In defiance of President Nicholas Maduro’s ban on public protest, Venezeulans gathered around the country on Friday to protest creeping authoritarianism, devastating inflation, and skyrocketing crime. Dozens of students remain in jail after the third day of mass demonstrations, and the government (despite its denials) has blocked access to Twitter photos, which the opposition had been using to disseminate images of demonstrations. Three protestors have been killed to date, and the growing unrest may well amount to a crisis of legitimacy for the late Hugo Chavez’ successor.
How did it come to this?
Like most things in modern Venezuela, it goes back to Chavez. At the time of the President’s death, Venezuela was already experiencing significant inflation and crime. Chavez managed to balance real reductions in economic inequality with (for a time) equally real economic growth, but his model depended on fixing the value of the Venezuelan currency and raking in profits from the state-owned oil industry.
The fixed exchange rate in particular became a huge problem. It caused prices of goods to spike, because importers had trouble accessing cheap dollars with which to buy foreign goods, while simultaneously preventing the government from letting the official value of currency go up to adjust. Venezuelans started living by ridiculously high black-market exchange rates, making it really hard for ordinary Venezuelans to afford basic goods.
“The fixed exchange rate is what has provoked most damage,” Victor Alvarez, Chavez’ former minister of industry, told reporters. “”When the price of a currency remains frozen in time, while prices of goods and services go up … it creates a very harmful phenomenon.”
Chavez’ “economic bomb,” as one Venezuelan economist terms it, went off under Maduro’s Presidency. Venezuela’s real inflation rate is an impossibly high 56 percent, and its scarcity index, which measures how hard it is to purchase necessities, has hit a record high. “Venezuelans have for months been struggling to find basic consumption items including cooking oil, toilet paper, and corn flour,” Reuters’ Brian Ellsworth reports.
The protestors’ second big complaint, high crime, also started under Chavez. During Chavez’ 14 years in power, crime rates roughly quadrupled. The government’s inability to successfully prosecute criminals, together with economic insecurity and wide availability of firearms, created an environment ripe for criminal violence.
The Maduro government has been unable to stanch the bleeding. According to the World Economic Forum, Venezuela is the third-most crime damaged country in the world. Venezuelan movie theaters have stopped offering 11 p.m. film screenings because people are afraid to be out that late.
All of this came to a head on Wednesday. Previously, opposition protests had been small and divided. But on Wednesday, conflict between the police and protestors left 66 injured, prompting the government to detain over a hundred student activists and issue arrest warrants for leading opposition figures. That included the leader of the opposition, Leopoldo Lopez, who remains undetained in his home for reasons that are as-yet unclear.
The crackdown, far from quelling the protests, appears to have accelerated them. Protestors have gathered around the country for the past three days, and it appears likely that the demonstrations will continue on Saturday despite the Twitter blackout.
“We’re going to stay out in the streets for the same reasons as yesterday and the day before: inflation, insecurity and a repressive state that refuses to release our colleagues,” student Marcos Matta said to the Washington Post’s Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Ore.
Opinions differ on whether these protests have the potential to actually unseat the Maduro Government. “There is no sign that the demonstrations…threaten to oust [Maduro],” Cawthorne and Ore write. They see no evidence that the military, which briefly overthrew Chavez during a 2003 protest wave, was interested in deposing Maduro.
However, if the Venezuelan government can’t stop the protests, the picture could change drmatically. “The opposition has made a huge progress in the past week, as a couple of student protests have reignited the movement,” Caracas-based analyst David Smilde told Bloomberg. “If in the coming months the economy gets substantially worse and the protests continue, Maduro will be in a tough position.”
An earlier version of this post suggested Twitter itself was blocked in Venezuela. Only Twitter images, and not the service itself, have been disrupted. The post has been updated to reflect that.