Venezuela has descended into a state of chaos with violent demonstrations and protests from angered Venezuelans. Instead of allowing peaceful and meaningful protests to occur, the government responded harshly with smoldering barricades and tear gas, leaving bloodied demonstrators in their wake. At least 37 people have been killed since protests intensified in April after the administration and courts intentionally aimed to undermine the opposition. Hundreds more have also been injured while thousands of others arrested.
This is an economic, political and humanitarian crisis. The economy is a complete mess with a deep recession and high inflation despite Venezuela’s significant oil revenues. Food is scarce and people are struggling to survive. Demonstrators blame President Nicolas Maduro for the country’s crisis and are demanding elections to remove the leftist president. Maduro recently announced plans to scrap the country’s constitution and implement a new system that would further entrench his position of power as President. The opposition, unsatisfied with this decision, has demanded fresh democratic elections, the release of political prisoners and other concessions. Maduro, as the unpopular inheritor of a socialist revolution from the charismatic Hugo Chavez, is trying to maintain a firm grip on his otherwise foundationless power. Thus, protests continue and Maduro responds by mobilising armed gangs of loyalists to counter the uprisings, which then motivates more demonstrators.
All eyes are on a meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) expected later in May. At this meeting, Venezuela will be at the forefront of the agenda. However, Maduro has threatened to pull out of the regional alliance. If Maduro follows through, Venezuela would be the second country, after Cuba, to not belong to the hemispheric bloc. There’s a growing sense that external pressure is needed to ease the crisis.
Politics of Power
Seemingly every point of the crisis points back the leadership of Venezuela. Although the opposition bears a significant amount of anger, hostility, and frustration towards the government, there is solidarity in the idea that the only institutional relief and exit for the country is a general election. Luis Almagro, the Secretary-General of the OAS, recognised that “there is a dictatorship in Venezuela, and Venezuela needs elections.” In an interview with Al Jazeera, opposition leader Henrique Capriles summed up the motivation and vision behind the demonstrations when he said “our country is not all about Maduro. My vision goes beyond Maduro. It’s about the conditions of governability we are going to build in the country in order to stabilise Venezuela and rid it of this crisis. And in order to do that we need legitimacy. And in order to have that it’s very important that change in Venezuela is achieved through free and democratic elections.”
The crisis persists due to Maduro’s unwillingness to succumb to the reality of his declining popularity, influence, and power. From Maduro’s perspective, he is entering his fourth year as leader of Venezuela, but he likely envisaged a longer and more favourable time in power; similar to that of Chavez. However, when Maduro realised his position would be compromised by the desire for democratic elections, fractures within the ruling party, and the waning support for the security services that guarantee his power, he proposed a new constitution that would further entrench his authority and leadership. Not only does this decision reinforce the categorization of his rule as a dictatorship, it also enables demonstrations to persistently push for change. The sheer intensity and ongoing character of the demonstrations have sent a very clear message to the government and to the international community. Since the crisis is still in its early stages, regional and international responses to the crisis have not come to fruition.
First and foremost, the responsibility for the crisis and the solution should rest within the leadership of Venezuela. However, Maduro has made it clear that he would rather clench tightly onto his dwindling influence rather than initiate action to deal with the pressing issues. I believe that resolution will only occur from external diplomatic pressure. Maduro seemed displeased with regional or global powers interfering in Venezuela’s domestic affairs. However, the crisis is beginning to spill into the neighbouring countries like Brazil and Colombia, prompting rationale for international involvement.
Ideally, this crisis would be resolved through the regional body of the Organisation of American States. Yet it comes back to the fact that Maduro must accept the help extended to Venezuela by the OAS. Almagro announced that if the diplomatic action fails to cause the Venezuelan government to make significant moves to affirm the constitution and its commitment to representative government, Venezuela’s membership in the organization could be suspended. However, Venezuela’s suspension from the organisation could send them further into isolation and crisis.
It is important to look back on the other main aspect of this crisis – economic recession and inflation. The government has steadily expanded control to almost every aspect of the economy which has led to the erosion of free markets. This means that a large proportion of Venezuela’s previously privately-run companies are now wholly owned or majority owned by the government. Many businesses and companies are suffering as a result because they are losing money and are unable to provide quality services to the people. This is then contributing to the severe lack of basic consumer goods in the country. The market, which is about 50 percent government control and then 50 percent free market, should be freed to the allow simple flow of goods to resume.
The last factor requiring attention are the ‘colectivos’. The colectivos, primarily Cubans and Iranians, act as violent gangs which see themselves as “defenders of revolutionary socialism” and suppress the protestors in order to ensure the public is unable to challenge the government in the streets. Cuba and Iran have gained much from their respective partnerships with Chavez and are reluctant to see it disappear. In this context, Cuba and Iran are acting as accomplices to Maduro and should be held accountable for their ongoing support. If this does not occur, instability will continue to escalate and will leave a humanitarian crisis in its wake.