Last month Venezuela exploded, as discontent with the Socialist government that has ruled the country for more than a decade reached a boiling point.
You can blame food shortages and inflation; you can blame joblessness and corruption. Ultimately, though, these problems have been compounded by the fact that Hugo Chavez is dead, and his party — The United Socialist Party of Venezuela — lacks the legitimacy he gave it in life.
Now Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, must deal with country-wide protests, with dissenting mayors in major cities, and the make-shift barricades protestors are building to keep government forces at bay. Thirty-three people have died, and the Venezuelan economy is continuing its downward spiral.
Maduro inherited Venezuela from Hugo Chavez in April of 2013. He beat middle-of-the-road opposition politician Henrique Capriles Radonski, with the lowest margin of support in years. The regime, however, made it a point to connect Maduro to his predecessor as much as possible — sometimes bordering on the farsical.
“Sometimes I come at night, sometimes I sleep here, often,” said Maduro of Chavez’s grave site back in September 2013. “You don’t even realise it. The neighbours sometimes realise.”
He also once said that Chavez appeared to him in the form of a little bird and whispered in his ear.
By last November the country was suffering from an economic malaise that could not be ignored. Consumer price inflation had climbed to 49% by September; staple products like toilet paper and beans were getting hard to come by.
To combat this evil, Maduro requested sweeping powers from the Venezuelan legislature, mostly ruled by his party members. The new powers would allow the President to essentially rule by decree when it came to economic matters.
Maduro said the new measures would allow him to “unfold a permanent offensive against the corrupt and their political backers.”
Capriles, on the other hand, said that he “is seeking once again scapegoats to blame for their own mistakes… The government is trying to deviate attention from the serious economic crisis that is hurting Venezuela.”
Since then, the economy has only gotten worse. In a recent research report Citi wrote that Venezuelan public debt has ballooned to 53.4% of GDP, and estimates that GDP will contract by 1% in 2014.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan legislature was busy basing its budget on inflation targets in the mid 20% range. It also created a ‘Vice Ministry of Happiness’ to figure out how to deal with unrest.
Maduro, for his part, was ordering soldiers to take over toilet factories and announcing that construction workers had seen the face of Chavez in a subway work site. Election day in December was set on ‘The Day of Loyalty’ commemorating Chavez’s leadership.
Things fell apart on ‘Youth Day’ — the February 12th holiday in which students remember the legacy of South America’s colonial liberator, Simon Bolivar. There had been smaller protests before, but it was on this holiday — and in the days after — that the crowds really started pouring into the streets.
“I’ve had enough,” said angry Maduro. “You can accuse me of what you want, I am obliged to defend democracy and the peace of the people.”
He told the people that the protests were coming from a “Nazi Fascist” current, and the government started fighting back. People started dying on both sides.
As the protests spread outside of Caracas to more remote parts of the country, the deaths and injuries suffered by the opposition became more high profile. Genesis Carmona, Miss Tourism 2013 for her home state of Carabobo, was shot in the head and died a little more than a week after the protests really took hold.
New leaders emerged from February 12th, as well. Leopoldo Lopez, former mayor of the city of Chacao, became a rallying point for protests. He represented a political view even more to the right than Capriles, and the government put a warrant out for his arrest.
On February 18th, Lopez gave himself up, said goodbye to his wife Lilian and went to jail.
Lopez’s incarceration didn’t end protests by any stretch of the imagination. Capriles has started taking a more vocal stance against the opposition, and in her husband’s absence, Lilian Tintori has become a leader herself (you can see her dressed in white with her hand up in the center of the photo below).
Following Lopez, the government arrested several other mayors including the mayor of San Cristobal. It’s a Colombian border town where food lines are long, and protesters build barracades to keep out government forces.
According to reports, shoppers at government grocery stores are marked with permanent marker to keep their place in these long lines. Once they get inside stores, though, it’s possible that they won’t find what they’re looking for.
The Venezuelan government has started appealing to international bodies like the Organisation of American States. Opposition politician Maria Corina Machado appealed to the body in Washington last week, but Venezuela’s allies — including countries like Ecuador, Argentina, and the Carribean islands, which receive oil subsidies from the country — voted to take her comments off the record. They also agreed not to debate the situation at all.
Now Machado is headed back to a country where she is wanted for treason, and has been stripped of her protections as a legislator.
Check out an interview she did with Fusion after her appearance.
The official death toll in all this turmoil officially stands at 34. As a sign that the government is more concerned about the economic situation than it has been in years, it is loosening restrictions on the dollar, which is meant to curb capital flight.
Still demonstrators are out on the street even today, demanding the release of opposition politicians. Here they are wearing masks of the faces of incarcerated Mayors.
Experts like Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer have argued that Venezuela is not Ukraine because of the government’s continued control of the military and popularity among working class and poor Venezuelans.
But as things get more and more violent, it’s unclear how long Maduro can hold on without taking dramatic steps to crush his opposition.
And who knows how the opposition will react to that.
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