Venezuela Political Reviews
Chávez’s death, violent riots, internal conflicts and economic problems: The Bolivarian process is in its most critical phase to date.
Since Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) came to power in Venezuela in 1999, the country has been characterized by the rise of a leftist mass movement originating in previously marginalized sectors, a bitter and at times violent conflict with the opposition and demands for comprehensive political, economic and social reforms. Chávez was voted on by a wave of discontent and renewed hope after nearly two decades of rising poverty and political disdain. Then the two dominant parties El Partido Social Christiano (COPEI) and Acción Democrática (AD) had alternated in the government offices for 40 years. Venezuela was long considered the most stable country in Latin America, but stability was based on major social inequalities, state abuse of power and the suppression of protests.
Election to the National Assembly 2016
On December 6, 2015, elections for a new National Assembly were held. Most polls in advance of the election indicated that the opposition coalition MUD (Mesa de Unidad Democrática) was going to win. The election result gave the opposition a so-called super majority (2/3 majority) with 112 of 162 representatives, which, according to the Constitution, allows, among other things, to remove ministers and deputy ministers, remove Supreme Court lawyers, revoke constitutional laws and to convene a constitutional assembly to change Constitution. In retrospect, however, the Supreme Court has requested that the election results from the state of Amazonas be examined. The candidates who won may thus not be able to vote in the National Assembly. This is because the government coalition has presented what they believe is evidence of electoral fraud, including both the purchase of votes, manipulation of election material and votes cast by dead people. The Amazon is Venezuela’s smallest state with just under 180,000 inhabitants. The original election result gave three candidates to MUD and one candidate to the government coalition GPP (Gran Polo Patriotico). MUD has strongly contested the Supreme Court’s decision. The absence of three representatives means in practice that they do not have a 2/3 majority.
Henry Ramos Allup, leader of the opposition party Acción Democrática and a key politician of the old political elite in the years before Chavez came to power, was elected in January 2016 as new leader of the National Assembly. He has taken offensively in his new role, including ordering all images of Chávez, Maduro and Simón Bolivar removed from the National Assembly. He also originally took the representatives of the Amazon in oath despite the Supreme Court’s objections, until the representatives themselves chose to resign while the investigation is ongoing. MUD has declared that among their highest priorities is to secure an amnesty law to release what they call political prisoners, as well as to have President Maduro removed. The latter is constitutionally possible, among other things, by organizing a recall election over the presidential office,
El Caracazo Massacre
Venezuela, one of the world’s largest oil exporters, had a relatively stable economy until the 1980s. Falling oil prices and a steadily growing foreign debt combined with massive corruption and political inability led the economy to collapse during the 1980s as poverty and social unrest grew. Despite strong public opposition, the then Carlos Andréz Perez (AD) announced a neoliberal reform plan dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in February 1989. This triggered “El Caracazo”, a massive popular uprising among urban slum dwellers. An unknown number of people, estimated at between 300 and 3,000, were killed when the government sent out the army to crack down on the uprising.
Inspired by Bolívar
In 1992, then-Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez led a coup attempt against the Pérez government. The attempt failed, but Chávez became a hero of the people. After being released from prison in 1994, he formed the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR) party. Inspired by Venezuelan liberation hero Simón Bolívar, he formulated a political vision called “The Bolivarian Revolution”, based on social justice, national independence and the reversal of neoliberal social development. Chávez was elected president in 1998 with 56 percent of the vote. In December 1999, a new constitution was passed by referendum and the country was renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
The coup in 2002
Initially, Chavez also received support from the country’s elites, who saw the need for fresh blood in the political system. However, they quickly turned his back when he refused to form an alliance with the old bastions of power. In the fall of 2001, Chávez by decree passed 49 laws that re-regulated some of the country’s key sectors – reforms that touched on powerful economic and political interests. Chávez’s dissatisfaction culminated in a failed coup attempt in April 2002 organized by the traditional power elites in the country. Also at the turn of the year 2002/2003, the opposition made an unsuccessful attempt to force the government to kneel by organizing a sabotage and lock-out of Venezuela’s lifeblood: the oil company PDVSA.
