Breaking Point

No End to Venezuela’s Chaos

Hugo Chavez’s long shadow has split his nation, plunging it into political and economic turmoil and a quick solution to Venezuela’s chaos is not in sight. Once the richest nation in Latin America, Venezuela is suffering from food and medical shortages and protests in Caracas and other cities have left more than 100 people dead. But the watershed event that has made Venezuela a pariah state among most of the world’s democracies and led the U.S. to call its president, Nicolas Maduro, a dictator was a July 30 vote aimed at creating a new legislative superbody that would draft a new constitution and consolidate the Venezuelan leader’s power. That election, labeled fraudulent by the U.S. and other nations including Colombia, Mexico and Panama, has led to new sanctions against Maduro’s government and ratcheted up the turmoil in Venezuela, increasing uncertainty over the nation’s future. How did Venezuela get to this breaking point? The answer is that it’s been on its way for years. The nation is divided into Chavistas, the name given to followers of former president Chavez, who died in 2013, and those who want an end to the 18 years in power of his United Socialist Party. Chavistas, in turn, say the opposition are elites who want to exploit Venezuela’s poor for their own gain. Meanwhile, Chavez’ successor Maduro is trying to solidify his hold on power and is at loggerheads with the National Assembly, Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislative body. ﷯Unwilling to give into the opposition’s demand for early presidential elections, Maduro instead announced he would hold a plebiscite to form a new assembly to rewrite the nation’s constitution. The opposition boycotted the election, and those who voted did so under the watchful eyes of police and national guard troops. A bitter fight ensued over how many Venezuelans actually cast ballots, with the government claiming 41.5 percent and the opposition said was much smaller, about 12.4 percent. The U.S. reacted by freezing the assets of Maduro and about a dozen other Venezuelan government officials subject to U.S. jurisdiction and barred all U.S. citizens from dealing with them. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also left the door open to broader sanctions, such as banning U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude, which might impact U.S gasoline prices. Those opposed to Maduro’s government say the vote was aimed at packing the constitutional assembly with government supporters who will allow the president to eliminate the few remaining checks on his authority, creating a Cuba-like one-party socialist system. The Trump administration in March had already imposed sanctions against eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court who are Maduro loyalists and whose actions have helped touch off the latest wave of protests. But those sanctions did little to affect Maduro’s plans, and the latest ones aren’t likely to either. For months, anti-Maduro Venezuelans have rallied in the streets of Caracas and other cities across the nation. The world watched aghast at the political drama, which included the shooting or protesters, a rogue policeman and film actor dropping grenades by helicopter on the Supreme Court building, and pro-government activists wielding sticks and pipes storming the National Assembly and beating lawmakers. Heads on the Block Maduro says the opposition is trying to illegally overthrow his government and blames the nation’s faltering economy on an “economic war” being waged against him by the U.S. He hopes a new constitution will “neutralize” the opposition and bring peace to his nation. But National Assembly leader Julio Borges called the idea or a new constitution a “scam” and a “power grab.” Analysts say Venezuela’s problems are likely to continue for some time, with no chance of compromise. There have been attempts by outsiders to bring the two sides together, notably by Pope Francis, but so far, the international community has been unable to make much of a difference. Any U.S. involvement is likely to be counterproductive, analysts say. “In my mind, the most important thing to﷯ grasp and the general reason there is such a stalemate is that is the lengths the government is willing to go to stay in power,” said Ben Raderstorf, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue. To Raderstorf, many in the government have enriched themselves though their position of power, by graft or other criminal means and are unwilling to quit their lucrative government posts. There is also the fear that once out of power, some of the officials in Maduro’s government, and even the president himself, may face criminal or civil charges.“The government’s position is that holding on to power is needed to protect themselves,” Raderstorf said. Alejandro Velasco, a professor of Latin American history at NYU, agrees and said members of Maduro’s government “realize their heads are on the proverbial block. The opposition will demand some people go to jail.” But Maduro’s government does have its allies, notably Cuba, which praised the recent election. “Cuba denounces the initiation of a well-orchestrated international operation, directed in Washington ... to silence the voice of the Venezuelan people,” the Cuban government said in a statement published by state-run media. Russia is also a close trade and military partner. As the government imposed greater censorship on the press, Venezuelans took to social media to get their stories out. But that has also resulted in much confusion and misinformation. Some enterprising opposition members board buses to try to get information to people who don’t have access to the Internet. They don cardboard cutouts made to look like a television screen with blue letters on top that say “El Bus TV,” and give live “newscasts.” At a recent event hosted by the America’s Society, Beatrice Rangel, chief of staff to former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, said things in her country will have to become much, much worse before the Organization of American States, the United Nations or any other international entity takes decisive measures to help. “The international system doesn’t work unless there is a tremendous crisis and a tremendous crisis is 20,000 people dead,” she said. “In Venezuela, we have far more dead but people are dying…little by little, there has not been a massacre or a genocide.” According to Raderstorf, “Venezuela’s fate is in Venezuela’s hands.” America’s involvement is counterproductive, he said, helping Maduro portray it as “the boogeyman of foreign intervention.” In a practice begun by Chavez, attacking the U.S. is a tactic that always shores up the Venezuelan president’s power. Velasco agrees.“The United States should do nothing and let other countries take the lead,” he said. But President Donald Trump, who had been threatening action, was provoked after the election and called Maduro a dictator. A State Department statement said the polling was “designed to replace the legitimately elected National Assembly and undermine the Venezuelan people’s right to self-determination.” Maduro brushed off the sanctions, saying he doesn’t “take orders from the empire.