Why are people protesting in Venezuela?

by Katerina Karakatsanis

Search the Twitter hashtag #TomadeVenezuela (Takeover of Venezuela) and you will see videos and images of Venezuelans protesting the streets yesterday, including the violence that occurred.

Venezuela’s divide between President Maduro’s rule and a coalition of opposition protesters is continuing. Yesterday, 26 October 2016, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets in a protest that led to further violence with one policeman reported dead and dozens injured and detained.

Beginning this weekend, the Pope has agreed to begin mediation talks between the current government which some of the opposition have agreed to support and attend.

So, how did the situation get so bad?

Venezuela, a country of 30 million, located on the top of Latin America, has been facing both a constitutional and humanitarian crisis that has intensified since the beginning of 2016. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world (even more than Saudi Arabia) and its oil industry counts for 95% of the country’s export revenue.  President Nicolas Maduro continued Chavez’s policies of using oil revenue to fund social programmes and thus solidify his rule. These programmes are coordinated under the peculiarly named ‘Vice Ministry of Supreme Happiness’.

When oil prices plunged beginning in 2015, Venezuela’s ‘petrostate’ became a major victim. There is also a huge opposition to President Maduro’s rule. Since 2014, there have been continuous protests demonstrating against a plunging economy, soaring food prices, violence and the rule of President Maduro.

Why is the government divided?   

Venezuela’s political landscape is divided into the government’s United Socialist Party against opposition parties who have created a coalition called ‘Democratic Unity Roundtable’.

Opposition to the United Socialist Party’s rule is not new. In 2002 an attempted coup d’état led to the removal of Chavez for 48-hours and prompted violence between the two sides. The matter of who holds responsibility for this violence is still a controversial issue in Venezuela today, with pro-government media depicting the current opposition leaders as right-wing violence-hungry protesters.

In 2014, major protests began in response to the anger of high-profile violent attacks. The demonstrations quickly turned violent for both sides, with many more arrests. Leopoldo López, one of the leaders of the 2014 demonstrations, was denounced by Maduro as inciting ‘terrorism’ and has been jailed as a result.

Despite this, the opposition made great strides in 2015 when it won 112 seats out of 167 in the National Assembly. To counter, President Maduro decided to pack the judiciary with pro-government members.

Why exactly are people protesting the government?  

Due to strict currency controls by the government, and extreme levels of inflation, basic food prices have skyrocketed. The government has, bizarrely, blamed food shortages on ‘the 95% of the population who eat too much’, but for the population, the situation has reached humanitarian crisis levels.

Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world at 700%. Decreased oil revenue means that although Venezuela relies on imports, there have been shortages of basic goods. Pictures have surfaced of empty supermarket shelves alarming outsiders of the drastic situation. Although the government raised the minimum wage by 50% beginning in September 2016, making the current salary 22,576 Venezuelan bolívares (BsF) per month (around $2,000), with a food bonus of 42,480 BsF, most of the population is struggling to eat.

The situation has gotten so bad that every citizen has a national ID number that determines the days they are allowed to shop at supermarkets. Although the black market further sells goods, often it is at exorbitant prices. The world realised the dire situation many Venezuelans are in when Colombia temporary opened the border this past summer and thousands surged to get goods.

Electricity has also become scarce with increased power shortages and productivity further decreased when the government, as part of a state of emergency, temporarily shortened the work week to two days in order to save electricity. Maduro has even gone further and urged women to stop blow-drying their hair earlier this year.

Even though food has slowly started to reappear in supermarkets in Venezuela as of this month, many products are unaffordable to most of the population. For example, ‘the cost of a basket of goods needed to feed an average family of five in Venezuela rose to 262,664 bolivars in August’ (an increase of 658% since last year). This means that a family of two parents’ monthly incomes combined doesn’t even cover half of what is needed for a basket of goods, even with the food bonus.

As a result, many Venezuelans are facing severe hunger, even malnutrition, and blame the government.

What else are people mad about?

No, in addition to a shortage of goods and a plunging economy, Venezuelans are protesting corruption and high levels of violence and robberies. Caracas has the highest murder rate in the world, and in Venezuela there is a murder every 21 minutes. The violent murder of Monica Spear, a famous beauty pageant queen, in 2014 was one of the events that led to the 2014 demonstrations as it drew national and international attention to a security situation spiralling out of control.

However, violence has not decreased. In addition, government forces have used extensive force on opposition protesters. In the 2014 demonstrations, Human Rights Watch accused the government of embracing the “classic tactics of an authoritarian regime, jailing its opponents, muzzling the media, and intimidating civil society”. Opposition forces have, on their part, been criticised for creating burning street barricades and damaging public property.

Venezuela has also faced intense international criticism. In addition to countries that they have traditionally had a bad relationship with, such as the United States, Venezuela was blocked from its turn at the rotating presidency of Mercosur. Mercosur, a trade bloc between Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, voted against Venezuela’s turn citing concerns of lack of democracy. In news reports, one of the reasons these states finally agreed on taking this course of action was due to fears that Venezuela’s presidency would damage talks with trade deals with the EU.

Towards dialogue?

 The opposition has long been divided over the issue of dialogue with the government, with some leaders refusing talks and compromise, instead arguing for the immediate replacement of Maduro. The current strategy is a combination of two methods; mass demonstrations and constitutionally ousting President Maduro.

The most recent steps by the opposition have been to constitutionally create a change of government. The National Assembly currently has no budgetary ability and has in return voted to open a trial against President Maduro.

The main objective of the opposition has been to have a recall referendum in order to replace President Maduro in a democratic election. The first step to do this was to gather signatures of 1% of the voting population across all 24 states. The Supreme Court has set out that stage two would be to gather 20% of all voter’s signatures. However, it is in the current government’s interest to delay the referendum because this will mean the vice president will have to finish the current president’s term, meaning the United Socialist Party can stay in power.

Although the opposition got enough signatures at the first stage, a top election official said there were at least 1,326 instances of voter identity fraud, thus making the results invalid. Pro-government articles have gone even further claiming that there were as many as 53,658 irregular signatures.

Due to these results, the recall election has been postponed. Opposition leaders are now attempting large nation-wide protests as another way to pressure Maduro to step down. Protests by the opposition have increased with 1,000 protests and dozens of lootings in the first two months of 2016 and are continuing in response to thwarted attempts to replace Maduro.

Pope Francis is set to begin mediating talks between the government and the opposition starting on the 30th of September. Whether the opposition will be united in this process is, at the time of writing, still unclear.

Meanwhile, Maduro has been signing agreements with Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan to exchange oil for food, medicine, and other necessities.

For now, the country and government remain divided. Protests will undoubtedly continue while President Maduro remains in power, and it remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will be able to make a compromise suitable for the Venezuelan population as a whole.

Featured image By Carlos Díaz [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons 

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