Though no longer as prevalent in the news as it was several weeks ago, conflict and the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is still raging today. Between an economic disaster, a failing health care system, an authoritarian dictatorship and violent protests, the country is in a state of chaos and unrest. This article analyzes how a country so rich in oil and other natural resources arrived at its present status, by following the trajectory of the Venezuelan nation. It begins with background on the political system and continues with an examination of its economic and humanitarian crisis.
In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected the 62nd president of Venezuela as the leader of the “Fifth Republic Movement”. At the time, the country was in its fourth republic, and Chavez was aiming to re-found the republic through a constitutional assembly. During the election, he promised to empower the people of Venezuela and end the rampant government corruption. His primary goal consisted of enacting social reforms as part of his so-called Bolivarian Revolution, named after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan political and military leader who fought for independence from Spain. Though at the beginning of his presidency he benefited from high oil prices and popularity, by 2002 protests already began to break out due to the economic downturn, leading to one instance of seventeen deaths in one day. Within one year of his presidency beginning, the country experienced a loss of nearly 600,000 jobs and oil prices were already beginning to drop. His revision of the constitution in 1999 ensured that he would remain in power until his death in 2013, as term limits were extended from five years to six with unlimited reelections. In addition, the constitution created a new National Assembly to replace the existing Congress. Under allegations of corruption by the National Assembly, twelve of Chavez’s supports were added as Justices to the Supreme Court.
In 2012, Nicolas Maduro was named vice-president and Chavez’s successor should anything happen to him. He assumed the presidency in 2013 as the leader of the “United Socialist Party of Venezuela” (PSUV), renamed from the “Fifth Republic Movement” in 2007, and inherited a country spiraling downward in the aftermath of Chavez’s decisions. By nationalizing thousands of private companies, Chavez crippled the private sector. By selling oil at discounted prices to other leaders in Latin America, Venezuela was getting significantly less than the market price was dictating. Throughout his presidency, the price of a barrel of oil deceased from $100 a barrel to $40, which also significantly decreased the country’s revenue. Due to the constitutional rewrite, President Maduro also has much of his power consolidated. Like Chavez, he will benefit from the ability to rerun for president unlimited times, and the consolidation of power over the Supreme Court, Armed Forces, and militia, a group of unconditional followers of Hugo Chavez.
Protests and Political Corruption
Citizens in Venezuela have been protesting against political corruption of the PSUV even when Chavez was president. Two major events occurred this year that spurred additional violence: The Supreme Court decision on March 29th that transferred power from the National Assembly to the Supreme Court which is stacked with government loyalists, and the election on July 30th to elect a National Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.
In 2016, the majority in the National Assembly switched to the opposition party for the first time in nearly two decades. This became one part of government that President Maduro no longer had under his control. Therefore, this spurred him to make efforts to consolidate his power through usurping legislative authorities and the constitutional rewrite. Though after three days of violent protests the Supreme Court reversed its decision and returned power to the National Assembly, street protests have continued.
The election for a constitutional rewrite four months later was another attempt for Maduro to consolidate power. On election day, President Maduro claimed victory amongst violence and the death of at least ten people. This election is widely viewed as illegitimate, with countries such as Argentina (pictured above), Colombia, Mexico, and Peru refusing to recognize the results. The United States imposed sanctions on Maduro by freezing his assets in the United States and banning Americans from working with him.
Maduro has also been targeting individual leaders of opposition parties in attempts to eliminate their influence. The night after the election, Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezema, two opposition party leaders, were taken from their homes in overnight raids. On April 7th, Henrique Capriles, viewed as one of the most prominent opposition leaders who has run for president twice, was banned from doing political work for 15 years. This would be similar to Bernie Sanders being told from the government that because his position is opposite, he would be barred from doing any political work for 15 years. Freddy Guevara, the leader of the “Popular Will Party” is currently seeking refuge in Chile as he was going to have his congressional immunity removed and be charged with inciting violence. Roberto Enriquez, the leader of the “Social Christian Party” is still holed up in his residence in Caracas after being detained for treason. The list continues on as violent protests are persistent and have spread beyond the capital of Caracas.
Years of economic instability and inflation have caused food and medicine shortages, higher crime rates, and created an ever-powerful president. Inflation rates are soaring at over 400% and the country is heavily in debt. Though when oil prices were higher during Chavez’s presidency the government could afford to sell food and other items at below their market prices, the economic system is no longer able to maintain such subsidies. As the state has attempted to ration food, products have disappeared from shops and end up overpriced on the black market. It is estimated that the country is experiencing an 85% shortage of medications, with many patients forced to take the wrong medicine for their condition. Despite having one of the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is teetering on the edge of default. Between an alarming spike in child mortality rates and an explosion in the spread of diseases, the political turmoil in the country has clearly led to this dangerous economic crisis.