Last summer brought scenes of Venezuela descending into chaos, with looting brought on by shortages, political unrest, rising crime and hyperinflation. Recent months have brought almost daily street protests in the capital and other large cities, resulting in more than 70 deaths, in a fluid and often confusing political environment. University of Illinois political science professor Damarys Canache is a native of Venezuela who studies the country's politics and public opinion. She also recently returned from a visit there. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about where things stand.
As confusing as the situation is, how would you describe what’s happening and why?
The current situation in Venezuela is dire. There is a deep crisis that includes economic, social and political dimensions. Cycles of political and social conflict have occurred in Venezuela since the late 1980s, but the intensity of the current protests, and especially those of the last three months, is remarkable.
Several interrelated factors account for the current social protests, but the most important are the economic downfall and the increasing level of poverty in the country. As a petro-state, Venezuela is highly dependent on oil and the revenue it brings from exports, so the country has been hit hard by the rapid decline in the price of oil since mid-2014. Adding to that, however, has been President Maduro’s mishandling of the economy. Last year, the Venezuelan economy shrank almost 19 percent and inflation skyrocketed to 800 percent; as a result, shortages of food and medicine became widespread. In 2016, the sight of people searching for food in the trash was common. By the end of the year, episodes of looting in food stores in several cities signaled the expanding scope of the social conflict.
Conditions have not improved since then. If anything, they have worsened. The government’s response to widespread food and medicine shortages has been the creation of a food program targeting mostly low-income areas and government employees. People buy food bags that are heavily subsidized. I imagine this has helped the most disadvantaged people. However, people have also protested the failure of this program. The reality is people with low- and middle-income levels spend most of their salaries on food and basic necessities.
Besides these factors, what is driving the political unrest? And what is keeping the current government in power?
The immediate political driver of unrest was the blocking of the presidential recall referendum in 2016. This was a critical point in the conflict between the government and the opposition because it eliminated any path for constitutional political change in the short term.
Facing worsening governability, President Maduro has accentuated the authoritarian nature of his government to confront the opposition. First, Maduro has manipulated state institutions. Venezuela’s highest court, filled with judges loyal to the government, made two rulings in March that dissolved the legislature, an action seen as a self-coup by the domestic opposition and international actors. More recently, President Maduro signed an executive order to summon a constituent national assembly to rewrite the constitution and drastically change the organization of the Venezuelan state. Maduro has also used coercion and repression by the military, the police and paramilitary forces.
The Venezuelan government is very unpopular. This explains why the government is trying to impede elections. President Maduro retains power because of his control of state institutions – with the exception of the legislature – and the support of the security forces, especially the military.
What’s different, if anything, about the protests of recent months, compared with those in recent years?
The protests of the last three months differ from earlier ones, such as protests in 2014, in that they are having a significant impact on possible regime change. Currently, opposition political parties and social organizations are coordinating and helping the mobilization. These protests have expanded through the entire country so that geographical and social boundaries are now blurred. Participation is widespread.
The costs of repression for the government have increased, too. The disproportionate response by the government has led to mounting international condemnation. More importantly, the pressure introduced by these protests has produced rifts in the Chavista ruling block. Several Chavista leaders, and most notably the current attorney general, have rejected President Maduro’s move to change the constitution.
Experiences of democratic transitions elsewhere teach us that the emergence of splits in the ruling block is necessary for the negotiation of exit conditions and for peaceful regime change. Thus, the growing divides seen in Venezuela suggest that the current round of protests carries a higher potential for sparking regime change than did those in the past.
What, if anything, might resolve the situation or break the political stalemate?
It is difficult to predict when and how this situation might end. An optimistic view is that the growing social pressure will force the political actors to negotiate some political solution to the crisis in the short term. A pessimistic view is that this turmoil continues while the government nonetheless retains power at the cost of an open violent conflict. In any case, domestic and international pressure should influence a crucial actor in this drama: the military. The withdrawal of military support for the government is key for the negotiation of a political transition.