After several months of political apathy, Venezuela is experiencing a massive popular uprising since April 4th. Over the last three weeks, almost daily, a wave of mass anti-government protests has exploded in major cities of the country, reaching its zenith on April 19. Hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the streets to contest the despotic turn of the regime in the context of a deep humanitarian crisis. The response by the state has been brutal repression, with more than 20 people killed, hundreds wounded, and 1,289 arrested. There have been reports of torture. The police and the National Guard have engaged in indiscriminate attacks with toxic chemicals, tear gas, and rubber bullets fired at a point-blank range, inflicting serious injuries and even death among demonstrators. Meanwhile, pro-government paramilitary bands (so-called ‘colectivos’) continue to terrorize political dissidence with impunity; these armed civilian groups may have been responsible for at least 6 killings since the beginning of protests on April 4th.
Some demonstrators have chosen to defend themselves by building barricades, throwing stones and improvising molotov cocktails against the police. They have being declared “terrorists” by Nicolás Maduro who has activated a plan to boost the militia to 500,000 armed reservists for the defense of the revolution. The old method of the repressive state to neutralize political opposition is in full operation: attack a peaceful demonstration to generate chaos and violence, criminalize dissidence, and activate a new National Security Plan, “Plan Zamora”, in order to inflict fear among citizens so that popular mobilization vanishes. But the strategy is not working; indeed, there are growing concerns that a new Caracazo might happen again, as dangerous signs of social explosion are starting to emerge.
Before these recent series of arrests, Venezuela had already more than 100 political prisoners. The most visible leaders of the opposition are either in jail or politically inhabilitated.
The situation of the media is critical. Most newspapers and radio broadcasts are directly or indirectly controlled by the state. Websites are systematically censored in Venezuela. There is not a single TV channel reporting on the conflict, while independent journalists covering the protests are being attacked and imprisoned. Online channels are being constantly blocked. All that remains is social media, particularly Twitter. Internationally, the main centers of chavista propaganda, TeleSur and RT, shamefully and deliberately mischaracterize the events.
Although Venezuela’s crisis has multiple ramifications, the current wave of demonstrations emerged after the Supreme Tribunal of Justice dissolved the opposition-led National Assembly on March 29, 2017. Through rulings Nº 155 and 156, the openly pro-Maduro Tribunal assumed legislative powers while declaring the National Assembly “in contempt.” Even though Maduro ordered the review of the rulings after Attorney General, Luisa Ortega (hitherto Maduro’s ally) declared it unconstitutional, in fact, the Assembly’s lawmaking attributes continue to be hijacked by a not so hidden alliance between the Executive and the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. Indeed, Maduro has been ruling by decree since May 2016, when the Tribunal declared a state of exception that grants absolute power to the President without any sort of institutional counter-balance. Among other abuses, decree N 2.323 eliminates the legislative functions of the National Assembly, suspends basic constitutional rights such as freedom of expression and the right to assembly, authorizes draconian tactics to maintain public order, outlaws international cooperation, and militarizes “strategic areas” such as the food supply chain. Particularly worrisome is the adoption of crypto-fascist tactics under the National Security Plan, “Operation for the Liberation of the People” (OLP), which, in the name of combating crime, is engaging in massive human rights violations, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and mass illegal detentions.
To complete this political landscape, elections in Venezuela have been suspended until further notice. In flagrant violation of the Constitution, the Electoral Council aborted the recall referendum against the President in October 2016, alleging “fraud” in the recollection of signatures of the 20 percent of the electorate, even though opinion polls revealed that 80 percent of the population would have voted against Maduro. In addition, regional elections, which by law were to be held in December, 2016, have been postponed indefinitely.
Political dictatorship has blocked all possibilities for the Venezuelan society to freely and peacefully find the way out of the devastating humanitarian crisis facing the country. The decline in GDP was 18.6 percent in 2016. Inflation hit 800 percent in 2016 and is expected to reach 1,660 percent in 2017. The minimum wage is $12 a month, whereas the food basket costs $200 a month (both calculated at the black market rate that is the real rate). 82 percent of the population lives under the poverty line while 51 percent faces extreme poverty. Venezuelan citizens are losing an average of 8.7 kilos of body weight a year due to lack of food access. While military officials are trafficking with food, more and more children are suffering from severe malnutrition. Preventable diseases are on the rise; healthcare centers face shortages of medicines and medical supplies; hospitals are unable to treat illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and AIDS; patients are dying. We are in the middle of a public health emergency. In addition, Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the globe, affecting predominantly poor slums in big cities. Caracas, capital of Venezuela, is also the kidnap capital of the world.
At the root of this social cataclysm is the intensification of the rentier petro-state model of the Chávez era that, paradoxically, made the Venezuelan economy more dependent than ever in the world capitalist system. Oil dependency went from around 70 percent of the total value of exports in 1999 to 97 percent in 2016. National production, including food production, was progressively substituted by imports, financed through petrodollars and an artificially cheap foreign currency. Many industries were taken over by the state, some of them converted in rent-seeking bureaucracies. Subsidies grew dramatically and so did social and military expending. Poverty indicators improved. Corruption reached levels never recorded in the history of the country. But when oil prices started to collapse in 2014, the party was over.
Notwithstanding the suffering of the Venezuelan people, the “anti-imperialist” government of Nicolás Maduro has recently transferred more than 2 billion dollars to bondholders in Wall Street. Public services, education grants, imports of food and medicines have been sacrificed to comply with the rules of the game of the global financial system. There is something profoundly rotten in a socialist revolution that claims thousands of hungry Venezuelans fighting for their rights to be “agents of imperialism” while diverting billions of dollars to the very core of global financial capital. This is a socialism that donated $500,000 to Donald Trump’s inauguration at the same time Venezuelans were fleeing the country to escape economic breakdown. It is the same socialism that plans to concede 12 percent of the national territory in the Amazon forest to transnational mining corporations for the exploitation of gold, diamonds, coltan, and other minerals, with devastating ecological and social consequences.
As I’m closing these lines, demonstrations across the country are intensifying; four additional killings have been reported. There are rumors that more opposition leaders might be prosecuted and jailed. No one knows how all this will end, but Venezuela may be approaching a dangerous cycle of political violence.