2014 in Venezuela: what the hell is going on?

by Laura Vilaça

As you browse the news of this month, you cannot stand indifferent to the huge popular turmoils happening: Ukraine, Venezuela, Brazil. Whereas the first up-rise seems to have succeeded, giving hope to the precept that says “the people united will never be defeated“, the other two are still working their way into making civil disobedience heard by their governments. While the Brazilian protests are ongoing since June 2013, the Venezuelan riots are fresh events from a week ago and no one seems to quite understand what is going on there. I’ve looked into things and will try to explain them a bit.

Ukraine, Brazil, Venezuela (abcnews.com, tvi.pt, reuters)

Ukraine, Brazil, Venezuela
(credit: abcnews.com, tvi.pt, reuters)

Starting with a student demonstration against the lack of security in university campi on February 4th, the Venezuelan protests spread from the the state of Táchira to Mérida, and then to further states, making it a national event. At first peaceful, the protest now counts nine deaths, 539 civilian arrests (the majority with no formal charge) and 19 journalists in prison after 20 days of people marching on the streets of Venezuela. As the protests rose in numbers, so did motivations: an inflation of 56%, shortages of basic consumer goods, black market dollar, energy blackouts and political corruption are the central complaints of the protesters. The detention of young students – most already released – also increased dissatisfaction and caused further protests.

The government of Nicolás Maduro blames the violence and vandalism to Leopoldo López, leader of the Popular Will party, who is currently serving a provisional prison sentence of 45 days, as he was considered the masterminded behind the action of radical groups in the protests. The opposition and the government talk of dialogue and peace, but both embrace discourses of confrontation and mutual accusations. The Maduro government attributes the situation to the right wing, in what he calls “economic war”; the opposition returns accusations and speaks of corruption and inefficiency of management. Discontent has been growing since last year and polarization showed signs of growth since April 2013, when Maduro was elected president with small margin (1.5%) over the opponent Henrique Capriles.

The Brazilian weekly magazine CartaCapital reminds the reader that one cannot see the Venezuelan protests as a cheer event: you cannot be in the “yey, Maduro!” or in the “you suck, Maduro!” team – it is way more complex than that. One cannot deny the advances made by the Chavés government for the poorer population of the country; however, one cannot turn a blind eye to the current inflation of 56%, the lack of essential products, one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America, violence on the streets and political polarization that divides the country. Though the government was democratically elected in 2013, and it is undesirable to try to overthrow a democratic system, is it not a matter of judgment to deny people their basic civil right of protest by imposing heavy policing and violent measures to keep the people quiet. It is not democratic to censor social media (Twitter and imagery in specific), their only tool to make their truth public; it is not democratic to shut down the Colombian tv station NT24 and threaten to deport CNN journalists working in Venezuela and cancel the channel’s right of emission.

The causes of the protest 

Basing its economy on oil exports, Venezuela heavily depends on agricultural importations to keeps its people fed. One of the major complaints by the protesters is the lack of investment to secure a lease of this dependence, by increasing the country’s agricultural production. The discovery of oil in the beginning of the 20th century brought an economic boom to Venezuela until the 1980s; at the same time, the thriving financial situation of the country proved to be fertile ground for corruption, as politicians profited immensely from the country’s prosperity and took it as a reason to develop their authority. However, with the 1980s oil crisis, Venezuela’s spot in the sun became jeopardized: as the government attempted several failed economic policies, public spending and debts increased, corruption grew even more and poverty stroke the country. Crime rose tremendously, as social indicators worsened and political instability governed. In this scenario, popular turmoil rose up, climaxing at the 1989 Caracazo riots which saw hundreds dead.

And while the 1989 popular uprising came from the poor, who were looting supermarkets due to widespread famine, the 2014 protests have a different appeal. This time the Venezuelans have money but do not always find what they want to buy due to shortage of products. Also, the inflation of 56% recorded last year affected the pockets of Venezuelans and interrupted the process of social ascent recorded in recent years. The young protesters and children of the middle and upper class wish for a better country.

According to an opinion poll carried out by Hinterlaces, 3 out of every 4 Venezuelans are more concerned with the economic situation than with the political dispute. Furthermore, more than 90 % of Venezuelans are more worried about a successful partnership between the government and the private sector (which would help cease the economic crisis) than a reconciliation with its political opponents.

Another aspect of discontent is the high crime rate. A 2012 report of the UN drug office points out that Venezuela is the fifth country with the highest murder rate, with 45 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. The lack of security was the spark that lit the demonstrations, with students refusing to live in fear. Amid the protests, Maduro launched a National Plan of Pacification, which foresees the creation of a High Commissioner for Peace, in an attempt to stop criminality. This measure, although opaqued by increasing street violence, is seen by analysts as a first government response to the popular demands.

Nicolás Maduro is also attempting dialogue with the protesters. The president proposed a “national peace conference” with the political and social sectors to neutralize the groups responsible for violence linked to opposition protests for this Saturday. However, this seems unpromising, with Maduro rejecting the protests and calling them a “ongoing coup d’ état” fueled by the opposition.

Are the protests going to change anything? 

In Brazil, the lack of quality in public service, the state money spent on the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, and an overall tiredness over extensive political corruption raged people, who took the streets and started a peaceful protest that soon became violent. The violence came from both parts, the protesters and the police. In Venezuela, it’s the same story. 

There seems to be a quick violent reaction from governments against the civil right of protesting. It is the answer of a mother who slaps her child pulling a tantrum in the supermarket: both Venezuela and Brazil, being developing countries and rising economic powers, have a diplomatic face to defend in the international scenario, and these protests do not serve their image well. They reflect that, though development may be occurring, it is not done in the best interest of the population. They invest, they export, they own expensive natural resources, but people are still not living well. Hopefully, both governments’ need to keep their reputations up will serve the protesters interests – or it will just show even further how sick today’s democracies are and how little international forces care.

In case you want to get information from Venezuelans themselves, here are a couple of websites and videos:

SOS Venezuela

Venezuela Analysis

Twitter: #SOSVenezuela

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