So, what’s going on in Venezuela?

CNN can’t tell you about it because their journalists have been kicked out of Venezuela. So, we’re going to do our best to explain what is currently happening in Venezuela. This is based on what we saw, the people we talked to, and the Venezuelan media we read. But the situation is quickly evolving, and it seems to be getting worse.

The briefest of backgrounds

After Venezuela’s economy crashed in the 1980s the International Monetary Fund provided support  that came with strings attached.  Venezuela had to reduce government spending, and that hurt some of its poorest. That set the scene for the rise of Hugo Chavez. He was elected in 1999 and ruled for the next fifteen years. His policies were hard left, and many were popular.  But Venezuela’s economy stuttered, and the crime rate grew. Chavez’s personal charisma held the country together until his death in March last year. His hand picked successor has been ruling since but doesn’t have the same grip on the country.

The current riots

The protests began with student groups in smaller centres. To begin with, they weren’t really ideological. Students were unhappy with how violent  and dangerous Venezuela had become. Their protests called for peace, not regime change. They had, after all, come of age under Chavez and his anti-capitalist rhetoric and weren’t fazed by spending five hours in line for flour.

But groups opposing the government joined in the protests. They grew in size and fervour. And then came clashes between government and protestors. At last official count there have been eight deaths, and many more injured. It’s likely the real count is much higher. It hasn’t been officially reported, but we understand that many of the students who have died were shot by rifles. That means their killers were from pro-government paramilitaries, not the police.

This is the closest we got to the protests themselves, and even that wasn't by design. Our taxi out of Maracaibo took an unusual route to try and avoid the disruption, but we still came across this blockade.
This is the closest we got to the protests themselves, and even that wasn’t by design. Our taxi out of Maracaibo took an unusual route to try and avoid the disruption, but we still came across this abandoned and smouldering blockade. There were also some folk on a nearby rooftop who looked like they were keen to throw some rocks.

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The protests have snowballed, and continue to do so. There’ll be a protest where people die and then another to protest the injustice of their death. There’ll be an anti-government protest and then a pro-government demonstration. By the time we left Venezuela the protests were happening across the country, and pretty much every day. They were disruptive. In Maracaibo, metro stations were closed, and many weren’t going to work for fear their route home would be blocked. (Our hostel also cancelled its tours to a nearby national park because students were blocking the highway. We went sandboarding instead.)

The government

The protests are now inexorably linked to the opposition. For reasons that are not entirely clear to us the government put out a warrant for an opposition leader. He eventually turned himself in, carrying a petition and with a parade of thousands of supporters behind him. That means President Nicolas Maduro’s government is at battlestations. Here’s one of his tweets:

Venezuela is the victim of an aggression from bands of fascists of the right against the society and the people, be sure that we will beat them.

You wouldn’t have to be too cynical a Venezuelan hostel owner to suggest that on one level the government is not unhappy about the protests. They distract attention from the more fundamental problems with the Venezuelan economy. In fact they provide a useful scapegoat. Why can’t I get more rice at the supermarket? Because of the protestors. Why can’t I leave the country? Protestors. There’s even some suggestion that pro-government groups are infiltrating the opposition protests to make them more disruptive. Then the protestors are easier to blame.

What’s next?

It’s hard to see the situation simmering down. It’s much easier to imagine an escalation to a full on civil war. Even if Maduro manages to re-secure some public support by railing against the protestors, the country is still broken. The protestors will return. At the same time it’s hard to see the protestors being successful in changing the regime in the short term. The pro-government militia, armed by Chavez, are the ones with the guns.

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