Note: An earlier version of this piece was originally published at the Huffington Post. CIPA Fellow Alvaro Salas, MPA ’14 has since worked with co-authors Stephanie Rudat and Antonio J. Henríquez García, BA ’15, to publish this version for the Cornell Policy Review.
“There is nothing worse than being afraid to tell the truth” – Oscar Arias Sanchez, former President of Costa Rica
The current crisis of Venezuela is, as anyone might expect, much more complex than a simple ideological clash between socialists and capitalists. Simply put, the Venezuelan crisis has been the result of a historical social struggle of the poor to acquire a place in society while the entire population from rich to poor, faces a political playing field that is increasingly plagued by corruption, economic collapse, and destructive violence.
It can be suggested that a primary cause for today’s deep social division has been the government’s discourse itself. Through his own radicalization, Chávez’s discourse heavily appealed to the very social resentment fueled by the collective memory of the 40-year oligarchical rule of the country. Chávez’s accusation towards George W. Bush as being “the devil,” his public condemnation of the state of Israel, and his vociferous name-calling of opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski as a“majunche burgués” which roughly translates to “loser bourgeois” are only a few examples of how Chávez’s discourse further incentivized hatred among Venezuelans of different social classes and contributed to the further political divide of Venezuelan society.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s current president and handpicked successor of Chávez, has in many ways, continued to radicalize Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Within a year as president, Maduro has been able to acquire the majority of news networks that had historically been information channels for the Venezuelan opposition: Televen, Venevisión, Noticias24, Meridiano among others. Recently, the Maduro administration threatened to revoke the rights America-based news channel CNN after abruptly taking Colombia-based news channel NTN24 off the air. The radicalization of this process has led to an international media blackout of the Venezuelan social crisis and has led to a number of international demonstrations led by Venezuelan citizens living in different countries worldwide in the hopes of informing international institutions about the current social crisis in Venezuela.
Restricting access to information effectively disunites citizens. There is much diversity of opinion within the opposition groups and, overall, Venezuela possesses low levels of political culture amongst its population. In Caracas, the majority of demands are political, including calls for Freedom of Expression, the freeing of detainees and the resignation of President Maduro, while in other cities social demands are incorporated with protests against inflation, scarcity and lack of proper public services. Many are simply actively denouncing state repression and call out for aiding victims of alleged human rights violations. Exacerbated by the difficulty of having free discourse online, protests being carried out in many parts of the country and are lacking in focus and direction. Although denied by State-owed Internet operator Compañía Anónima Nacional de Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), several websites and applications including Pastebin, a photo-sharing tool, Zello, a walkie-talkie application, andTwitter have been blocked since the most recent nationwide protests ignited on February 12, 2014. Censorship is a long criticized practice of suppression amongst authoritarian regimes and is undeniably fueling angst amongst opposition supporters.
“Regulating how and what we communicate weakens our confidence in one another and our government. Freedom of Expression helps us be more informed as citizens and can help us to influence a government that better represents the people of Venezuela. In order to combat corruption, have fewer violations of human rights, and be led by government that reflects the desires of Venezuelans, we must be granted the freedom to view, create, and share news that informs one another without governmental bias. Our people will feel empowered and more capable of helping our country once aware of the concerns and opportunities we face. I believe this is a critical factor in settling the discontent plaguing our beautiful country,” says Rodrigo Diamani Vidaurre, Founder and President of Un Mundo Sin Mordaza, a Venezuela-based non-governmental organization.
Primarily cultivated online by groups with a massive digital following like Un Mundo Sin Mordaza and SOS Venezuela, demonstrations have been carried out across the globe drawing thousands of participants. Facebook and Twitter have served as a hub for orchestrating numerous demonstrations across the Americas, Europe, and South Africa where talking points, graphics, photos, locations, and other resources continue to be exchanged. Both emphatic supporters of the opposition and those curious about what is transpiring in Venezuela converge on and offline compel greater media coverage which remains limited to reporting news strictly based on claims reported by those able to dispatch information from the front lines of protests and government loyalists. Responsibly presenting facts to back up news reporting is therefore besieged to the restrictions enforced by the Venezuelan government.
