Carl Sacklen

What Next for Venezuela?

Whilst rubber bullets ripped through the tear gas that smothered the roads of Caracas, President Maduro of Venezuela was on television dancing with glee to a salsa band having spoken of further constitutional reform. Nothing better encapsulated the rift between the socialist elite and those who are suffering because of them.

The ongoing epidemic of protests was triggered two months ago by the Supreme Court ruling which rendered the legislature illegal. This sparked outrage because, as a result, it further concentrated power in the hands of Maduro and his loyalists. This constitutional crisis puts Venezuela on the road to dictatorship.

The economy is a core reason why outrage has been so widespread. Right now, it is in a violent downward spiral and inflation figures are in triple figures. Oncemore, the government is struggling to pay its $100 billion of international bonds. Coupled with the country’s corruption - which is said to be rife - and it doesn’t look good.

$300 million - a third of the country’s oil revenues - was allegedly embezzled in the last few years. This mismanagement of it’s oil has meant that despite having the largest energy resources in the world, Venezuela’s oil output is in steady decline. Furthermore, the instability in the country is unlikely to entice any big oil companies to invest. This will hurt both government reserves and jobs for locals. No surprise, then, that Maduro’s approval ratings hover between 10 and 20 percent.

The situation has become so dire for some that a regional refugee crisis has arisen. The so called “Maduro diet” and lack of basic resources together with the perilous violence has left others with no choice but to flee. According to some figures, 6 thousand Venezuelans are crossing into Brazil everyday.

Faced with refugees and internal strain, neighbouring countries have been brought into Venezuela’s crisis. Normally, Latin American countries have been reluctant to get involved in another’s issues but this time, it seems to be in their interest. Already, the Organisation of American States is considering expelling Venezuela in the name of human rights abuses. Similarly, Mercosur (the regional trade group led by Brazil and Argentina) may opt to suspend relations with Venezuela yet again.

It is questionable whether this will do much good for the people in Venezuela, an increasing number of whom are already having to dig through bins for food, but it is severe blow to the Maduro government’s legitimacy as representatives of the people.

What’s to come is uncertain.

Regional elections were recently suspended by Maduro along with the Supreme Court’s dissolving of the legislature. The opposition party is therefore demanding elections, the freeing of political prisoners, and an autonomous legislature. For them to make anything of their demands, though, they need to find support. The recent protests have seen a diverse range of marchers; there have been women’s marches, pensioners’ marches, and also students’ marches. The key will be whether they can mobilise support from those in the poorer suburbs. This seems likely as it is presumably them who have been hit hardest by the unrest and instability.

The prospect of change from within looks bleak, though. Despite the fact the army is the most likely source of reform given it’s still somewhat independent, it is so far still standing by Maduro’s regime. Whilst there’ve been reports of criticism coming from within the military these have tended to originate from lower infantry ranks who are coming home to the same situation as ordinary Venezuelans. The only high-ranking official so far to openly critique the regime was the Attorney General Luisa Ortega. Hence, a coup is unlikely unless it starts from the bottom ranks; Maduro has chosen his generals carefully.

It’s in everyone’s interests for the violence to end, in particular those engaged in criminal activities such as smuggling and embezzlement, because the crisis has shone a spotlight on their movements. Venezuela is a key stepping stone for the cocaine trade into African and European black markets and those who earn money from it - several allegedly high-ranking - have a stake in the status quo.

How it will end? Nobody knows. Let’s hope it ends peacefully and there’s a transition back to some form of legitimate democracy. With the 100,000-strong pro-government militia steadily being increased five-fold through, Maduro seems to think a civil war might break out. As the crisis worsens, Maduro may also use his iron fist in the name of the national interest. What we’d see there is a quick decline into dictatorship. That would be a game changer.