Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Venezuela: Demonstrations and Repression under Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela: Demonstrations and Repression under Nicolas Maduro
Readers of this blog may know that in the last couple of weeks (February-March 2014) there has been a great deal of civil unrest in Venezuela.  There have been massive demonstrations in the streets against the President, Nicolás Maduro, elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez.   Estimates of death in the reports I’ve read or heard vary so far from 13 to 50.
 Demonstrators include students and middle-class elements, according to the reports, but the problems in Venezuela are not just ones that wealthier people object to.  Venezuela has been descending into dictatorship since 2002, with increasing restrictions on the media, the judiciary, freedom of association, and all other democratic checks on government. Elections are still held on a regular basis, but the restrictions on the opposition are so severe that you might consider the elections rigged.  They are free, but not fair.
Tear gas being used against protesters- Wiki Commons
The biggest problems for ordinary citizens, though, is severe shortages of food and other basic goods, such as toilet paper. These shortages started around 2007 and have been getting worse and worse. The causes are very high rates of inflation (56% in 2013); price controls on staple goods which result in shortages because producers can’t produce and wholesalers and retailers can’t sell at the “control price”: and underproduction of food caused by nationalizations and land invasions. In 2013 the cost of food rose by 74 per cent.
Right now the fight is between Maduro and his supporters (including armed militia groups), and the democratic opposition, although one of the main opposition leaders, Leopoldo López, is now in jail.  Some critics think the US is involved, hoping to destabilize Venezuela, with its socialist tendencies. These critics think the US would like to undermine the anti-American bloc in Latin America, which includes Argentina (also becoming an economic basket-case) and Cuba.  I don’t doubt that the US would like to see Maduro gone, but I think Maduro and Chávez created their own problems.
Protesters protesting food scarcity- Wiki Commons
 I’ve tended to describe Chavez’ and Maduro’s economic policies as incompetent, but I may have been too charitable towards them. When you reinforce your economic incompetence with increasing restrictions on civil and political rights, and you make sure your opposition doesn’t have access to the media or a fair chance at the polls, then you are deliberately maintaining policies that you know make it difficult for your people to find food.  Also, it seems that what food is available through the public system of subsidized markets is more likely to go to government supporters or potential supporters than to others.  This is one reason why many poor people still seem to support Maduro, although pretty well everyone is suffering from the shortages.

Venezuelans now live under a dictatorship under cover of increasingly farcical “democratic” elections.  Let’s hope that the food shortages don’t result in malnutrition a few years down the road.  
For more on Venezuela, see my two earlier posts,
“Hugo Chávez and the Right to Food, (March 11, 2013)
and Venezuela Update: Food Situation Worse Under Maduro than Chavez,” (October 10, 2013)
If you’d like to read a very detailed analysis of the food problems in Venezuela, you can also access my unpublished article from my university website, under “working papers.”
Or contact me directly for a copy at hassmann@wlu.ca.