Under the pretext of creating a more equal society for the underprivileged, not only has the government nationalized key industries, but has also instituted Comisión de Administración de Divisas (CADIVI), a government institution whose purpose is to regulate foreign currency exchange. Despite the fact Venezuelans could once exchange Bolívares for US Dollars at a local bank through a simple transaction, CADIVI has imposed strict regulations in the currency exchange market. As a consequence of this, a large parallel US Dollar black market has formed in which US Dollars sell for over ten times the official exchange rate, a ratio that increases on a daily basis. The combination of nationalization of the private sector and currency exchange market regulation has driven Venezuela into an economic downward spiral that has led to uncontrollable and ever-increasing inflation rates, and dangerous levels of food and goods shortages at local supermarkets.
Whereas it is undeniable, seeing from Pérez’s impeachment on corruption charges, that corruption was a real problem before Chávez’s coming to power in 1999, it has severely increased over the years of socialist administration despite his anti-corruption campaign platform. Most notably, members of the “socialist” administration have been known for acquiring immense fortunes through Venezuela’s oil production and the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) whose oil production represents roughly one-third of the country’s GDP and makes billions of dollars in profits every year. The self-acclaimed “socialist” regime, which in principle, stands for redistribution of wealth, has been irrefutably inefficient at converting oil profits into tangible social improvement. On the contrary, politicians such as Pedro Carreño, current Minister of Interior, have become infamous for numerous public appearances in which Louis Vuitton clothing and other expensive apparel have become the norm. Upon his death, Hugo Chávez’s fortune was estimated at 500 million US dollars.
Perhaps the most lamentable consequence of the radicalization of the socialist experiment in Venezuela has been the violence that has become rampant across the country. Whereas socialism has been effective at reducing poverty and improving education, it has not been effective at reducing crime levels. Over the past 15 years,homicide rates in Venezuela rose from 20.6 homicides per 100,000 population in 1995 to 45.1 in 2010, surpassing those of Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Syria, and many other countries formally recognized as “war zones.” Most recently, 2014 has seen the active participation of several armed groups that are openly supported by the government. In particular, these include the so-called Colectivos de Paz, “Peace Collectives” and the guerrilla group Tupamaros. Both groups, through government support, have acquired firearms and have been responsible for brutal violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators and have led to the death of several student protestors during the week of February 12. Most recently, Venezuela has experienced the infiltration of Cuban military Special Forces known as Avispas Negras or “Black Wasps” and are widely suspected of having contributed to the many violent attacks under the orders of the Castro regime of Cuba.
It is evident that the problems of inflation, scarcity, crime and violence are issues that affect all Venezuelans equally, regardless of their political affiliation or ideologies. Why, then, is the population still divided? It can be suggested that this is precisely a result of years of political discourse that has enhanced that resentful emotional reaction from the lower classes towards the opposition and its leaders. Simply put, whereas no sector of society can escape from the many consequences of the social crisis, it is virtually impossible for them, practically all of whom were staunch followers of Chávez and his agenda, to relate to opposition leaders Henrique Capriles Radonski, the son of wealthy businessman who to this day owns million-dollar apartments in Manhattan, María Corina Machado daughter of a wealthy steel entrepreneur from the East of Caracas, and Leopoldo López, a Harvard graduate.
The path to resolution of the Venezuelan crisis is obscure. The Venezuelan population must find a way to reconcile with itself in a deliberative process and do away with the polarization that has been promoted by the current regime. A potential path that is worth for discussion and further analysis would be to find a new civic and political leaders and statesman and stateswomen that can call in to elections under the scrutiny of international observers to legitimize a new regime. The emergence of such figures could potentially represent a common ground between Chavistas and the opposition and could signal the turning point in Venezuela’s political crisis but first it is important to reach a cease fire agreement to protect the students and the people from more human rights violations.