Written By: Dr. Tatiana Rizova

It has been three years since the death of Venezuela’s populist leader Hugo Chávez, the architect of the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela’s project of bringing social justice, economic independence, equality, and popular democracy to its people.  Is the Bolivarian project on the brink of reform or meltdown?  What is Venezuela’s human rights record under its current president?

President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s protégé, has, for the most part, followed in his mentor’s footsteps.  Maduro, however, is neither as popular nor as politically savvy as his predecessor.  The antagonism between him and the masses has brought about street violence in the barrios of Caracas and other major Venezuelan cities.  Critics and political opponents are mistreated, silenced or imprisoned.

Meanwhile, ordinary Venezuelans are far from being productive members of their society; many of them spend their days standing in line to purchase one staple item or another.  Most recently, the government rescinded its strict control along the border with Colombia in order to alleviate some of the pressures Venezuelan food markets are experiencing.  Thousands of Venezuelans now take on ten-hour-long trips to Colombia in the hope of stocking up with anything from sugar and flour to toilet paper and diapers. [i]

ENCOVI, the National Survey of Life Conditions, conducted by three Venezuelan universities, revealed that 12% of the population ate two meals or less a day in 2015.[ii]  The survey also demonstrated that 12% of the children living in major cities were malnourished whereas approximately 19% of children living in smaller cities and 27% of children living in rural areas had insufficient access to food in 2015.[iii] Animal protein has become a luxury given that many people rarely eat meat, eggs and dairy products.  The government has made an effort to improve access to important sources of nutrition, but the institutions it relies on are either too corrupt or inefficient to ensure adequate access to most communities.

Certain economic problems such as black markets, currency control issues, and poor sanitation are remnants of the pre-Chávez era; the Bolivarian Revolution, however, has done little to alleviate them.[iv]  In 2015, for instance, 18.6% of the households had no water pipes and 38.4% of the households that were part of the water grid did not have running water at all times.  Inadequate access to clean water is the leading cause of water-borne diseases such as chicunguña, hepatitis, dysentery, gastroenteritis, and others.  86.4% of the surveyed population stated that it suffers from interruptions in electric service or experiences long power outages at least once a month.[v]  87% of the ENCOVI respondents claimed that their income was insufficient to purchase an adequate amount of food.  About a third of Venezuela’s children do not attend school regularly due to the food shortages, which have compromised the ability of many school districts to sustain their dining services.

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Source: Venebarómetro, February 2016

Survey question: Do you believe that the lines for food and staple products have increased, decreased or remain the same?

67.8% of the surveyed believe that the lines have increased; 54.2% of government supporters believe the lines have increased whereas 72.6% of government opponents believe the same; 73.9% of those who are politically neutral believe that lines have increased.  Retrieved July 18, 2016

Venezuelan politicians cannot boast about their country’s socio-economic successes; a google search, for instance, is far more likely to yield articles that describe economic calamity than prosperity.  Neither the stories that describe the situation as appalling nor those that laud the Bolivarian Revolution for its countless accomplishments present accurate depictions of the country’s reality. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.  A report by Schiavoni and Camacaro finds that while product shortages are a cause for distress among the Venezuelan population, they are far from widespread.  Shortages do exist, but they typically affect certain essential food and hygiene products rather than all items in the Venezuelan consumer basket.[vi]

The government has not entirely skirted the issue of shortages; there have been attempts to remedy the situation by providing proper incentives to producers and importers such as Polar, a company that is responsible for 62% of the market for pre-cooked corn flour, a staple product in Venezuela.  Some of the strategies adopted by the government have failed to alleviate the bottlenecks in the Venezuelan food market; the government, therefore, can be blamed for policy failure rather than inaction.  In spite of these efforts, the economic crisis has affected the poor and the middle class disproportionately.  International visitors have no trouble ordering a gourmet cappuccino or savoring an expensive pasta dish at restaurants in Venezuela’s wealthy neighborhoods.[viii]  Meanwhile poor locals spend hours in grocery store lines to meet their families’ basic nutritional needs.

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At least half of the housing in Venezuela is vulnerable to earthquakes, mudslides, and other disasters that threaten the health and safety of the occupants.

Source: “Encuesta sobre Condiciones de Vida Venezuela 2015” https://politikaucab.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/encovi-vivienda-y-servicios.pdf

Retrieved June 7, 2016

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Empty shelves are a common sight in Venezuelan grocery stores.

Source: www.newsoxy.com

Retrieved July 19, 2016

Inefficiencies in the Venezuelan economic system have been aggravated by the plunging price of petroleum, Venezuela’s chief raw export, which makes up roughly 95% of the country’s export earnings.  As economic pressures mounted in 2014 and chronic shortages shook people’s faith in some aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution, political violence ensued.  The so called guarimbas were opposition-led street protests that involved barricades made of barbed wire and burning tires; indiscriminate shootings by participants in the guarimbas caused the death of multiple victims.[vii] The deaths were used as a pretext to jail several opposition leaders under the allegation that they had indirectly contributed to this tragic loss of life.  Under Chávez, there were only 12 prisoners of conscience in Venezuela whereas the current number stands at about 100.[x]  Perhaps the big tragedy in the story of Venezuela’s democracy is the broken contract between its people and its representatives.  Venezuelans may have voted for social justice and representative democracy, but street violence and extra-judicial police raids and intimidation were not their choice.[ix]  Whether the Bolivarian Revolution will be back on track or spiral into a political meltdown remains to be seen.  The process to trigger a recall referendum of President Maduro in the next few months is going to be a true litmus test of the quality of Venezuela’s democracy.

Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”



[i] 123,000 Venezuelans cross border shopping for scarce food. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2016, from https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/thousands-cross-venezuela-border-shopping-scarce-food-121334987.html

[ii] Encuesta sobre condiciones de vida Venezuela: Vivienda y sus servicios. (2015). Retrieved June 7, 2016, from https://politikaucab.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/encovi-vivienda-y-servicios.pdf

[iii] Encuesta sobre condiciones de vida Venezuela: Alimentacion. (2015). Retrieved June 7, 2016, from https://www.scribd.com/doc/306640832/Encuesta-de-ENCOVI-Alimentacion-2015

[iv] Schiavoni, C., & Camacaro, W. (2016). Special Report: Hunger in Venezuela? A Look Beyond the Spin. Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/12084

[v] Encuesta sobre condiciones de vida Venezuela: Vivienda y sus servicios. (2015). Retrieved June 7, 2016, from https://politikaucab.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/encovi-vivienda-y-servicios.pdf

[vi] Charles, J. (2016). The Fight for Justice, Truth and Peace in Venezuela. Retrieved July 18, 2016, from http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11953

[vii] Schiavoni, C., & Camacaro, W. (2016). Special Report: Hunger in Venezuela? A Look Beyond the Spin. Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/12084

[viii] García-Navarro, L. (2016, July 7). Venezuela’s Economic Implosion Exacerbates Inequality. Retrieved July 21, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/07/07/485058730/venezuelas-economic-implosion-exacerbates-inequality

[ix] Cabrices, R. O. (2014, March 10). Venezuela Goes Mad. Retrieved July 21, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/11/opinion/venezuela-goes-mad.html?_r=0

[x] Lansberg-Rodríguez, D. (2016, July 01). In Venezuela, Political Prisoners as Pawns. Retrieved July 22, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/opinion/in-venezuela-political-prisoners-as-pawns.html?_r=0