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to visit Central America, Columbia and other Latin American countries in August. “Venezuela will clearly be on the agenda,” Raderstorf said. Constant Power Grab Hugo Chavez’ time in office was marred by economic turmoil and protests, but those problems pale to those his chosen successor Maduro is facing. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, with 298 billion barrels of proven reserves in 2014. But the country has been in an economic freefall since the price of oil dropped about two years ago. Under Chavez, the price of oil hit a high of $100 a barrel, allowing him to finance social programs and food subsidies under his “21st Century Socialism” program. Those days are no more. According to International Monetary Fund, in 2016 Venezuela had a growth rate of negative 8 percent, an inflation rate of 481 percent, and an unemployment rate of 17 percent that is expected to climb to 20 percent this year. Another report by the Center for Documentation and Social Analysis said that in March 2017 a family of five needed to collect 1.06 million bolivars to pay for the basic basket of food and hygiene products for one month. That is an increase of 424 percent over the cost of that basket in 2016. Hyperinflation and food shortages forced many Venezuelans to cross borders to fill basic needs and has sparked a flood of outmigration. But Maduro thinks the troubles will end when oil prices rise again. But although Venezuela’s economy is collapsing, it was a move by the nation’s Supreme Court that ignited the political unrest. At the end of March, the Venezuelan Supreme Court announced it was taking over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Amid the backlash, the Supreme Court reversed its decision just three days later.But the damage was done. For more than three months, tear gas, rubber bullets, rocks and Molotov cocktails have flown between protesters and Venezuela’s security forces. Jose Aristimuño, a Venezuelan who worked in the Obama White House and is now a political strategist in Washington DC, said most of the security forces are using pellet guns. But some are using real bullets, resulting in dozens of deaths. Chavistas blame the deaths on members of the opposition, but there’s very little proof of that. “It’s a constant power grab and nothing is being done,” said Aristimuño. Perhaps to quell the riots, the Supreme Court released a key leader of the opposition from prison in July. Leopoldo Lopez, founder of the Voluntad Popular party, was arrested in 2014 during a government crackdown on protesters, and charged with inciting violence. Sentenced to nearly 14 years in jail, Lopez was unexpectedly released for “humanitarian reasons concerning his health,” and placed under house arrest. Aristimuño said members of Voluntad Popular are the most likely to take to the street in protest, “but most of them are not armed, they are not an eminent threat to the National Guard.” After the July 30 election, Lopez was arrested again, as was Antonio Ledezma, another opposition leader under house arrest. They had both condemned the election and called for continues resistance to Maduro’s government. The U.S. reaction was swift: “The United States condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship” in taking Lopez and Ledezma from their homes, Trump said in a statement. “The United States holds Maduro ... personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized.” There are concerns that the person responsible for initially pressing charges against Lopez, Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, will also be arrested. Once a Chavista loyalist, Ortega Díaz, has denounced as illegal Maduro’s plan to convene the constituent assembly that will write the new constitution. The Maduro-loyal Supreme Court rejected her suit to block the rewriting of the constitution, calling it inept. Ortega Díaz also filed a motion arguing that 13 of the nation’s 32 Supreme Court justices, elected in haste by the outgoing pro-government parliament in 2015, were chosen through a flawed process and should step down. The court struck down that motion, too. Most recently, Ortega Díaz has opened an investigation into accusations that the country’s elections council manipulated turnout figures in the controversial election for a constitutional assembly. “We are in the face of a grave and unprecedented action that could constitute a crime,” she said. Trust Gap When Oscar Perez stole a police chopper and used it to strafe the Supreme Court on June 27, the hopes of the opposition soared. They thought the attack by a former police officer meant some of the nation’s security forces, if not the military, had decided to abandon Maduro. ﷯In a video, Perez said a group of military officers and civilians who are “nationalist, patriotic and institutionalists” were ready to move against Maduro’s “transitional and criminal government.” But the notion of a coup displacing Maduro is unrealistic, at least for the near future. According to Raderstorf of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Venezuela “the government and the military are very much intertwined,” and many in Maduro’s cabinet have military backgrounds, making mass defections of military officers to the opposition unlikely.“The Chavista government is in large part made up of military figures,” he said. Widespread shortages, soaring inflation and a shrinking economy and the shredding of Venezuela’s socials safety net has dampened enthusiasm for Maduro among some Chavistas. But that doesn’t mean that they will join the protesters on the streets of Caracas or pledge their allegiance to an opposition party. Distrust of the nation’s elites and antipathy towards the U.S. and international organizations remain strong among the Chavistas. “Neither the opposition nor the government has any incentive to negotiate a solution to the crisis that includes the other,” NYU’s Velasco said. Nevertheless, the opposition forces have been successful at attracting foreign support and mobilizing a large segment of the Venezuelan people. “They very much feel they are on the up and up,” he said, predicting the low-level violence and economic chaos in Venezuela “can go on for a long time,” because of several reasons One is that Venezuela, as an prime oil-producing country, has access to credit and doesn’t default on its debt, even when oil prices drop, so banks will keep lending. Another is that the status quo can continue for some time, since “the people who are suffering the most don’t think the opposition is in their best interest. There’s a huge trust gap.” Another thing working against change is that pre-Chavez Venezuela had a wide income inequality and it could be argued the nation’s poor suffered even more back then. “Even when it was the richest country in the world, Venezuela had a very high poverty rate,” Velasco said. “The people have been poor before.” So with no end to the chaos in sight, Venezuelans on both sides of the barricades continue their struggle as the world watches. By Ana Radelat