There is a crisis in Venezuela, a crisis that has political, economic and social roots. Beyond trying to take a stance on the matter, this article is an attempt to explain these roots and their consequences in the country and how these current events are affecting the average hard-working Venezuelan on a daily basis.
I live in a polarized country. Since 1998 the political scenario changed when Hugo Chávez became President and started what he named “Bolivarian Socialist Revolution”. This revolution is supposedly based on the fact that although we had one of the highest GDP per capita in Latin America, about 70% of our people lived in poverty. This inequality was seen as caused by the governmental corruption that intensified in the 70’s and 80’s of the past century. Chávez started then a sort of “cleansing” of the political field, effectively crushing the old parties and seizing basically all the institutions and constitutional powers in the Republic.
Today we have a Supreme Court with judges openly supportive of the government party (PSUV), who were appointed by a National Assembly overwhelmingly controlled by this same party. The electoral laws were changed by both institutions to allow a comfortable control of every post that is open to an election because the PSUV counted with a large majority of the voters until at least last year.
The political crisis thus started. The denial of the government party to acknowledge the very existence of the opposition, their views and voices took shape as media censorship, political persecution and the development of an aggressive rhetoric aimed to smash the moral and ideological foundation of any leader who does not share or support the revolution. This led to a profound division in the Venezuelan society in three ‘sides’: the ‘Chavistas’, supporters of Chávez and his party; ‘oppositionists’, who are against the party and their policies; and the so-called ‘ni-ni’ (ni-ni is a wordplay for ‘neither this nor that’) or neutrals, who do not openly support either side but partly mobilize when it’s elections time.
Whenever a society is polarized, conflict arises. The opposition blames the government for all their failed policies while they accuse the opposition of a continuous plan for a Coup d’Etat that never comes. But beyond the political elite, this division also affects the lives of the average citizen: there are parts of the city of Caracas that an oppositionist could never go to without risking an attack by government supporters and political discrimination became a staple in many companies, private or public.
Now, it’s an undeniable fact that the PSUV has won most of the elections that have been contested since 1998. Still, a question arises: does winning an election mean you can impose your view on the minority that does not support you?
Remembering the phrase by Lord Acton: ‘The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.’ I believe this might be the case in Venezuela.
These types of governments are no strangers to the political dynamics of any society: if they lose their base of supporters, if there is enough discontent, they will fall. Unfortunately, what makes them different from truly democratic governments is that they won’t fall without a fight and, sadly, that is what we are experiencing right now in Venezuela: the struggle to remain in power.
The quality of life in the country has deteriorated at an accelerated rate the past two years. The violence problem affects every corner of Venezuela, from rural towns to big cities, from working class people to wealthy citizens. In 2013 alone, about 25,000 people were killed in violent events, the majority of which are associated with robbery, kidnapping, gang violence and drug trafficking. This number pales in front of the 9,000 dead citizens in Iraq, a country with well-known internal strife. The impunity rate is so high that it’s estimated that of every 10 criminals seized, 9 will be off-charges in less than 48 hours. The murder rate is so high that it’s estimated that a Venezuelan is killed every 30 minutes somewhere in the country.
The economic perspective is not a happy one either. The government adopted in 2003 a fixed exchange rate where they enact the value of the dollar and control all the means to acquire foreign currency; this creates a strong distortion in the economy because there are very few dollars with a huge demand. To this day, the exchange is officially fixed at 11.70 bolivars per dollar, but getting currency at this price is very hard for most of the companies and citizens, so a black market emerges where you find the rate at 8 times this value (today it closed at 89 bolivars per dollar). Since most of the goods consumed in the country are not produced in Venezuela (it’s way cheaper to import than to produce internally), the real salary has dropped in value (for example, my salary of 8,000 bolivars equals to roughly 90 dollars, and the average salary in the country is 3,200 bolivars).
This distortion has an even worse side: shortages. Today it is a miracle to find all the basic goods in a single place; most Venezuelans must travel to different markets to acquire all they need. And I’m not talking about premium meat or imported cheese; I’m talking about not finding milk, sugar, flour… even toilet paper. Yesterday I was lucky enough to find washing soap, so I bought 3 kilos just in case I won’t find it again in months. ?All of these things created an explosive mixture in the country. All it took was a little spark to ignite a fire, and the attempted rape by a policeman inside a university in the Táchira state did it. The students, outraged by this, went out to the streets of San Cristóbal, the state capital, and started rioting demanding security and punishment to the perpetrators of the crime. The protests went on for a few days gaining momentum in the Andean states until February 12th, day of the youth in Venezuela, when opposition leaders called for a demonstration in Caracas and many other cities in support of the students protest and adding to the mix the demand for economic and political change by the government.
This has unleashed a wave of protests and riots all across the country, mostly by middle-class people. There are 6 people dead officially recognized by the government, but there are reports of many more, including enforced disappearances.  In a single day, the government seized over 300 students, abusing them and in some cases even torturing them, as reports keep coming from local jails.?The use of force by the National Guard is being strongly criticized as many images and videos show them shooting tear gas and real bullets to residential buildings and in some cases even illegal squatting. There’s evidence of physical abuse and even murder by these soldiers.
What is left then for the average Venezuelan? Most of the people are discontent, but they are afraid to express it for fear of losing their jobs or worse, get killed. And the refusal from both, the government and the opposition, to negotiate a solution to the crisis makes many of us feel hopeless. We don’t want more blood on the streets, but we can’t stand as our freedom of speech and press are crushed, as people less than 25 years old get killed in demonstrations ; and we have to line up over 2 hours to get a ration of chicken at affordable prices.
I try everyday to remind myself that there is an exit to this, but it is impossible to shake the grim feeling that it won’t come in the short term. My only hope is for the rest of the world to reflect on the Venezuelan situation and the dangers of allowing a political majority to step on the others. ?
Caracas, February 20th, 2014.