Chaos in Venezuela, explained
America’s embroiled in chaos of its own, so you’re forgiven if you’ve overlooked what’s going on in Venezuela right now. Thousands of protestors have taken to Venezuela’s streets in recent weeks to condemn what they see as an outrageous power grab by the country’s entrenched political elite. During the height of the unrest, thousands in the capital city of Caracas clashed — often violently — with pro-government security forces.
So what exactly is going on — and what do the protestors want?
The most immediate action they want taken is the dismissal of all seven of Venezuela’s sitting Supreme Court justices. At the end of March 2017, the Court issued a ruling which would have effectively made itself Venezuela’s legislative body.
A first wave of public protests prompted a reversal of the court’s decision. Opposition protestors saw the move as a deliberate move toward dictatorship. At least 1,000 people were detained during the demonstrations, according to human rights groups — and as many as 700 are likely still in custody.
During the worst of the violence, government forces killed at least 20 protestors. The most recent round of demonstrations was an organized response to that tragedy.
Then and Now
The worst of the violent clashes seem to have subsided — and now the two sides are engaged in tense negotiations. President Nicolas Maduro has been under pressure to step down and acquiesce to a legitimate presidential election next year. In the past, he endorsed the idea of democratically electing state governors and mayors, but dismissed the notion of a presidential election.
But that’s all very recent history. What brought Venezuela to this point? Economic hardship has been the strongest catalyst, with the opposition blaming the current administration for mishandling the country’s economy for years.
CNN puts it more indelicately than we would have by outlining how Venezuela became “the world’s worst economy.” Strong words, maybe, but fairly objective. Basic goods like food and medicine — some of the most basic metrics for the health of any country’s economy — have been in short supply for quite some time.
Venezuela’s current recession is now in its third year, with an additional 10% contraction expected in 2017, according to the IMF. Inflation is on track to rise by a total of almost 500%.
One of the most significant factors which created this mess is the country’s tragic mishandling of its oil reserves. The writing’s on the wall where fossil fuels are concerned, but Venezuela missed many opportunities over the last 13 years to leverage its rich resources when it was most economically and politically viable to do so. The country’s nationalized oil company, PDVSA, is behind on paying the companies it relies on to actually extract the oil from the ground.
Between now and the end of the year, Venezuela needs to come up with $15 billion to settle its debts and get things back on track. But right now, there’s only $11.8 billion — and that’s assuming things don’t get worse in the meantime.
After all of this economic strife, the country’s Supreme Court attempted its power grab — and given everything else that’s wrong with Venezuela, this was simply a bridge too far for most citizens. It’s not a surprise things have arrived at the tipping point.
As things stand now, mayoral elections are slated to be held later in 2017. But the elections for governors — the ones that were supposed to have taken place at the end of 2016 — are still overdue.
What’s the endgame here? When do the protests give way to demonstrable progress — like a government that recognizes the importance of practicing democratic restraint?
Like the United States, Venezuela has checks and balances to, well, check and balance the separate branches of government. If the Supreme Court had successfully transferred administrative duties to itself, the incumbent political party (which in appropriating the label “socialist” has done lasting harm to the philosophy) would have controlled every branch of government in Venezuela.
Sound familiar? In America, it’s the GOP that controls every branch of government, including both chambers of Congress and the Supreme Court. But for better and worse, this power was handed to them by voters. Venezuelans are right to so roundly and loudly condemn political maneuvering that would winnow their several branches of government to just one — all without their consent.
Unfortunately, it’s the sort of thing we’re seeing all over the globe right now, almost as though the authoritarian dominoes are all falling in unison. In Turkey, President Erdogan won “sweeping new powers” via the most fundamentally democratic procedure available: a referendum.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Maduro put an end to a referendum that would have removed him from power. As a result, folks watching both of these countries right now are worrying over the apparent slide toward authoritarianism.
It’s a worry Americans shouldn’t be echoing about our own country, but many of us are justifiably worried about the direction America has taken of late. Clearly, socialism was never meant to be practiced the way it’s been practiced in Venezuela — and democracy was never meant to be practiced the way America’s been doing it.
The most recent election in the U.S. was clearly a watershed moment in global history, along with its twin, Brexit. The effect these events seem to have had on the world at large is to embolden those with a lust for power. It’s easy to spot trends after shakeups like Brexit and Trump have already happened — the trick is spotting tragedies before they happen.