On April 6, the autocratic Venezuelan government run by Nicolas Maduro banned Henrique Capriles, the main opposition leader, from running for public office for 15 years. The move followed mass street protests led by Capriles after the Venezuelan Supreme Court took control of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, yielding international outrage and eventually forcing a partial reversal of the ruling. These startling developments are the latest in a saga of resistance and increasing government control since the death of the populist president Hugo Chavez and the “democratic” transfer of power to his close advisor, Nicolás Maduro. As Maduro parrots Chavez’s rhetoric and continues his policies to a fault, his incompetence, lack of charisma, and failed economic policies in the light of an international oil glut have led Venezuela to crisis.
In 2014, anti-government protestors, most of them students, filled the streets to protest high crime, inflation, and government repression. The government responded with a brutal crackdown on protests, resulting in the deaths of dozens of demonstrators. Maduro also imprisoned a myriad of opposition leaders, including the influential opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence on contrived charges. Eventually, the momentum of the protests died out after Maduro promised reform and a dialogue with the opposition. Unsurprisingly, Maduro’s promises proved empty, leaving the country in an uncomfortable and tenuous period of peace.
Three years later, the economic, social, and political situations in the country have deteriorated even further. Venezuelans struggle to buy food and toilet paper on the black market, and rampant inflation has caused the exchange rate to increase to around 4,400 Venezuelan bolivares for one dollar, despite the government rate of 10 to 1, which is unavailable to regular Venezuelan citizens. Now, the Venezuelan people are flocking to the streets once again, precipitating violent clashes between protestors and police. Venezuelan security forces and pro-government militias have killed four protestors in the last two weeks as demonstrations have spread, while scores have been injured and hundreds arrested since March 30. Thousands of Venezuelans continue to protest across the country, throwing rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails at police. Security forces continue to use aggressive tactics to try to quell the protests, liberally deploying tear gas and indiscriminately firing rubber bullets and painful “non-lethal” birdshot at protestors. Armed state-sponsored militias called “colectivos” have also mobilized against the protestors, and do not hesitate to use deadly force in clashes. As the resistance intensifies, fueled by a lack of basic daily necessities for Venezuelan citizens, we are left to wonder whether popular resistance can topple Maduro’s regime in a struggle largely ignored by the world.
Protestors clash with members of the Policía Nacional Boliviarana in Caracas. (Miguel Gutierrez, EFE)
When the people can no longer eat, can an oppressive regime maintain power? Isolated countries like North Korea have proved it possible, but Venezuela has an educated and aware populace and stands as a former economic powerhouse that is still deeply entrenched in regional and international affairs. In 2014, talk of a coup and a full-scale revolution were in the air, and now, three years of recession and suffering later, some type of drastic change seems inevitable. However, it’s hard to identify exactly what might happen. Increasingly violent mass protests combined with international pressure from the Organization of American States and other international players could force Maduro to enact meaningful reforms and look towards a return to the democratic process, but given recent actions, this outcome looks increasingly unlikely. More violence seems certain, and Maduro may not be able to stop the movement’s momentum with empty promises as he did in 2014.
The future of Venezuela is unclear, and the country stands at a critical crossroads. Venezuela cannot survive in its current economic and sociopolitical environment, and with no clear respite in sight, perhaps public sentiment has finally reached a tipping point. International organizations and influential players in the region should actively show support for the Venezuelan people, and international media should cover the popular resistance like they did in Egypt in 2011. Democratization, stabilization, and economic improvement in Venezuela would benefit the whole Western Hemisphere, and the United States should recognize the crisis as directly connected to American interests. Though there is no immediate resolution to the Venezuelan crisis in sight, we can only hope that the courageous efforts of the Venezuelan people will lead to an alleviation of the profound suffering of the country and its populace.