MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) soon joined the protests. Henrique Capriles, who in a first stage opposed the marches as he considered those were mainly confined to the middle class, joined them after more than 500 people were arrested and more than a dozen killed.
The government has been very critical on these actions, arguing that the opposition receives economical support from, among others, the US Congressional Budget.
What has been the Government reaction?
Mr. Maduro is unapologetic about his government’s response to opposition protesters. According to him, the protests are part of a right-wing plot backed by the United States to oust his democratically elected government (Great Patriotic Pole), insisting on that the protesters are “fascists” and “saboteurs” seeking to overthrow his government.
An accusation to the opposition of trying to stage a coup (with backing of the US and NATO), as in 2002, is the argument held by the government. It has also called for its supporters, mostly the poorer sections of Venezuelan society, to show their strength. Venezuelan National Militia, SEBIN, “colectivos” (militant groups) and security forces support the government.
Several measures had been taken by the government since the beginning of the crisis. On March the 5th, Mr. Maduro cut ties with Panama on charges the country’s President was conspiring with the US to intervene in Venezuela’s affairs. He actually gave the Panamanian ambassador and three other diplomats in Venezuela 48 hours to leave the country.
Maduro’s government also rejected a closed-door meeting on the crisis held on the 6th of March by the Organization of American States, but received Unasur on the 25th.
Some of these actions had also affected internal politics; on March the 26th, President Maduro announced that three air force generals had been arrested, under allegations of plotting an uprising against his government. Also, Economy Vice President Rafael Ramírez, said the government will start up a new foreign exchange swap market known as Sicad 2 on March 10th.
Last November the National Assembly granted Mr. Maduro special decree powers that allow him to pass laws without the assembly’s approval. Many expect the government to announce a new devaluation of the bolivar soon, in order to close the gap with the black market. As the biggest oil reserve holder, and as a member of Petrocaribe, Venezuela may be slowly pulling the plug, cutting shipments and modifying repayment terms though, as the country is in need of more liquidity.
What about the international response?
The Union of South American Nations (Unasur) announced that it would send a mission to Venezuela in an effort to foment peace between the government and opposition. Mercosur also called for further dialogue.
Ban Ki-moon urged the authorities to listen carefully to the protesters aspirations in Geneva’s meeting with Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Mr. Jaua, as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said a group of its experts have asked Venezuela to respond to “allegations of arbitrary detention and excessive use of force” against protesters and journalists.
The EU, at its turn, declared that only respect for fundamental rights, constructive and respectful dialogue and tolerance can help Venezuela to find a way out of its current violent crisis.
President Obama criticized the government for the unacceptable violence during the protests. Soon after, three US diplomats were expelled from Caracas, and a new ambassador was named to Washington.
Insecurity, food shortages and power outages are only three items, in a long list of grievances, that seems to have united a significant part of the population against Mr. Maduro’s government in this deeply politically polarized country.
However, the most relevant ones might be the economic problems of the country. Venezuela suffers from the region’s highest inflation, which is one of the World’s highest rates. Its annual inflation rate for 2013 was 56.2%. There is a fixed rate for buying dollars, but on the black market dollars sell for 10 times as much (as the government imposed controls over foreign exchange in 2003, after a major oil strike crippled the country’s economy, to avoid capital flight and to control the prices of food staples, the amount of dollars available at the official rate is restricted, but the demand remains high. This causes the black market to flourish.).
Hence, the shortages. Venezuela’s inadequate domestic production of food staples makes it dependant on imports for many products. If companies cannot easily access dollars, imports become difficult. The government however blames shortages on businessmen who are trying to boycott the system.
As said before, the protests are massive, but so far they seem confined mainly, though not exclusively, to the middle class. Mr. Capriles has said that as long as the protests do not spread to a wider sector of society, it is unlikely there will be any change. Something to be taken into account is that Venezuela’s student movement is largely conservative in its outlook, unlike many other Latin American countries.
On the other hand, the government’s popularity remains high, amid its working-class voters, who gave it a further boost in local elections in December. Mr. Maduro proved that there is a “chavismo” after Chávez and, till now, that it was stronger than what the opposition was offering.
Some argue that opposition leaders currently aim to topple the democratically elected government by portraying it as a repressive dictatorship that is cracking down on peaceful protest, and say this is a standard regime change strategy.
In any case, violence from either side is deplorable and must be condemned, and detained protesters should be released on bail unless there is legal and justifiable cause for pre-trial detention. Diplomatic relations and international mediation (through regional institutions, or other Latin American governments, such as Brazil or Cuba), plus solving the lack of investment to rise the oil production to help stabilize the Venezuelan economy are necessary. Loosen restrictions on the media and allow greater measures of free political activity are also measures the government should take to be able to govern. Opposition will have to wait then for two years for a recall referendum to gain security and stability.
http://cedice.org.ve/quien-esta-matando-a-los-manifestantes-en-venezuela-mary-ogrady/ Article by Mary O’Grady (in Spanish), published in The Wall Street Journal 24/03/2014. Link to CEDICE’s (opposition think-tank) website (http://cedice.org.ve/ ).
http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14318&LangID=E Statement posted on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website (asking for clarification on alleged arbitrary detentions and use of violence).
http://www.state.gov/f/releases/iab/fy2014cbj/pdf/index.htm FY 2014 US Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations (shows about $90m in US funding to Venezuela since 2000).