Earlier this month, shocking reports emerged from Venezuela that a man had been doused in gasoline and set alight at a political demonstration in the country’s capital of Caracas. Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, condemned the incident as a “hate crime and a crime against humanity”, and pinned the blame on protestors who oppose his government. He went on to claim that the man was deliberately targeted because he was a ‘Chavista’—that is, a supporter of former President Hugo Chavez’s left-wing policies and ideology, and of Maduro’s own government. However, the reality is much less clear, and a Reuters report has stated that witnesses at the scene believed the man was a thief.
This act of violence emerged from a protracted political struggle that has rumbled on for many years. Since the 1910s, when the country’s rich oil reserves first began to be drilled, successive governments have failed to significantly invest in any other industry, which has led to very little home-grown talent in other areas, an over-reliance on imports for other resources and goods, and a vastly undiversified economy.
As global oil prices have fallen, economic mismanagement, corruption, and heavy spending on badly run social programmes have resulted in a severe economic crisis and a recession that has been ongoing for four years. The Venezuelan government can no longer afford to pay for imports of crucial goods like food and medicine, and many families are going hungry, with around 9.6 million Venezuelans eating fewer than two meals a day. Malnourishment is increasingly a problem, and the Venezuelan National Assembly has asserted that food shortages have led to the deaths of 27 children so far. Further, the country is lacking 80% of its necessary basic medical supplies, with many people being unable to access prescribed medicines and healthcare services.
Many have blamed Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) for worsening the crisis through economic mismanagement, and dissatisfaction has been aggravated by alarm that Maduro is attempting to turn the country into a dictatorship. Although he was democratically elected following Chavez’s death in 2013, commentators have expressed concern that he is making moves to consolidate his power.
Luis Ugalde, a Jesuit priest and one of Venezuela’s most respected political scientists went so far as to say that: “Venezuela is now a dictatorship.”
Since the opposition umbrella of parties, known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), won a landslide to the National Assembly in December 2015, almost all its attempts to introduce legislation have been halted by the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Opposition groups have criticised the Court for being dominated by government loyalists.
Attempts to recall Maduro have been impeded by the electoral council, which politicians also say is controlled by Chavistas. Events came to a head on 29th March, when Supreme Court judges stripped the National Assembly of its power, and transferred those powers to itself. Although much of this ruling has been suspended following public outcry, the act provided a powerful catalyst for opposition groups.
There have been almost daily protests since April, which have been characterised by violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Around 55 people have been killed in riots, with almost 1000 injured, including protesters from both the government and the opposition, as well as security forces and bystanders. Young rioters, known locally as los chamos, have thrown petrol bombs and stones at National Guard troops, who have retaliated with teargas and water cannons. Human Rights Watch has reported that thousands of demonstrators have been detained, and hundreds tried in military courts.
Opposition groups are demanding an end to the PSUV’s increasingly authoritarian rule, and are attempting to secure a 2017 general election; the removal from office of the Supreme Court judges responsible for the 29th May ruling; the release of political prisoners; and the creation of a humanitarian channel to allow vital medical aid to enter the country.
Some have questioned whether protesters are ever going to achieve their aims, and have expressed concern that the rivalry will simply continue to deepen. However, threats of violence and detainment are unlikely to deter los chamos and other demonstrators, who see the right to protest as a crucial part of the Venezuelan constitution, and who will not be willing to back down any time soon.
This post was written by Jess Edington, who is studying an MA in International relations at the University of Birmingham and is the STAND UK Correspondent for North and South America.