• Monday, Aug 26, 2019
  • Last Update : 01:01 am

Why Venezuela is in crisis

  • Published at 07:39 pm August 6th, 2017
Why Venezuela is in crisis

The economic crisis in Venezuela has sent the country spiralling into a humanitarian disaster, as access to food and medicine and other needed supplies has become more and more difficult.

But the political landscape is also in turmoil, with a recent controversial election to establish a constituent assembly that has the power to change the constitution condemned by some outside observers as the most significant step by President Nicolas Maduro to turn the country into an autocratic state.

The origins of the new assembly can be traced to 2015, when the opposition won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, the country's parliament. Amid such political gridlock, critics say Maduro began chipping away at the authority of the National Assembly, using the Supreme Court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, to take away its powers.

Earlier this year, the government, through the top court, tried to take away all powers of the National Assembly. What followed were four months of sometimes violent protests that have left more than 100 people dead. The government has said this new assembly will help restore order.

It claimed that eight million people, a little over 40% of registered voters, turned out for this election. But the opposition boycotted the vote and observers have questioned the official results.

Why controversy over the constituent assembly?

While questions swirl around the legitimacy of the election, critics argue this new governing body will usurp or replace the authority of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. They fear it will allow the government to rewrite the constitution and give Maduro more power. The president has admitted he will use this new assembly to grant the government power to jail key opposition leaders, remove the nation's outspoken chief prosecutor and strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity.

He has jailed two opposition leaders, already under house arrest, who had urged Venezuelans to boycott the constituent assembly vote.

These actions have drawn international scorn. Many countries, including Canada, have denounced the government for taking authoritarian measures. The US said it won't recognise the new assembly and has imposed sanctions, labelling the Maduro regime a "dictatorship."

How has the Maduro government justified its moves?

When Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, began his first term as president in 1999, he vowed to fight political corruption and launched sweeping economic and social reforms that he dubbed the Bolivar Revolution after famed Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar. Chavez funnelled some of the country's oil wealth to the poor, providing housing, free health care and better education.

The Maduro government claims that to continue that legacy, it needs to remain in power. Those who oppose that view are labelled elitist lackeys of the US, who will undermine the revolution.

Maduro has also claimed that his new constituent assembly will help bring peace to the region.

How is the crisis affecting Venezuelans?

Hardly any Venezuelans can afford to buy enough food, and almost three-quarters of the population have lost weight in the last year, according to some studies. The country has also experienced record levels of child malnutrition and a severe spike in child mortality.

Where empty shelves and lineups at supermarkets used to be a common sight, now the shelves are stocked, but the stores are empty of shoppers. The difference is that skyrocketing inflation means prices are unaffordable for more people.

Meanwhile, crime continues to rise. The US State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, citing the Venezuelan NGO Observatory of Violence, says Caracas was the most violent city in the world in 2016 and that Venezuela has the second-highest murder rate in the world, after El Salvador.

Does the government have support?

Support or opposition for Maduro largely falls along economic lines. Opposition to Maduro has come mostly from the middle class while his support is drawn from the lower end of the economic scale. But even there, the government has started losing support.

Some recent public opinion polls put government support around 20%. Many of those still loyal to the government believe they have benefited since Chavez came to power.

"I think there are some who are supporting [him] because they do believe they have improved their lifestyle, some who believe the ideology and some who accept the rationale the government provides," said Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor who specialises in Latin American politics at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Where is this all heading?

Some have expressed concerns the country is on the brink of a civil war.

There are also fears, said McCoy, that contagious diseases could spread across the border into neighbouring countries.

Thousands of Venezuelans have already left the country as the economic and political crisis has deepened in the last two years, and observers fear the recent esclation of unrest could spark a massive refugee crisis.

[This is an excerpt of a CBC article]