Multipolar world order
During Chávez’s reign, Venezuela went through a number of reform processes, while at the same time becoming a major international player, not least in Latin America. On foreign policy, the government was working to build closer South-South ties, both political and economic, to stem the West, and not least the global dominance of the United States. Within the region, Venezuela was at the forefront of a number of initiatives, including the trade and cooperation agreement ALBA (as a counterbalance to the FTAA free trade agreement), the oil and trade agreement Petrocaribe, and the regional TV channel Telesur. In 2012, Venezuela was accepted as a full member of the South American trade cooperation Mercosur. In line with the goal of working for international multipolarity, the country also signed a number of trade and cooperation agreements with Russia, China, Belarus and Iran,
At home, the focus has been on poverty reduction, infrastructure development, agricultural reforms and attempts to diversify the economy to reduce oil dependency. However, this has not proved easy: At present, oil accounts for about 95 percent of the country’s export revenues and around 50 percent of the national budget. In 2007, the government lost a referendum on a series of radical reforms to change the country’s geo-political and economic structures to facilitate the development of “Socialism for the 21st Century.” This concept was launched by Chávez in 2005 to embrace the idea of a non-dogmatic socialist social development in line with the country’s historical, social, cultural and structural preconditions.
Racism and contempt
Chavez’s reign was also characterized by persistent conflicts with the opposition. According to Countryaah, Venezuela is still characterized by its historical heritage in the form of a segregated society where the middle and upper classes are distinctly whiter than their poorer, colored citizens. This means that the political conflict is characterized by deep racism, contempt and mutual distrust. Chavez’s core voters have always been among the poor, although this picture is not clear. In recent years, the electorate has been divided between one-third of loyal government supporters, one-third of loyal opposition supporters, and one-third of unsafe voters, the so-called nine-nine, “neither” or “.
Chavez’s passing in March 2013 was a shock to many. Thousands of mourning supporters showed up to say goodbye to “El comandante Chávez” at the lit de parade. On live television in December 2012, he had appointed then-Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as his successor. In the April 2014 election, the battle between Maduro and Chávez’s former challenger, opposition governor and upper-class heir Henrique Capriles stood. The outcome, under a narrow percentage margin election victory for Maduro, was far less than expected. However, the municipal elections in December 2013 became a riot for the government supporters, as the government coalition won in 242 of 337 municipalities, with a total of 48.8 percent of the vote.
In the winter of 2013/2014, there were smaller student demonstrations around the country aimed at increasing commodity shortages, inflation, crime and corruption. The situation exploded on Youth Day on February 12, when opposition student organizations mobilized for peaceful protest marches across the country. The demonstrations soon turned into regular street fights as smaller groups began to build blockades and ramp up public buildings and infrastructure. The riots, known in Venezuela as “guarimbas” from previous opposition protests, took place especially in the capital Caracas and in other major cities. It was mainly middle-class youth who protested in middle-class areas and urban centers, and there was very little reporting of unrest in the poor districts.
At the same time, radical opposition leaders Leopoldo López (Voluntad Popular) and María Corina Machado (Independent) came on the field with the slogan La salida – “the way out/the departure” – and urged the protesters to stay in the streets until the government fell. Often, “las guarimbas” degenerated into regular street battles where protesters threw stones and set fire to barricades while security forces responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. In the international press, it was written that the government had sent out its “paramilitary groups” – with reference to the so-called colectivoswith roots in urban slums, without ever proving that this was actually the case. However, there were a number of episodes that the security forces unnecessarily brutally used against the protesters. A total of 42 people were killed during the demonstrations, including protesters, government supporters, security forces and innocent passersby. According to the State Attorney’s own figures, a total of 3223 persons were arrested and 873 persons, both civilian and public employees, were injured. Seventeen people from the security forces have been arrested or under reporting duty while investigations into human rights violations are being investigated, two of them suspected of murder.
In February 2014, while the riots were in full swing, Leopoldo Lopez was arrested for inciting violent riots. A number of military officers, including several generals, were also being investigated for planning a coup in connection with the riots. When the demonstrations were at its worst, many people speculated that the days of the Maduro government were talking. However, a March 2014 poll conducted by Hinterlace showed that 87 percent of the population disagreed that violent riots were an acceptable protest strategy, and 86 percent felt that political disagreements had to be resolved through elections. 57 percent of the population also believed that the Maduro government had done a good job. In September 2015, Lopez was sentenced to 13 years in prison. conspiracy and provocation of public violence and perjury. Lopez’s supporters at home and abroad have declared him a political prisoner of conscience, and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized the trial and verdict. The government of Venezuela and others who recognize the verdict believe that the campaign in support of Lopez is politically motivated.
Both nationally and internationally, two very different interpretations of what really took place in Venezuela circulated. For government supporters and many observers, the protests represented a strategic plan to cast the government through violence, chaos and international pressure on the authorities following the same pattern as the coup in 2002. For government opponents and other observers, the demonstrations represented a popular uprising against a government that had lost legitimacy. At the same time, global social media became a battleground for spreading widely different versions of what really happened on the ground, and fake and unverifiable images and reports flourished. The protests continued in the form of minor barricades and protests in the larger cities until May 2014.