By Oliver Tang
To Christopher Columbus, a 15th century European, the relatively uncolonized Venezuela was a paradise, fondly nicknamed the “Land of Grace”. Fast-forward a little more than 5 centuries later and this moniker seems all but appropriate. With a staunchly Socialist government once headed by the late Hugo Chavez and increasingly strained relations with the United States (just last month 3 American diplomats were expelled for “promoting violence”), this South American country has been amidst in its own “Venezuelan Spring” since January (1). A conflict overshadowed by the likes of Ukraine and Flight 370 in the media, the protests have nearly turned the country into a war zone. Is the government of the recently elected Nicolas Maduro to blame? Where did everything so wrong?
As usual, a brief walk through history is necessary to understand the context and roots of the revolts. Nearly every modern aspect of Venezuela can be traced to the pivotal 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, the start of the Bolivarian Revolution. Born into a working-class family, Hugo Chavez won the presidency of Nicaragua for his newly formed party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), on a landslide decision, running on an anti-poverty and anti-corruption platform (an ideology collectively referred to as “Chavismo”). The most important implication of Chavismo was its heavy roots in socialism (Chavez was one of the key figures in defining a wave of “21st Century Socialism”), a connection that unfortunately and inevitably alienated the American government, which became the target of blame when a failed coup against Chavez rolled around in 2002 (2). Chavez’ allegations of Bush being “the devil” didn’t do wonders for the two countries’ relations either (3). Chavez’ nearly 15 years of presidency were characterized not only by his ride on the “pink tide” of left-wing ideology sweeping South America (allying himself with the Castros and Daniel Ortega to name a few), but also heavy socialist reforms including but not limited to the nationalization of several industries and universities, financing health clinics and programs, land/housing reform, providing widespread free food, and improving worker unions and cooperation (4, 5). Hugo Chavez’ bottom up policies proved to be extremely popular among the poor and working class and he ended his career with a approval rating of 64%; Chavez proved to be nowhere near as popular in the USA with a rating of 18% (6, 7). Hugo Chavez legitimately won reelection in 2000, 2002, and 2008 on similar landslide decisions before ultimately postponing what would be his final inauguration after the return of his cancer. Chavez died shortly after, on March 3, 2013. That’s where Chavez’ Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicolas Maduro, comes in. Coming from similar blue collar roots as Chavez (boasting careers as a bus driver and trade unionist”, Maduro made his way into and found his way up Chavez’ inner circle, eventually gaining the honor of being Chavez’ “most capable administrator and politician” (8). Becoming interim president after Chavez’ death, Nicolas Maduro won a narrow election, leading the Socialist Party to victory by a narrow margin of 1.8% (9). Besides Maduro’s alarmingly close election (as compared to his predecessor’s landslide victories), another red flag came in the form of a man that got past incompetent security, grabbing Maduro’s microphone and interrupting the inauguration. Unfortunately for Nicolas Maduro and more importantly Venezuela, Chavez’ right hand man would come nowhere near to matching his predecessor’s legacy.
Maduro’s victory brought back memories of 1998, running on a foundation of “tackl[ing] corruption and crime” and promising shortly after, “Good times are on the way” (9). So what went wrong? What would incite an entire country to revolt against a government that had yet to reach its first anniversary? The answer can be found in the form of three ailments rampant near the end of the Chavez administration, that have gotten worse during (and possibly as a direct result of) the Maduro administration that have brought the entire country to a boiling point. The first grievance of the Venezuelan people against Maduro is, counterintuitive to his campaign promise, his utter failure to address crime. Venezuela boasts a homicide rate of 78 murders per 100000 people, a figure that doubled over the past few years even despite socialist anti-poverty programs; as one gravedigger who was forced to bury his own nephew put it, “Violence is the modern fashion in Venezuela” (10). To put this astonishing rate into perspective, Venezuela’s homicide rate is nearly 15 times higher than the USA, 260 times higher than Japan, and has resulted in a murder occurring approximately every 21 minutes (11). Obviously, Venezuela is not too pleased. It’s not a coincidental that a high-profile crime was the catalyst that first brought people to the streets. Akin to the shot heard around the world, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination paving the way for a world war, the murder of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spears in a botched robbery became the “shot heard around Venezuela” as it began the earliest protests against Maduro’s regime (12). While Maduro’s government attempts blame this surge in crime on “capitalist crimes” such as violent media and drug trafficking, a better explanation lies in the government’s utter failure to reform both its police force and justice system. This complete incompetency ties into Venezuela’s second grievance: corruption. Hugo Chavez was no saint and his presidency saw Venezuela fall into the bottom 10, 165th in world, when it came to state sector corruption (13). Maduro, counterintuitive to his campaign promises again, has done nothing significant to improve the state of his government, with another report finding this year that Venezuela still remains one of the top 20 in the world when it comes to corruption and boasts the most corrupt judicial system (14). It’s not like the people are unaware either: shortly before the revolts 75% of Venezuelans stated that corruption was a widespread problem (15). Corruption, the root of all evils, prevents and even undermines any possible governmental reform, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Maduro’s failure/lack of willingness to address this ticking time bomb may have proven to be his demise, as the people call for a swift exit for a government that has failed to address its own internal problems. Maduro is endangered not only by perceived governmental incompetence through the form of corruption but also through tangible governmental incompetence in the form of Venezuela’s third grievance: the economy. Unlike Chavez and his ability to win over the working class, Maduro is seeing no such success. Venezuela is gripped with a 56% inflation rate, a number that has actually doubled since the course of Maduro’s presidency (16). As usual, Maduros has seemed completely reluctant to take the blame for the economy, contrary to his history as a trade unionist, and has blamed the state of the economy on “capitalism” and an “economic war” being waged against him; Maduro’s subsequent decisions to enact price/profit controls and raise gas prices for the first time in 15 years aren’t doing wonders for his popularity either (17). The people are feeling the brunt of the economy: Venezuela’s scarcity index has reached 28%, meaning that in short time common amenities like flour and toilet paper will be running out of stock and cost fortunes (17). So in retrospect, yes, there are clear problems in Venezuela that are the fuel feeding the fire of revolution and yes, Maduros is at least partially to blame for his attempts to shift the guilt onto nonexistent forces and his complete failure to address these grievances.
