23 May
  • By James Evans

Venezuela in Crisis

Right now, Venezuela is in the throes of a major socio-political conflict that is largely being ignored by western media. This conflict is being complicated by an economic crisis of almost unprecedented proportions. Venezuela is facing a humanitarian and human rights disaster. The current Chavista government under the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro, in its eighteenth year of power, is facing wide-scale condemnation and criticism. Maduro’s government has suffered a waning of its electoral support. This is primarily due to economic failings, which have seen the country’s largely oil-backed economy shrink at an ever-increasing rate since 2014.

Opposition demonstrators take part in a women's rally against Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, about 410 miles (660 km) southwest of Caracas, February 26, 2014. Pope Francis called on Wednesday for an end to violence in Venezuela that has killed at least 13 people and urged politicians to take the lead in calming the nation's worst unrest for a decade. The banner reads: "Resistance". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3FR40

(Opposition demonstrators participate in a women’s rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in San Cristobal on February 26./Photo by Carlos
Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Venezuela’s government has not published inflation figures since December of 2015 and has repeatedly played down this crisis. Maduro has sought to blame a supposed “economic war” led by political adversaries and the USA for Venezuela’s economic issues. He has also accused opposition-owned businesses of artificially creating economic problems. However, most economic experts agree that inflation hit 800% in 2016 and GDP shrank by 19%. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has predicted that Venezuela’s GDP will decrease by a further 4% in 2017, while the International Monetary Fund estimates inflation will increase to 1,600%.

This economic crisis has had a monumental knock-on effect on all aspects of Venezuelan society. Domestic production of most basics goods is even struggling to meet the diminished demands of a deep recession. Therefore, the country relies on imports to provide vital commodities like food and medicine. However, roughly 96% of Venezuela’s hard currency comes from oil income. Since 2012, the continuous falling international oil prices has only worsened this issue. In 2016 the Minister for the Economy, Miguel Pérez Abad, said $15 billion would be available for imports, compared with over $50 billion in 2012.

Food is now in such short supply that people scavenging for food in rubbish bags is a common sight in the capital Caracas. Hunger and malnutrition have both increased immensely. Deaths due to malnutrition, ignored and denied by the government, have increased greatly in both children and the elderly. As of May 2016, the percentage of the population who were malnourished rose to 25% from 13.5% in January 2016. These figures are becoming harder and harder to estimate but are certainly rising.

(The supermarket: Empty refrigerator shelves are pictured at a Makro
supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela, August 4, 2016. Photo by Carlos
Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The public health service is also on the verge of collapse, an issue ignored and rejected by Maduro and the government. Diseases that had been brought under control are returning as epidemics, people are dying in unknown numbers due to the lack of basic medicine such as antibiotics, insulin and penicillin. A recent report by Human Rights Watch has estimated that in the first half of 2016 maternal mortality was up by 79% compared to the same period in 2009, the last date from which official figures are available. Infant mortality was up 45 percent in 2013. Medical staff and ordinary citizens who have spoken out have been threatened, beaten and often arrested. Those who have sought medical aid from abroad have found they are being blocked by the government. The catholic charity Caritas had a shipment of medicine and food seized by Venezuelan authorities. This food crisis has also created a crisis in education. It is estimated roughly 1 million children are no longer attending school, primarily due to lack of public services and food. Venezuela has also been dealing with a large brain drain as many of its educated people have emigrated in ever increasing. By 2015 over 1.8 million people have emigrated since the beginning of Chavez presidency. In 2016 it is estimated 160,000 at least have made it out of Venezuela.

Increasingly large protests, often lead by the opposition coalition MUD, have been met with harsh crackdowns. Between April and May 2017, a total of 38 people (all civilians), have been killed and hundreds detained during clashes with police in Caracas. As of May 2017, at least 275 people have been tried by military courts which keep no public records. Reports of beatings and abuse are rife. Judges are said to be charging large groups of protesters with crimes en masse, without any individualized consideration of the evidence against them. Both article 261 of the Venezuelan constitution and Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Venezuela ratified in 1978, prohibits this and guarantees the right of citizens to a timely trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal.


(Large Protest: Thousands of People protesting on the streets of
Caracas, 19th April 2017. Photo by Christian Vernon, Reuters)

Maduro had declared a “state of exception and economic emergency” in early 2016 and this “state” has lasted for over a year now. This decree uses vague language and grants far more power to Maduro. It technically allows the restriction of basic human rights and limits the power of the opposition-led national assembly. It also stifles the ability of any other state body or NGO to challenge abuses of power. This decree has allowed Maduro to effectively rule as a dictator for the last year.

International pressure and condemnation needs to be stepped up. Rather than addressing problems, Maduro is ignoring and denying them. He has implement very few economic measures to counter the crisis and is seemingly blocking international aid. The tightening of authority and suppression of opposition voices smacks of the rise of an authoritarian dictator. Democracy has ceased to exist in Venezuela and constitutional law has been disregarded, mediators from outside of venezuela may be key to the moving forward in this crisis. Maduro has however called for a new constitution to be drafted by a 500 strong constitution assembly. The opposition has criticized this move claiming it will only allow Maduro to further dismantle democratic institutions and practices in the country. It is clear there is a major lack of trust between both parties.  Sooner or later something is going to give if Maduro does not come to some compromise.

What is becoming clearer is that it will not be the people who force a change to occur, it will be the army. If the army remain loyal to Maduro, hunger, oppression and abuses will continue. If the armies support is withdrawn then change would soon follow. However, the army is not homogeneous, Venezuela has around 2000 generals, if they do not act as one unit this crisis could soon become a civil war.


(Soldiers: Venezuelan Army 2016)