After One Year without Chávez, Is Venezuela Unraveling?

  • photo courtesy of andresAzp
    Mar 6, 2014

    This week, amidst political turmoil that has gripped the country since early February and has left over a dozen dead and hundreds injured and detained, Venezuela commemorates the first anniversary of the late President Hugo Chávez’s death.

    A fiery politician, Chávez was best known for his “Bolivarian Revolution,” through which he pursued aggressive, state-centered approaches to alleviate the social, political, and economic challenges facing Venezuela—and was, according to some metrics, successful. Between 2004 and 2012, the country’s poverty rate halved, and literacy and access to healthcare increased substantially.

    But Chávez’s government also did a great deal to polarize the Venezuelan populace, with his chief opponents largely concentrated in the private sector and free-market supporters. And Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, and Freedom House—three of the world’s leading human rights non-governmental organizations—condemned Chávez’s government, accusing it of political discrimination and threats to the freedoms of the press, affiliation, and expression.

    Chávez also made himself—and, in turn, his country—something of an international pariah, not unlike his counterparts in Iran and Cuba. Most notable was his famous speech at the United Nations in 2006, in which he claimed he could smell sulfur at the podium from then-U.S. President George W. Bush, referring to him as the devil. However, Venezuela’s current economic crisis and its gradual evolution into a quasi narco-state, results of the staggering mismanagement of the country’s massive oil industry, point to much more troubling problems than the exaggerated rants of a bygone leader.

    On March 5, 2013, then-Vice President and self-proclaimed “son of Chávez” Nicolás Maduro made a special appearance on state television to announce the death of President Hugo Chávez, himself assuming all the responsibilities of the presidency. In special elections held in April, Maduro narrowly beat out opposition candidate Henrique Capriles—though the results remain highly contested. And the past year has seen growing opposition to Maduro’s government, recently reflected in mass protests across Venezuela.

    So where does Venezuela stand one year after Chávez’s death?

    When Chávez died, he left behind a country deeply divided along political and socioeconomic lines, suffering from skyrocketing crime and violence and increasingly bogged down by economic instability.

    Under Maduro, this grim reality has only worsened—though not for a lack of official policies to reverse it. In his first year, Maduro dispersed several thousand military troops through the country’s most dangerous areas as part of a crime-reduction strategy and requested special powers to rule by decree in order to fight corruption and economic troubles—a measure which was eventually approved by the National Assembly.

    The latter is most reminiscent of his predecessor’s leadership. During his presidency, Chávez requested the same decree powers on four separate occasions. And Maduro’s rhetoric has been largely in line with Chávez’s as well, accusing the U.S. government of meddling in Venezuelan affairs and labeling opponents of his administration “fascists” and “Nazis.”

    Despite the mimicry of Chavez’s rhetoric and style, however, Maduro has struggled to live up to the legacy of his predecessor and mentor. Violence and corruption continue their steep rise, and Venezuela’s economy is wracked by instability. Inflation is sky-high (though the exact figure remains a subject of hot dispute), and widespread scarcity of basic goods is rapidly deteriorating standards of living throughout the country.

    And early last month, all of these woes came to a head, with thousands of Venezuelans pouring onto the streets in the largest and most persistent protests witnessed since the beginning of Maduro’s presidency. The protests, which continue to wrack every major city in Venezuela, pose a major threat to the Maduro administration. But how did this all begin?

    In early February, students began protesting in a number of Venezuelan cities, focusing primarily on crime and insecurity. The government’s response was swift and aggressive, detaining students for their participation. In response, the demonstrations grew and spread, expanding their focus to corruption, human rights abuses, and economic concerns.

    As the protests grew, opposition leaders María Corina Machado and Leopoldo López called for mass demonstrations across the country on February 12, under the name “La Salida,” or “The Exit.” In response to increasing calls for his resignation, Maduro called on his supporters to take to the streets as well. While the protests that day were largely peaceful, clashes between opposition protestors and the government police, military, and armed pro-government gangs, or colectivos, broke out. By the end of the day, three had been confirmed dead, and upwards of 30 and 70 were injured and detained, respectively.

    Since February 12, the situation has only worsened. The confirmed death toll has reached 18, with over 250 injured and 1,000 detained by government forces—and some reports of gruesome torture are beginning to emerge as well. And after persecution by government authorities, having issued an arrest warrant for unfounded charges of homicide and terrorism, Leopoldo López turned himself in to the National Guard on February 18, a troubling turn for the state of due process and freedom of expression in the country.

    And the press has been subject to harsh government censorship. The government first cut off access to Colombian NTN24, one of the only international media outlets operating on the ground, later blocking picture services on Twitter as well. Most recently, the government revoked press credentials for many of CNN’s journalists in Venezuela, forcing them to leave the country.

