While the eyes of the world have been on Ukraine, Venezuela has been going through the same street fighting, protests and disastrous economic crises. Just like Ukraine Venezuela has a President who labels his opponent as fascists and allegedly uses street thugs to attack protesters. So as the Russian army tightens its grip on Crimea, it’s worth taking a look at another country in a similar situation to Ukraine’s a few months ago.
Since the murder of a former Miss Venezuela two months ago there have been continuous protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. These started out against protests against crime, and soon spread across the country. Peaceful demonstrations have been faced with riot police and tear gas, and some have turned to the standard weapons of protesters everywhere– the Molotov cocktail, stones and burning tires. In the capital Caracas barricades have been put up in the anti-government eastern districts. Motorcyclists loyal to the government have threatened and even murdered protesters, and contribute daily to violence. So what are the causes of such upheaval?
Just as in Ukraine, one of the biggest problems in Venezuela is the economy. Years of rule by the former President Hugo Chavez turned the country into an economic basket case. All the socialist policies he implemented, as well-meaning as they were, mean that the country deals with crippling shortages of everyday goods such as flour and even toilet paper. Nationalisation of companies has caused industry to collapse, and foreign investors to flee the country.
Another problem is crime. Venezuela has one of the worst murder rates in the world, with 2841 people murdered in the first two months of 2014. That’s comparable to countries in semi-civil war like Iraq. Protesters blame this on corruption in the legal system and a government that fails to govern. And while the government fails to tackle crime; just like Yanukovich in Ukraine it has slowly become more and more undemocratic. The President has taken control of the legal system, and recently the opposition leader Leopoldo López was arrested on ‘terrorism’ charges.
While Chavez was alive the system seemed to hold together. He was charismatic and was truly a man of the people. This, and his strong opposition to the United States, meant that many people strongly supported him. Even in the outside world he was often seen as a good leader, I know I used to think so. But the way he gave the poor of Venezuela a voice came at the cost of destroying the country’s economy. And now that Maduro’s become President the situation can’t hold together. He has little charisma, little education, and seemingly little ability to solve Venezuela’s problems.
Despite all this though Maduro does still have the support of most of the poor in Venezuela, and the protests have been mainly by members of the middle class and students. This has made it easy for Maduro to label them ‘enemies of the revolution’, though calling them fascists and saying they are financed by the US is untrue (see the link in the first paragraph). The protesters are people in despair about the situation they are in, and who don’t see Maduro doing anything to improve their lives. Unfortunately for them they are probably right. Maduro’s party recently won elections, and he has shown no indication that’s he’s willing to try and tackle the country’s problems. Saying that the economic disaster is the result of saboteurs and ‘economic warfare’ is just refusing to face reality.
To make matters worse for the protesters, at the moment there seems to be little chance of change. With a sizable majority of the population still supporting the policies of Maduro, forcing a revolution will be hard. Though as we saw in Ukraine, events such as these are hard to predict. The coming months will tell whether the protesters have the staying power to keep the pressure on Maduro.