When Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, he followed a similar trajectory of Latin American populist presidents of the past and earned widespread popularity among Venezuelans with promises to reduce inequality. Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution called for the rejection of imperialism, the establishment of democratic socialism, and ultimately the return of power to the people. Oil revenues, which account for 95% of Venezuela’s total exports, largely funded Chávez’s lofty social programs that lifted many Venezuelans out of poverty. Petrol dollars subsidized essential products from rice to sugar, toilet paper, and medicine, aiding the poor but also stifling incentives for producers and creating an economic system of dependency.
Despite his popularity among the “Chavistas,” the name given to Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), some believed that Chávez’s policies were eroding Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaging the economy. In addition to robust social programs, Chávez nationalized thousands of private companies and industries, rewrote the constitution to protect his power and replaced career judges on the Supreme Court with his supporters. Chávez had successfully taken over all branches of power within the country: the executive, legislative, judicial, and military.
Over a decade later, Chávez died and was replaced by Nicolás Maduro, a less charismatic predecessor. Although Maduro vowed to continue Chávez’s policies, his lack of popularity, followed by a massive drop in crude oil prices in 2014, sent the nation into crisis. Oil revenue could no longer support the government’s hefty social programs as it had under Chávez, and gradually Maduro and the PSUV lost support among its core backers, as the government could no longer afford to feed its people. Today, over 80% of Venezuelans struggle to meet the recommended daily allowance of calories and basic necessities are rationed.
Moreover, in 2015, Venezuela was qualified as a high-risk debtor due to its accumulation of foreign debt, cutting off access to international capital. What was Maduro’s solution to his country’s economic problems with no revenue or access to financing? Printing money, which fueled inflation. According to IMF figures, Venezuela’s inflation rate is the highest in the world at 482%; however, Venezuela’s economic czar denies inflation’s existence.
There is no question that the spike in violence and unrest is directly correlated with the nation’s sudden economic crisis and political turmoil. Today, Caracas is the most violent city in the world. Venezuela is the second most violent country in the world, behind Brazil. According to the Venezuelan government, the 2016 homicide rate was 70.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, but another estimate from a non-governmental organization put the rate at 91.8 per 100,000 people. Venezuela also claims the top spot for the world’s worst negative growth rate at -8%, a reflection of Chávez’s policies that essentially eliminated private business opportunities in favor of nationalization. The government no longer has the funds required to support its citizens, and the dependent society created under Chávez has left the Venezuelan people with few options to independently support themselves.
In addition to the financial constraints that render the government unable to ensure the wellbeing of its constituents, Maduro is actively silencing the opposition that speaks out against his failures. While the civil divides between the Chavistas and the opposition have existed for nearly two decades, a Supreme Court ruling on March 29 sparked a new rage among the opposition. The Supreme Court announced that it would take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, a move that instilled fear in many Venezuelans. Although the ruling was reversed just three days later, the original intent of the ruling was not forgotten, and the fear of a one-man rule under Maduro was cause for daily, nationwide protests by the opposition.
Rampant protests have caused violent clashes with riot police, in which thousands have been arrested, hundreds injured, and 66 have died. The opposition has four key demands: removal from office of the Supreme Court justices who issued the March 29 ruling, general elections in 2017, the creation of a “humanitarian channel” to allow medication to be imported to counter the severe shortages, and the release of all “political prisoners.”
While Maduro’s government will undoubtedly continue to delay responding to the political demands of the opposition, it cannot continue to use politics as an excuse to ignore the fundamental needs of its people. Venezuelans are hungry and do not have access to basic supplies; the only action they can take is to protest, and yet that is what continues to fuel Maduro’s violence against his own people. Maduro’s government, under the scrutiny of its own citizens, has not listened to its constituents but silenced them. Journalists are detained by the government for simply trying to inform the Venezuelan people. While much of Latin American history recounts similar leaders who escaped punishment for such oppressive acts, in 2017, the global community has access to information about Maduro’s abuse of power; access that should encourage us to hold Maduro accountable.
However, attempts by the international community to help the Venezuelan people are actively rejected by the government, which underscores the need for more drastic action to be taken. Any aid that enters the country is confiscated by the military or the police before it can be delivered to the people. It is estimated that hospitals lack 98% of needed supplies, and yet the government continues to refuse assistance. After the Organization of American States organized a meeting in late April to discuss the Venezuelan crisis, Venezuela immediately withdrew itself from the multilateral organization. All of Maduro’s actions illustrate his intentions to withdraw from the international community entirely and have paved the way for total control over his people. As it stands now, Maduro will not likely step down, and his actions signal that outside action should be taken to prevent further human rights abuses. A Venezuela under Maduro’s control will continue to drive the economy into a deeper, irreversible hole, taking its people down with it.
At Grieboski Global Strategies (GGS), the defense of human rights is at the forefront of our values, and building alliances to promote freedom and better governance, living conditions, and economies are all central to our mission. For the first time, Venezuelans are the top asylum seekers in the United States, ahead of citizens from China, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. By understanding the crisis from which Venezuelans are fleeing, we are better equipped to encourage action against Maduro in the hope of someday restoring rights to his people.