Venezuela anguishes in what is being described as the country’s worst economic, social and political crisis to date. A combination of low oil prices, high crime rates, shortages of basic goods, economic mismanagement by the state, and an inflation rate of 800% have all come together to create a hellish scenario in what was once Latin America’s richest country.
The government of President Nicolas Maduro has so far failed to effectively tackle the crisis which has severely hit the country of 31 million inhabitants. Maduro claims to be carrying on the legacy of the socialist Bolivarian Revolution started by his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez. However, it seems that Maduro has only aggravated the country’s already volatile climate by making an attempt at a blatant power grab.
At the end of March 2017, the pro-government Supreme Court of Venezuela issued a ruling effectively stripping the opposition held national assembly of its powers. The ruling was later reversed due to the backlash the decision provoked.
The opposition has since taken to the streets, mainly in the capital Caracas, with four demands which include early elections, the release of political prisoners, the sacking of the Supreme Court justices who issued the March ruling and the creation of a humanitarian channel to bring desperate aid to the battered country.
Protestors have so far been met with violent repression from the Police, National Guard and armed gangs backed by the government known as ‘colectivos’. The death toll has risen to 55, while hundreds of people have been injured in clashes with the state security apparatus.
The protests and the government’s response to them have grown increasingly violent as the country descends into anarchy. Looting and rioting has even erupted in the rural city of Barinas, where the childhood home of Hugo Chavez was set ablaze by angry protestors.
The Venezuelan opposition has accused President Maduro of seeking to become a dictator by eliminating checks and balances. Despite the backlash caused by Maduro’s attempted power grab the government did not stop there.
On April 5, 2017 the Venezuelan government issued prominent opposition politician Henrique Capriles a 15 year ban from running for or holding public office. Capriles is seen as the main opposition figure who can challenge Maduro in the upcoming 2018 presidential election.
As if there were not enough reasons to protest the actions of the Venezuelan government, President Maduro signed an executive order to form a “Constituent National Assembly” in order to make changes to the constitution.
The opposition has labeled this action as a coup against the constitution and democracy in Venezuela.
According to CNN, Maduro said, “it would be a special chapter in the country’s history, a move to defeat the ‘facist coup’ and to promote peace and stability in the country.”
What is clear is that Venezuela is heading for a major constitutional crisis on top of the host of other problems already plaguing the country.
The roots of the crisis in Venezuela stretch back to the days of Hugo Chavez, whose economic policies helped to create the conditions which Venezuelans now find themselves living under. However, the main culprit behind this crisis has been the dip in global oil prices starting back in 2014. Venezuela possesses the largest proven oil reserves in the world.
The successive governments which have ruled Venezuela since the discovery of oil have all failed to diversify the country’s economy, relying almost solely on oil revenues. It’s no secret that the country is overly dependent on oil for income; about 95% of Venezuela’s export revenue is derived from the petroleum industry.
In a country where water is more expensive than gasoline, any major fluctuation in the price of oil has the potential to bring on disaster. The government of course does not blame itself for the current disaster, but rather accuses the opposition and the US for creating and using the economic crisis as a tool against the Bolivarian Revolution.
With conditions only worsening in 2016, the opposition began collecting signatures to trigger a recall referendum against President Maduro. However, this effort was thwarted by the country’s electoral council which cited fraud during the signature collection process.
This denial of the people’s constitutional right to initiate a recall vote for their president was a substantial blow to the legitimacy of Venezuelan democracy.
The international community’s response to the Venezuelan crisis has so far been quite limited. The Organization of American States (OAS) has been assessing the situation in Venezuela while calling on Maduro to cease repression against peaceful protests.
Venezuela has so far been defiant of the OAS, accusing the regional body of being an “interventionist coalition” led by Washington.
On April 27, 2017 the government announced that it would begin the process of withdrawing from the OAS. This hasty decision has drawn concern from countries in the region which see this action as further isolating Venezuela diplomatically as the country spirals into chaos.
The US State Department has issued statements of concern over current developments. The Vatican, as in the past, has offered to mediate between the opposition and government while regional powers such as Brazil, Argentina and Peru have been critical of the Maduro regime. Ultimately more needs to be done. European countries should not stand by the sidelines as the crisis worsens. The EU has a responsibility to uphold the democratic values and norms which it claims to stand for.
Venezuela’s democracy is under serious threat and the opposition has its hands tied. The United States as the leading power of the region has the political clout to take on the Maduro regime.
As previously practiced under former President Obama, the Trump administration should take the lead on bringing further targeted sanctions against leading members of the Venezuelan government who order or commit abuses against protestors and violate their basic human rights.
The US should concentrate its diplomatic efforts on bringing the international community’s attention to the abuses of the Maduro regime.
The US with its allies could pressure Maduro to ultimately restore democratic rule and to concede to the demands of the opposition in order to avoid a humanitarian disaster.