By Robert Valencia
Over the last several days, protests in Venezuela have erupted both in support of and against President Nicolás Maduro. Protests in Venezuela’s cities are not new, they’ve been a crucial part to the country’s social history. However what sets the current manifestation apart is the violence that has engulfed it. At least three people, some of them students, have been killed and dozens have been injured as protestors, police, and vigilantes clash. Venezuela’s economic and political leadership under Maduro, marred with error and limits to personal liberty, is not sustainable for the country. This week’s violent protests are testament to this grim reality.
Many argue that Venezuela’s woes date back to Chávez. But a look at the country’s financial trends proves otherwise. True, Maduro inherited the socioeconomic blueprint of Hugo Chávez that has stalled the country in the past 15 years. But while the economy had previously slowed, it has taken a serious nosedive since Maduro took office. The draconian control over foreign exchange to avoid capital flight is not in line with the Venezuela’s high demand for basic staples. The result is that local entrepreneurs cannot import food staples because they need to be purchased in dollars. The over-exploitation of oil to subsidize social programs also poses a problem. With little budget allocation to improve oil infrastructure, Venezuela cannot keep up with oil production, thus stalling the social projects called misiones.
Before his death, Hugo Chávez expressed a liking for Maduro, setting the leader on a positive path in public opinion. But since then, his favorability has declined. While Maduro won by a slim margin in the April 2013 presidential election, many still question the legitimacy of his election. During his first 100 days, Maduro faced a number of challenges. He was accused of not being born in Venezuela and his popularity among Venezuelans continued to plummet—about 58 percent of Venezuelans believed he was talking the country in the wrong direction.
Maduro has claimed time and again that he’s “the son” of Chávez and the poster child of his Bolivarian Revolution. In simpler terms, Maduro believes that, thanks to the Revolution, anyone can be president of Venezuela. Indeed, he went from being a bus driver to a prominent leader of the chavismo.
Nevertheless, many agree that Maduro lacks Chávez’s charisma, which allowed him to achieve a stronger cohesion among members of his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Aware of such shortcomings, Maduro has attempted to pursue several measures to appeal to more Venezuelans. For instance, Maduro appointed actor Winston Vallenilla to lead state run TV channel TVes, and appointed singer and former baseball player Antonio “El Potro (The Colt)” to the Ministry of Sports. Both Vallenilla and El Potro are revered figures among the population.
In an obvious attempt to measure up to Chavez’s charisma, Maduro created the so-called “Ministry of Supreme Happiness” in November 2013 (an offshoot of Chavez’s concept of “supreme happiness” or misiones). The projects under this ministry include the creation of sports training centers, housing projects, production of farm goods, and primary medical care. However, the misiones have not lived up to the “happiness” standard Maduro promised. A large portion of the population are squatting in abandoned high-rises and other facilities, local production of goods are incapable of meeting Venezuelans’ demand, and health infrastructure is unable to meet the needs of the population seeking medical care.
Despite the lack of charisma, Maduro still follows in Chávez’s legacy with regards to dealing with the opposition as well as with regards to freedom of the press and expression. Both rule with strict limits on press freedom and political tolerance. Maduro, however, is considered to be more radical in his ideology than Chávez was. For example, earlier this year, after the municipal elections in December 2013, Maduro called the opposition in order to find reconciliation provided that they abide by the Bolivarian Revolution ideology. As expected, the dialogue did not bear fruit. Since then Maduro has called the opposition the “offspring of Hitler” and has arrested opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez Mendoza, accusing him of leading the current street protests.
Recently, under Maduro’s leadership, Venezuela has witnessed greater limitation on freedom of expression. In the past year Maduro has tried to imprison journalists who wrote about the scarcity of fuel, citing that such headline would generate social unrest.
Maduro ordered the withdrawal of Venezuela from the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which among other things, seeks to ensure freedom of the press. Responding to the limits on press freedom (and listening to its pro-Maduro shareholders), Globovision, a TV channel once critical of the Bolivarian Revolution, drastically changed its editorial line by prohibiting opposition leader Capriles Radonski from going on air. In addition, the notorious lack of paper in Venezuela has curtailed the number of newspapers being printed.
What’s more, Maduro ordered the removal of Colombia-based news channel NTN24—the only international channel covering this month’s protests—claiming that they were fueling an “attempt of a coup.” The administration went a step farther in banning the publication of photos on Twitter–one of the country’s most popular social media platforms–that depict the violence during the lead up to the protests.
Despite these setbacks, the street protests haven’t stopped. Though Maduro wants to resemble Chávez, he is contradicting his mentor in the way he addresses the protests. While Chavez allowed protests, Maduro does not. On February 12, Maduro stated that whoever doesn’t have permission to protest on the street, will be apprehended. In fact, Chávez said that Venezuela is a free country and thus everybody has the right to redress grievances on the public square. To this date, hundreds of students have been arrested and their fate remains unknown.
In order to improve the lives of many Venezuelans, and appease the thousands of protesters, Maduro and his administration need to address the lack of public infrastructure investments, revisit currency exchange laws, and create incentives for local production. He must also ensure freedom of the press, remove corruption within close ranks of his party, reduce the rampant security woes, and foster a more conciliatory tone toward the opposition. But so far, these recommendations made in the past have fallen on deaf ears. Maduro seems to be so busy pandering a more radical sector of the chavismo by adopting an ever more draconian stance than that of Chávez. Meanwhile, the population is imploding, sadly turning Venezuela into a ticking-time bomb of social havoc.
Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.