At the end of March, the Venezuelan Supreme Court stripped the elected body, the National Assembly, of its powers, a move which, according to the New York Times, edges the country even closer towards a dictatorship. The Supreme Court nullified the ruling only days later, but neither the government opposition nor the international community is convinced that the threat to Venezuelan democracy has passed. To many, the Supreme Court is filled with the puppets of President Nicolás Maduro, a man who has become increasingly unpopular as he and his party dismantle the democratic institutions of the country at a time when its citizens are facing food shortages and economic hardships. As reported by Reuters, the situation in Venezuela is grim, with both food and medicine being scarce, as well their inflation ranks globally as the highest. Maduro’s regime has added to the unrest by ramping up the imprisonment of political opponents, with the New York Times reporting a rise to 114 prisoners from 89 just last year. Maduro’s unpopularity was manifested spectacularly last September when a mob chased him down during an official visit, banging on pots and pans as they demanded food.
Alfredo Romero, the leader of the human rights organization, Penal Forum, stated that Maduro is extremely unpopular and has handled his unpopularity by raising the level of repression “to a brutal level.” Thirty protestors were arrested by the government following the mob chase, which, according to the leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, represented the will of the Venezuelan people who do not simply dislike Madura, but loathe him. Maduro and his supporters blame the civil unrest on “its enemies waging an economic war.” Indeed, as CNN has reported, Maduro has approached the United Nations for assistance, but international figures are less than impressed with Maduro’s administration. An envoy for the German government was quoted in the Independent as saying that “President Maduro is making the population of his country hostages to his own power ambitions.”
Though Maduro is unmistakably unpopular, the civil unrest in Venezuela appears to be due more to the lack of food and medicine than to his policies, though his moves to consolidate power certainly do not help. Brutality can only work as a tactic if a people have something to lose. With that said, the Venezuelan people are facing starvation and that makes them a dangerous opponent.
In fairness to President Maduro, he is continuing a trend that was initiated by former President Hugo Chávez. Elected in 1998, Chávez campaigned on promises of combating government corruption and providing aid to the people of Venezuela, and these were promises that he did deliver on. But, there was another side to Chávez’s rule that was masked by his popularity. As reported by the New York Times, when the Venezuelan Supreme Court refused to prosecute several generals who had allegedly tried to depose him, Chávez “gave himself the authority to suspend unfriendly judges and to pack the courts with new ones.” The move set a dangerous precedent by removing a check on presidential power. Chávez also directly helped to destabilize the country by nationalizing the oil industry, a move, which Reuters states has likely caused many oil fields to be less productive and less profitable for the country at large.
Venezuela remains in a state of crisis. With that said, getting international attention is one thing, while keeping it will be an entirely different matter. As well, Maduro’s government is not likely to scale back their attacks on the opposition, instead, out of desperation, Maduro is likely to become more aggressive. But, Maduro does not have the popularity of Chávez. The Venezuelan people have already shown their willingness to act in their own interest overtly. As the bolívar continues to decrease in value, and food and medicine shortages worsen, the people are likely to continue agitating for change. Without their support, it is unlikely that a lasting dictatorship will come to stand in Venezuela.