With the fundamental roots of the protests in mind, what is the actual state of Venezuela? The revolt has taken to the streets of Venezuela’s major cities: Caracas, San Cristobal, Merida, Valencia, and Maracaibo. Perhaps the biggest spasm of violence came a month ago, when 50000 took to the streets of Caracas, one that forced our House of Representatives to pass a near unanimous unbinding resolution condemning the violence in the country and imploring for sanctions (18). Maduros has already taken the liberty of blaming the violence on a conspiracy from the US to undermine his government, a largely unsubstantiated claim that was still the basis for the aforementioned withdrawal of 3 American diplomats from the country. If anything, Maduros’ government seems to be the primary offender in the status quo, with testimony elucidating, “The bigger problem is actually the government troops. The National Guard is the one that is doing the most violence, shooting on protesters and buildings. They tend to be very unprofessional. They don’t think in terms of civilian policing, so they will often fire on people who are fleeing. These are people who are 20 to 22 years old and oftentimes they end up being violent” (17). It seems that Venezuela seems to be following the unfortunate modern trend of brutal police crackdown on revolts, with further reports corroborating that the police are “respond[ing] with tear gas and water cannons” (19). Other details of the revolts are not so clear-cut. For example, there have also apparently been instances of government employed paramilitary troops; while very poor quality video might support this phenomenon, it has been generally dismissed as “appeals to the middle class’ worst nightmare” (17). Looking to the side of the opposition, protestors do not seem to be too fazed. The youth, a ubiquitous demographic when it comes to anti-governmental protests, seem to remain a cohesive and determined unit. Eusebio Acosta, one demonstrator, argues that, “The youth today have decided they’re ready to give up their lives for the country, for freedom” (19). But of course, what would be a group without its leaders? Leopoldo Lopez, a long time politician and social activist against Chavez and subsequently his successor, became a natural leader of the opposition movement and brought purpose to what would have otherwise been a disorganized group of people dissatisfied with the government. Unfortunately for the opposition, after being faced with counts including “murder, arson, and terrorism”, Lopez surrendered himself to the government just last month, thronged by supporters (20). Maduros has taken similar steps against other opposition leaders, having recently arrested both San Diego Mayor Enzo Scarano and San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Caballlos for fomenting violence (21). However, as history has proven time and time again, an idea can not be stopped by the arrest of a few outspoken people and there will always be leaders to fill the void of those silenced by the government. Nearly 3 months in, the revolts look poised to continue and cooperation between the opposition and Maduros’ government have seen no signs of improvement.
However, not everything is fire and brimstone. For starters, casualties have remained at a relative low, with deaths “only” numbering 31 and injuries numbering 461 (as compared to the 102 deaths and 1221 injuries of Ukraine) (22). Furthermore, most of the revolts are concentrated in the cities of Venezuela, with one correspondent from the Washington Office reporting, “From the outside it always looks like the whole country’s in flames, but of course life goes and most things are up and running” (17). Furthermore, the revolution is largely a middle class process; the poor, long benefactors of Chavez’ policies, have for the most part remained supporters of his Chavismo ideology. As Maduro’s presidential opponent in the 2013 elections and opposition leader Henrique Capriles grudgingly points out, “For the protests to be effective, they must include the poor” (17). Even Leopoldo Lopez is worried that the revolt might be near death’s knell, warning the possibility of the revolution “fizzl[ing] out” to his supporters from behind bars. However, don’t expect the revolution to fizzle out yet. Lopez’ warning was followed by a revolt in Caracas within a week and support from the poor may be reaching its limits, with more recent analyses finding that lower class support for Maduros is conditional and support for the opposition is reaching 47% across the socioeconomic spectrum (23). For the time being, the people will stay on the streets and the revolts shall live on.
Where are we now? In just a matter of months, the protests have cost Venezuela an estimated $10 billion (24). Given the state of the economy going into the revolution in the first place, whether or not we see a fizzling out or prolonged period of unrest, the country has some serious rebuilding to do. Violence fortunately remains limited, but still dangerous because of the violent and unrestrained nature of Venezuela’s governmental forces. The opposition and the government are not displaying any major signs of reconciliation and if anything, the trends point to increased support for the opposition. What will become of Venezuela in the next month? In the next year? Who will we ultimately be seeing in office? The extent and ultimate impact of the revolts are ambiguous for the time being but if history (and American political/economic pressure) has anything to say, the odds are highly against Maduros. Chavez and Maduros both left their own marks on Venezuela, but once the revolts of Venezuela are over and done with, the absolute priority should be correcting the crime, correcting the corruption, and correcting the economic conditions that brought the revolution to life in the first place. Only then will Venezuela see some semblance of long-term stability. Only then will Venezuela be deserving of its age-old title the “Land of Grace”.