CARACAS, VENEZUELA. Venezuela is currently facing some of the biggest protests in the last decade – the most recent uprising of such magnitude was the unsuccessful coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002.
In early February 2014, students began the protests after a fellow female student became the alleged victim of attempted rape. Following several arrests and the death of three protestors, the demonstrations moved to the capital Caracas where hardliners also joined them.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to President Maduro in the April 2013 elections, initially opposed the protests. He only took to the streets asking for peaceful demonstrations after more than 500 protestors were arrested and more than a dozen killed.
A great cause for attention and disrespect of human rights has been the arrest of leader Leopoldo Lopez and the “media blackout” imposed by the government.
Lopez – former mayor of Caracas’ Chacao district and a political maverick – remains in jail awaiting trial on charges of intentional arson, incitement to violence, damage to public property and conspiracy.
Meanwhile, President Maduro has been critical of international media coverage and somewhat indecisive in his stance towards CNN. He first threatened to expel the news network from Venezuela unless it “corrects” its coverage of the protests; only to allow its reporting the day after.
In this regard, Maduro follows his predecessor’s adversarial attitude towards the United States which was further emphasized when three US diplomats were declared “persona non-grata” following accusations they have been conspiring with protesting students.
We recall Hugo Chavez; he was famous for his obsession with anti-Americanism. He established good relations with US-competitors China and Russia; allied with socialist leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, as well as communist Cuba; and rendered support to both el Gadafi and al-Assad during the uprisings.
He was a prominent adversary of US foreign policy and a strong critic of US-supported laissez-faire capitalism. Venezuelan relations with the US further deteriorated with Chavez’s use of undiplomatic language – calling the then-US President Bush “the devil.”
The relations between the two countries seem to have continued going downhill after Maduro took office.
The President has been accusing the US of helping the opposition – or “fascists” as he calls the protestors – to plot a coup with the unrest. The government even drew a parallel between the current protests and the brief coup against Chavez in 2002.
On its part, the US refused to recognize Maduro’s presidential victory and American legislators have been debating whether to impose sanctions on the oil-rich nation.
Being the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, oil is, of course, the defining element of Venezuela.
While in previous administrations US corporations had a significant level of control in Venezuelan oil industry, Chavez managed to nationalize much of it under the state company Petroleos de Venezuela (PdVSA). By 2006, all of the 32 operating agreements signed with private corporations during the 1990s had been converted to being at least 51% controlled by PdVSA. This resulted in the exit of two major US oil corporations ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.
In addition to weakening American presence in the oil sector, Chavez also used oil revenues to significantly reduce poverty in Venezuela – from 48.6% in 2002 to 29.5% in 2011. Quality of health services and education levels increased; life quality improved; and income inequality drastically dropped.
All this helped Maduro to succeed Chavez, but the position came with many problems as well.
Venezuela is over-dependant on oil with 50% of government income coming from oil revenues. Inflation is extremely high at 56%; there are food shortages; increased corruption; crumbled infrastructure; and dropped national investment. Most importantly, with murder rates at 20,000 annually, Venezuela continues to hold the highest homicide rate in South America and fifth worldwide.
In turn, protestors’ demands vary from urging the release of those detained during marches to increased security, lower inflation and free flow of information.
Still, the government’s popularity remains high and it got a further boost in the December 2013 local elections. Different groups – oil workers and motorcycle drivers – have marched in support of Maduro, showing he still has strong backing from his main constituency, i.e. the poor sector of Venezuelan society.
So far, the protests have been limited to the middle class; but if the slums of Caracas rise up, the regime will most probably fall.