by Henry Mann
The social uprisings that have erupted around the globe in places such as Syria and Ukraine are not isolated to the Eastern Hemisphere. While the unrest and violence in these countries are mainly the result of ethnic, religious or regional conflicts, the demonstrations in Venezuela are a clash of economic viewpoints. Fueled by the high levels of crime, inflation and scarcity of basic goods, the increasingly violent protests have engulfed Venezuela for the past few months and are spreading to other Latin American countries, namely Cuba.
The current administration in Venezuela, headed by President Nicolás Maduro, has been accused of setting strict price controls, leading to one of the highest inflation rates in the world. President Maduro, representing United Socialist Party in Venezuela, came to power during a special election held in April of 2013 following the death of the former president, Hugo Chavez. Maduro was the foreign minister and appointed vice president of Chavez’s administration.
In response to the accusations, Maduro blames capitalism and speculation, insisting the “economic war” is part of a U.S.-sponsored coup that is being waged against the Venezuelan government.
The protests began in February 2014 when a young female student was nearly raped on a university campus in San Cristobal. The attempted rape sparked student protests on the university campus, with the students claiming the rape and other violent crimes are the results of deteriorating security under President Maduro.
The real outrage came when police forces responded to the first student protest—several students were detained and supposedly abused by the police officers. Additionally, older Venezuelans have joined the uprising by protesting the rising prices and the shortage of goods. Since the first protests on February 4th, more than 1,500 protesters have been held in custody while more than 50 have reported that they were tortured by the police while detained. Over 30 people, including security forces and civilians, have died in the uprisings.
Social uprising against the government are not new to Venezuela. The nation’s history is dotted with a variety of demonstrations of civil unrest, with the most recent uprising occurring in Caracas in 2002-2003 against Chavez. When Chavez rose to power in 1999, he began an expansion of the federal government sector that still exists presently, with a vast reallocation of currency from the private to the public sector.
In response to the increasing redistribution, the middle and upper classes of east Caracas led demonstrations in 2003 while the working class of west Caracas, which largely supported Chavez, refrained. However, according to Tomas Straka, a historian at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, “[the] division in general still remains, some areas of the west have started to protest as well.”
Leopoldo Lopez, the former mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas and leader of the protests in Caracas, is being held in a military prison outside the city. He states that he “urged Venezuelans to exercise their legal rights to protest and to free speech—but to do so peacefully and without violence. [However], what started as a peaceful march against crime on a university campus has exposed the depth of this government’s criminalization of dissent.”
Since the early 2000s, the crime rate has grown to one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere, the inflation rate has reached nearly 57% and the scarcity of goods is at an unprecedented high in a country that exports little other than oil and imports nearly everything. According to Lopez, the deteriorating economy is coupled with an oppressive political environment that contradicts the participatory democracy that Venezuela claims to uphold.
President Maduro has spoken out against such allegations. In a recent letter to The New York Times, Maduro says, “I believe profoundly in the right to association and the civic duty to ensure that justice prevails by voicing legitimate concerns through peaceful assembly and protest.” Maduro also reports that Venezuela’s poverty level has consistently been reduced under his administration and that the nation has created a variety of free healthcare and education programs, funded largely by the revenue collected from Venezuelan oil.
Therein lies another essential aspect of the conflict: the differing views of the citizenry and the government on how the wealth accrued from the country’s oil supply should be spent and distributed. Professor of government at Georgetown University, Arturo Valenzuela says, “The single most important geographic fact for Venezuela is that it has one of the greatest reserves of hydrocarbon in the world. But that is also its curse.”
The protests rage on as the U.S., who is the largest importer of Venezuelan oil, decides how to act in response to the unrest. In considering their approach, U.S. lawmakers reflect on the fact that Venezuela has long had ties to the communist stronghold in Cuba. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) states, “The Cubans get free and cheap oil from the Venezuelans. So their interest is keeping the [current] regime in place because they’re their benefactors.”
Congress is deciding whether to impose sanctions on Venezuela. Reports show that the U.S. government spends $5 million annually to support anti-government movements in Venezuela. Currently, a bill in Congress is calling for an additional $15 million to be sent in support of the anti-government groups. The next move may dictate further U.S. involvement in Latin American affairs. The question is: What does the U.S. hope to accomplish from such actions? (OR what is the desired outcome of such actions?)