Here’s why Venezuela’s political and economic turmoil have spawned deadly protests

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Venezuela is in the midst of a violent protest movement that has resulted in at least nine deaths this month as the country’s deeply unpopular socialist administration struggles to stay in power and a newly energized opposition calls for an immediate presidential election.

The protests began three weeks ago after the Supreme Court issued a decision stripping the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers. President Nicolas Maduro later asked the court to walk back that move amid a storm of international criticism. But the attempt to take over congress unleashed long-simmering anger amid an economic crisis that has a majority of Venezuelans skipping meals and even losing weight.

Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets again Thursday after the government took over a General Motors plant in its first such seizure of the major company in two years.

HOW PROTESTS STARTED

The opposition scored a stunning landslide victory in 2015 legislative elections amid growing frustration with Maduro’s handling of the economy. Opposition leaders vowed to seek his ouster through constitutional means, but the government-stacked Supreme Court has stopped them at every turn.

Then in late March, the Supreme Court issued a ruling nullifying the body altogether. The court quickly reversed that ruling, but opposition leaders say the socialist administration revealed its true dictatorial ambitions. The country has seen near-daily protests ever since.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

The big fear is a repeat of the riots and looting that rocked Caracas in 1989, leaving around 300 people dead. Another wave of anti-government unrest in 2014 resulted in more than 40 deaths and dozens of arrests.

Venezuela has one of the world’s highest homicide rates and the huge number of firearms circulating on the streets is a major concern in the event of unrest, as are the activities of armed motorcycle gangs that were once loyal to the government.

ECONOMY IN TATTERS

The economy is forecast to sink 8 per cent this year and the International Monetary Fund forecasts inflation will soar to four digits next year. Foreign currency reserves have tumbled.

Oil accounts for 96 per cent of Venezuela’s export earnings and the plunge in world oil prices hit the government hard, leaving it owing money across the board, from foreign airlines to oil service companies. Rebounding oil prices, which are up around 60 per cent this year after dipping to a 13-year low, could buy Maduro some time to attempt to fix the economy. A new loan from China could also help, but Venezuela’s biggest creditor has stopped issuing new loans.

The Venezuelan government has already seized many assets of foreign corporations. General Motors said Thursday that its plant in the country had been seized, causing it to halt its operations in the South American nation.

A CRATERING ECONOMY

Last year, the nation’s economy shrank 18 per cent – a depression-level catastrophe – according to estimates by the International Monetary Fund. By comparison, Greece, Europe’s worst-off economy, shrank 9.1 per cent at the depth of its crisis in 2011.

Last year Greece’s economy was unchanged. Venezuela’s economy shriveled 6.2 per cent in 2015 and 3.9 per cent in 2014, when a collapse in global oil prices plunged the oil-rich country into chaos.

SKYROCKETING INFLATION

Despite the country’s vast oil resources, Venezuelans wait in line for food, gas, and other staples, which are soaring in price. Inflation jumped an eye-popping 255 per cent last year, according to the IMF, after a 122 per cent leap in 2015.

The only other country in the same league, according to the IMF, is newly-created South Sudan, with inflation of 380 per cent in 2016.

SOARING UNEMPLOYMENT

The nation’s jobless rate reached 21.2 per cent last year, up from 7.4 per cent in 2015. That is similar to the rates in some struggling European countries, such as Spain, where the rate was 19.6 per cent in 2016.

MADURO’S OPTIONS

Polls say 75 per cent of Venezuelans want Maduro gone, but about 20 per cent support him. That’s actually a higher percentage of support currently received by leaders in Brazil, Chile and Colombia. More importantly, Maduro maintains a tight grip on almost every branch of government and institution, though support within his ruling socialist party is fraying.

The opposition has historically been divided by big egos and had a tough time connecting with poor people who still revere the late Hugo Chavez. But right now the opposition is more united than it has been in recent years. Both hardcore and moderate opposition leaders want to keep up street protests and push for new general elections.

THE MILITARY

Venezuela’s military historically has been the arbiter of political disputes and some in the opposition are trying to spur its leaders into action to resolve the current impasse. However, Chavez and Maduro have been skilful in winning over the top brass through patronage and powerful government jobs, and there is no outward sign of disgruntlement even at the junior levels.

One unanswered question is whether the military will use heavy force as it did during anti-government unrest in 2014.

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