What the heck is going on in Venezuela? How the country arrived where it is now
Following the recent events in Venezuela one has to wonder just what the heck is happening in that beautiful country with the world’s highest waterfall. So, make some tea and sit tightly, because this is going to be a long and bumpy ride.
For the geographically and historically unaware, Venezuela sits on the northeast coast of South America and the Caribbean Sea. It is well known for being one of the environmentally richest places on earth and the producer of beautiful women, but also for its political turmoil and military dictatorships. Ever since its declaration of independence, the country has been on constant military rule, with only some 30 years of democratic governments until now. The historically most significant figure is Simón Bolívar, a 19th century revolutionary who led the fight towards independence and who subsequently influenced Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution. Hugo Chávez’s ideology is known as “Chavismo” and combines elements of socialism, left wing populism, patriotism, but in reality, it is just radical state capitalism with a strong authoritarian character.
Hugo Chávez altered the constitution in order to get elected for the fourth time in 2012, just a few months before he died of cancer. In these last few months he proposed Vice President Nicolás Maduro as his successor.
Notably, the Venezuelan constitution says that if a president becomes unable to fulfill his/her duties, the president of the National Assembly, the parliament, should take over. At the time, the president of the National Assembly was Diosdado Cabello. This means that Maduro’s presidency was not constitutional from day one.
And that’s when Venezuela’s situation worsened.
Nicolás Maduro’s upbringing is a touchy subject since there have been rumors about him being Colombian. Before he became a very important figure in Hugo Chávez’s party, he was a bus driver who got introduced to politics in high school, which he never graduated from. He got his political education in Cuba under the Communist Party and was influential during the formation of Chávez’s political party. After serving as Interim President after Chávez’s death, he was elected President in 2013, just 1.5% ahead of Henrique Capriles, who naturally demanded a recount.
And that was it.
After Maduro’s ascension to power, every attempt for a referendum by opposing politicians or activists was answered with extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions and torture. He seems more concentrated on public opinion rather than tending to Venezuela’s needs.
The crisis in Venezuela started around 2010 under Hugo Chávez due to government corruption and low oil prices and progressed throughout Nicolás Maduro’s presidency. It is the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, with hyperinflation, hunger, disease, massive emigration and multiple deaths. The crisis intensified because the oil prices plummeted even more in 2015, and keep in mind that Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves known so far and has been the leading oil exporter in the world. As a result, there have been shortages in food, supplies and basic necessities with some people resorting to eating garbage just to stay alive. The Chávez government, as well as the Maduro government, were and are in denial of the truth, continuously refusing help from NGO’s and the United Nations. In January 2017 the shortage of medicine hit a record 85%, according to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela.
The bolívar, Venezuela’s currency, has been devalued so significantly that the stores cannot even stock food. The government-owned markets sell food on a specific day of the week and people have to stand in line for hours, risking the possibility of being left with nothing. A basket of basic groceries cost ten times the minimum wage and of course, this leads people to the black market where food can be sold up to 15 times higher than in the supermarket. Additionally, it’s only been a couple of weeks that people can pay with foreign credit cards at a relatively good rate.
Yet, Maduro, who is actually getting fatter and fatter when people starve to death, suggested that they breed rabbits and eat them.
Since 2013, according to a newspaper in Colombia, there have been over 50,000 registered protests in Venezuela, condemning the government for media and internet censorship, in addition to general government corruption. Countless people have died in these protests, yet the crisis in Venezuela was overlooked by many foreign media due to the crisis in Ukraine. Journalists have been threatened and arrested, Maduro has ordered the shutdown of numerous channels and social media platforms such as Twitter which is very big in the country.
So, what happens now?
Following the process of the 2018 presidential elections, the results have been widely disputed and the National Assembly declared Nicolás Maduro illegitimate, since he banned the opposition parties from participating after having called him an “ineffective dictator”. Since then, he has been pressured to step down by multiple countries including the Lima Group. The Lima Group is a multilateral body of 12 countries, mostly Latin American, whose representatives met in order to establish an end to the Venezuelan crisis. This Group is supported by the United States, Jamaica, as well as the European Union. The pressure was increased with the formation of the new National Assembly of Venezuela on 5 January 2019, whose President is Juan Guaidó, the youngest politician to lead the opposition yet. He is a founding member of Voluntad Popular, a progressive social-democratic political party and has also been a huge part of the protests through the years.
Since Maduro’s presidency was considered illegitimate by the National Assembly and multiple other countries, Juan Guaidó was thus appointed as acting President. Of course, Maduro was not happy and Guaidó was detained by the Bolivarian Intelligence Service on 13 January but was released 45 minutes later.
Finally, on 23 January, Juan Guaidó swore to serve as Interim President, with millions of people showing their support across the country. One of Guaidó’s priorities is ensuring the arrival of humanitarian aid in order to distribute food and supplies to people who need it. This has been backed by several Latin American countries, the US and the European Commission. Of course, this didn’t come without drama, since Maduro and his supporters have made countless indirect threats on Guaidó’s life and is blocking all access with trucks, making it impossible for humanitarian aid to arrive.
At the moment, besides Juan Guaidó, another strong candidate for the presidency is Maria Corina Machado. Machado has been a strong opposing figure in the Venezuelan government from the Chávez era, accusing the presidents of corruption multiple times. Therefore, she has been constantly attacked by supporters of the government, almost being incarcerated. Luckily she never went to prison, since she has very strong ties with the US, which is something that the Maduro government is afraid of.
If elections take place, Maria Corina Machado or Juan Guaidó’s presidency are the best options at the moment, making way for a more democratic, humanitarian future for Venezuela and its people.
Since humanitarian aid has not arrived yet, if you wish to help and be more informed, follow this link to do what you can.
Stella Theocharidou is doing a pre-Master in Politics & Society at UM and writes for the MD.