    As daily violence and clashes continue throughout the country, many are reminded of the infamously brutal riots that paralyzed Venezuela’s capital in the late 1980s—the “Caracazo.” While it is evident that what the country is witnessing now is clearly nowhere close to the crisis that struck Caracas almost 30 years ago, it is important to note that the recent developments in Venezuela have signaled a real shift in the way the opposition deals with the government—and vise versa.

    Given all that’s happened so far, what could the ongoing crisis in Venezuela mean for the rest of the hemisphere?

    The crisis in Venezuela is, to date, showing few signs of reaching a peaceful conclusion in the immediate future. And the prospect of continued and increasing demonstrations in Venezuela paints a grim picture not only domestically, but internationally and multilaterally as well.

    So what’s at stake in the short term?

    • As the crisis has deepened, divisions within the ruling party have increased—as has internal disagreement within the opposition. Without a stabilizing force in Venezuela, both major political groups appear to be unraveling, putting the government’s viability at serious risk.
    • The military has long played a prominent role in Venezuelan politics. They have pledged their loyalty to Maduro, but as political unrest continues, it remains to be seen just how steadfast they may be to the embattled leader.
    • PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm) and the Petrocaribe oil assistance program are among the most vulnerable if Venezuela implodes—a collapse that would, without a doubt, send shockwaves throughout the hemisphere, particularly with the Central American and Caribbean countries most dependent on Venezuela’s oil assistance, namely Cuba.
    • Such a heavy imbalance in the region could also invite criminality and increased drug trafficking— and even destabilizing the already tenuous peace negotiations in neighboring Colombia.
    • ALBA would also be in a dangerously vulnerably position, as the regional bloc is largely driven by the current Venezuelan government’s ideological zeal.
    • Venezuela’s role as the fourth-largest oil exporter to the United States, a guarantor of the ongoing peace process in Colombia, and a key point of transit for transnational criminals transporting illegal narcotics make it still more pivotal to stability—both in its own neighborhood and in the region as a whole.

    Even in light of these implications, however, much of the region has remained quiet—and potential paths toward a peaceful solution remain a subject of hot dispute.

    The ALBA and Mercosur blocs have voiced their support for the Maduro administration—to no great surprise, given their close ties. Though a meeting is scheduled for this Thursday with the Permanent Council to discuss the crisis at the OAS, little action is expected. 

    The Obama Administration has remained noticeably tempered in its remarks regarding the crisis, but some political voices in the United States believe that Venezuela’s crisis requires a strict sanctions regime. U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) recently proposed a bipartisan resolution urging President Barack Obama to “impose targeted sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against individuals planning, facilitating, or perpetrating gross human rights violations.” This targeted proposition could be effective, but any measure broader than this use of sanctions risks exacerbating, not ameliorated the country’s economic stability and creating an even more challenging situation for the Venezuelan populace—not just the government.

    On the international stage, the crisis in Venezuela has struggled to garner widespread coverage by the rapidly escalating international crisis in Ukraine. However, recent appeals by Pope Francis and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging for honest dialogue and the end to violence have provided some assurance that perhaps the Venezuelan people are not alone. Some have even proposed that Pope Francis, a historic figure as the first Latin American pope, offer to mediate the conflict.

    So, in summary, where do we stand, and what can we expect?

    What began as a series of student demonstrations in Venezuela has, over the course of just a few weeks, grown into a protracted conflict, splintering the country and spilling blood. And Maduro’s ineffective response to the protests and the real opposition they represent has allowed for the development of an increasingly complex crisis with ever more grim prospects.

    The protests and unrest will, without a doubt, continue. But international attention will turn still farther away as the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold. With the global community understandably focused on Kiev—some 6,000 miles away from Caracas— there is a risk that Venezuelan protestors’ concerns will fall on deaf ears. Russian involvement in the Ukraine—and the implications that carries for U.S. foreign policy—makes that crisis an inherently global one. But as the Ukraine destabilizes Eastern Europe, so too does Venezuela destabilize the Western Hemisphere.

    Still, Venezuela’s crisis has, at least for the moment, not reached the same level as the one in the Ukraine—despite the weighty regional impact the developments are sure to have. Energy, narco-trafficking, human rights, regional stability: these are all on the line. But with most of the world’s attention is focused elsewhere, it is increasingly likely that the political crisis and injustice currently tormenting Venezuela will continue unabated.
    Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

    A previous version of this Commentary originally appeared in the March 6, 2014, issue of CNN Global Public Square and is reprinted with permission.

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