Blackouts, deaths, a state of emergency. Over the course of the past few months, Venezuela’s national crisis has gone from bad to worse, as food shortages and economic distress have pushed citizens into the streets. Protests have been raging for the past two months, resulting in the deaths of at least 37 people, with more than 700 protesters wounded and over 1,000 arrested. The situation hasn’t been getting a tremendous amount of attention in the Western world — but after this week, that could change.
On Thursday, students stormed Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, demanding that the government hold elections and address terrible food shortages. Sprayed with tear gas and confronted by soldiers, the protesters persisted, undaunted.
“The terrorists today are in government, today we are the ones who are fighting for Venezuela, today they are stopping us, today they are killing us, today we are victims of repression, hunger, lack of drugs and here we are,” Rafaela Requesens, student leader of the Federation of University Centers of the UCV (FCU-UCV), told Al Día, before departing to protest.
Another student, Santiago Acosta, read aloud a plea to Pope Francis. “Pope Francis, please listen to the students. We have no fear, we need peace, democracy, justice and freedom,” Acosta asked, according to Al Día.
Venezuela’s descent into chaos has been ongoing for several years. Once an oil-rich nation with considerable sway in the region, Venezuela is now struggling under the weight of a crumbling economy and devastating food shortages. In February Venezuela was suspended from voting in the U.N. General Assembly over millions of dollars of unpaid debt — the second time in two years.
The country’s current crisis can arguably be traced back to price controls instituted by the government of former President Hugo Chavez. But the problem escalated in 2014, after oil prices plummeted and food shortages became an issue. As food became scarce, rising prices and increasing problems with smuggling caused the situation to spiral. Venezuela now has the world’s fastest-contracting economy and an inflation rate of almost 1,000 percent.
Venezuelans have been fleeing to Colombia and Brazil in an effort to find food and an escape from the country’s escalating crisis. Blackouts caused by electricity shortages are also a fact of life these days. Surveys indicate that 80 percent of medicines are scarce (if available at all), while 50 to 80 percent of food supplies are scarce. Contraceptives, water, toiletries, and paper have also been impacted.
Making the situation far worse is its leadership. Venezuela’s government is not doing much to fix the country’s staggering problems. President Nicolás Maduro claims that efforts to unseat him are a bourgeois plot, one that he has often linked to the United States. And while the United States has historically played a role in destabilizing governments in Latin America, Venezuela’s leader has been a deeply unpopular president. Maduro, who came to power in 2013 following the death of Chavez, has spent his time in office slowly consolidating power, cracking down on the opposition, and weakening Venezuela’s democracy. Last September, amid horrifying food shortages, Maduro joked about the benefits of the “Maduro diet” — or, more bluntly, the weight loss Venezuelans are experiencing without access to steady sustenance and nutrition.
But Maduro’s missteps go far beyond off-color one-liners. Last fall, in an effort to retain power, Maduro’s government suspended elections, in a move that earned censure and sparked concern from the international community. The past two months have made the situation far worse. The opposition-led National Assembly has long been a thorn in the president’s side, and in early March Maduro made the bold move of attempting to hand the congress’ powers to the supreme court, which is notably pro-government. International reaction was swift — Peru recalled its ambassador and called for the Organisation of American States (OAS) to eject Venezuela from its rankings. The United States was also forceful; in a statement, the U.S. State Department slammed the move.
“This rupture of democratic and constitutional norms greatly damages Venezuela’s democratic institutions and denies the Venezuelan people the right to shape their country’s future through their elected representatives,” the statement read. “We consider it a serious setback for democracy in Venezuela.”
Members of the National Assembly denounced the move, and rejected it aggressively, pushing Maduro to greater lengths. Earlier this week, the president called for Venezuela’s constitution to be re-written. Maduro posited the move as one that would settle disagreements between protesters and the government.
“There are violent groups that don’t understand that violence won’t get us anywhere, and that we must have a dialogue despite our differences,” Hermann Escarrá, a legal adviser to Maduro, told the New York Times.
But protesters aren’t taking it that way. Thursday’s student demonstrations indicate that the uprising against Maduro’s government isn’t likely to go anywhere.