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Venezuela crisis: What is going on?

  • Published at 09:21 pm May 7th, 2017
Venezuela crisis: What is going on?

Venezuela is in the grip of a major crisis. For the last month hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrating against the government of President Nicolas Maduro have been met by riot police almost daily. At least 38 people have died in the fierce crackdown by security forces, according to the Associated Press, some 700 wounded and more than 1,000 arrested.

Here's a look at what led to the turmoil, what could come next, and why it matters to America.

Why are people protesting?

Despite having the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela is suffering from a deep recession and hyper-inflation. Prices rose by 800% in 2016, with the International Monetary Fund predicting inflation could hit 2,200% by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the economy shrunk by 18.6% last year, according to Reuters.

At the same time, food and medicine shortages are creating a humanitarian emergency. Shoppers, forced to wait in long lines to buy basic supplies, are often met by empty grocery shelves. Hospitals are suffering from acute shortfalls of everything from antibiotics, to basic sanitation equipment like medical gloves and soap.

The current protests were triggered by a Supreme Court decision to strip power from the National Assembly, the opposition-held Congress, a move widely thought to be aimed at concentrating power in the hands of Maduro's increasingly unpopular government.

For the last month people, from students to housewives and retirees, have taken to the streets to express their outrage, confronting National Guard troops armed with tear gas and water cannons.

venezuela

What happened after Chavez?

For decades, the country was controlled by a small elite and there was extreme disparity between the rich and poor. Late president Chavez was elected in 1999 on the promise that he would share Venezuela's immense oil wealth with the poor, the country derives 95% of its export earnings from petrochemicals.

Fuelled by high oil prices that went from $10 barrel when he took office, to over $100 when he died of cancer in 2013, Chavez enacted a series of policies aimed at redistributing wealth. His government nationalised parts of the country's economy, from oil rigs to telecommunications firms to banks, forcing many companies to flee the country.

Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor, was elected by a thin margin in 2013, but came to power as oil prices plummeted by more than 50%.

"After Chavez's death, Maduro has just continued and accelerated the authoritarian and totalitarian policies of Chavez," said Shannon K O'Neil, Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies at Council on Foreign Relations.

To analysts, the current emergency can be attributed to the economic crisis brought on by the fall in crude oil prices, which today are trading at about $46 a barrel, coupled with the gradual undermining of the country's democratic institutions.

What Maduro has chosen to do with the country's reduced income precipitated the current troubles, according to O'Neil.

How is Maduro hanging onto power?

This week Maduro called for an assembly to rewrite Venezuela's constitution. Opposition leaders say this is just a bid to stay in power by putting off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential vote in 2018. Opinion polls have suggested the socialists would lose both. "You wanted your elections," Maduro said mockingly of the opposition while announcing the constitutional rewrite on Wednesday. "Here are your elections." Maduro has also moved several prominent military officers into positions of power within the government, a move O'Neil says is meant to "solidify their support so they don't turn on him." The government has also steadily curtailed democratic freedoms, restricting the free press, imprisoning opponents and preventing them from running for office.

What's the US stance on Venezuela?

The US State Department condemned the dissolution of Venezuela's National Assembly as "a serious setback for democracy" and the Trump administration is looking to put pressure on Maduro by considering stronger economic sanctions.

A group of Republican and Democratic senators also introduced a bill this week that would provide $10m in humanitarian aid to the country, require the State Department to coordinate a regional effort to ease the crisis, and ask American intelligence to report on the involvement of government officials in corruption and the drug trade.

A collapse of the state in Venezuela will produce financial, economic, regional and security risks for the United States," said Arnavat, who also served as US Executive Director at the Inter-American Development Bank, the largest source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean, during the administration of President Barack Obama.

"It may be tempting to note that the administration has more important domestic and foreign priorities, but if Venezuela collapses, it will become a major priority," said Arnavat. "And the ability of the US, as the world's and region's leader, to manage the crisis will establish a precedent and be part of President Trump's legacy."

How bad can it get?

''So long as the economic crisis and human suffering remains unabated, and no political solution is reached, things can only get worse," said Arnavat.

Dr Jennifer McCoy, a professor at Georgia State University who specialises in Latin American politics, also said the situation could get "much worse" and warned that "things could spiral very quickly if people don't see significant electoral change."

She pointed out that while the country has historically been very peaceful, Venezuelans are very well armed, particularly because of the violent crime wave that hit the country in recent years. The US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), which aims to create effective security communication between American private sector interests worldwide and the US State Department, called it "one of the deadliest countries in the world" in its 2017 Crime and Safety Report.

What's next?

What happens now will depend on the people on the streets, "but also on the military," said McCoy.

She added that Maduro's call for a constitutional rewrite "looks like a gambit by the president to calm the current unrest in the streets and postpone elections that he fears he will lose."

"The next step will depend on how big of an outcry there is in Venezuela and if the military continues to support the president or if there is international outcry."

CFR's O'Neil warned that a spiral downward could come swiftly.

"It's a slow moving crisis, which can last longer than you think, but when they end, they end quickly," she said.

[This is an excerpt of an NBC news article]