On Thursday, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 in the Senate along with Senator Marco Rubio (R-F.L.). The bill is a response to the escalating violence from the government crackdown on protesters that began one month ago and aims to aid the Venezuelan opposition.

The bill proposes sanctions against persons responsible for the violence in Venezuela, including asset blocking and visa revocation. The bill also proposes appropriating $15 million for building a strong and vibrant civil society in Venezuela through supporting nongovernmental organizations and activists that promote democratic governance. The bill supports independent media organizations in disseminating viewpoints contrary to what the Venezuelan government has made available.

Recent remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry regarding the protests in Venezuela have stoked a quarrel between Kerry and the foreign minister of Venezuela, Elias Jaua.

Kerry likened the Venezuelan government’s brutal tactics against protesters to a “terror campaign” at a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing, saying, “We are trying to find a way to get the Maduro government to engage with their citizens, to treat them respectfully, to end this terror campaign against his own people and to begin to, hopefully, respect human rights in an appropriate way.”

Jaua responded by criticizing Kerry as a “murderer” who encourages violence through his remarks.

The protests in Venezuela began in early February as protesters took to the streets to demand government action against rampant inflation, corruption, the scarcity of basic goods, and a rising murder rate. The death toll from the protests currently stands at 28, according to Venezuelan State Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz. Although many protesters claim they will not stop protesting until their demands are met, the Maduro government has done nothing to appease them, even going so far as to declare its success over fighting against “right-wing fascists” who attempted to topple the administration.

–Jeff Meyer

Photo: The Week
Reuters, The Hill, The Hill

On March 4, in a simple resolution, an overwhelming majority in the United States House of Representatives agreed to support the people of Venezuela as they protest peacefully for democratic change and call for an end to the escalating violence in the South American country.

The resolution comes on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the passing of Hugo Chavez, who succumbed to cancer after 14 years as the president of Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro took over leadership and has carried on the Chavez legacy with state-controlled economic policies that are now under criticism by anti-government demonstrations. At least 18 people have been killed since the protests began in early February.

The buildup towards the recent student-led protests came from hyperinflation, a shortage of basics, spiraling murder rates and a general decline in living standards. Presently, Venezuelans cannot get basics such as toilet paper, rice, coffee and corn flour. Last year, almost 25,000 homicides took place in the country. Protesters claim that the government is corrupt, undemocratic and is ruining the economy.

On February 12, Venezuela’s National Youth Day, students led a peaceful anti-government protest. The Venezuelan military responded with gas bombs and guns to control the crowds. Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the opposition party Voluntad Popular, was arrested later in the month and is currently being held in a military prison. Amnesty International states that the arrest of Lopez is a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent in the country.

The Venezuelan government has implemented a number of policies in reaction to the protests. It declared three consular officers at the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela personae non gratae, or un-welcomed, adding to eight other American officials who were expelled in 2013. The Venezuelan government has also taken control of television, radio and the internet. It blocked online images of the marchers, shut down Twitter, has taken Colombian news channel NTN 24 off the air and threatens to expel CNN.

The House Representatives agreed that the U.S. Government should support the free and peaceful exercise of representative democracy in Venezuela, condemning violence and intimidation against the country’s political opposition, and calling for dialogue between all political actors in the country.

The House resolution just passed urges the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Venezuela and to actively encourage a process of dialogue between the government of Venezuela and the political opposition to end the violence there. It also believes that the Organization of American States should respond to the erosion of democratic norms and institutions in member states.

Additionally, it deems that the U.S. Department of State should work in concert with other countries in the Americas to take meaningful steps to ensure that basic fundamental freedoms in Venezuela are in accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Lastly, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanded that the Venezuelan Government adopt measures which guarantee the rights to life such as humane treatment, security, political rights, the right of assembly, and the rights of freedom of association and freedom of expression.

– Maria Caluag

Sources: GovTrak, BBC, Amnesty International
Photo: Los Angeles Times

Recent protests in Venezuela have caught the attention of the entire world. Demonstrators are protesting for a myriad of different reasons, from extreme rates of inflation, to rising crime and murder rates, to allegations of corruption. Despite these different reasons, one thing remains constant: the majority of protestors are demonstrating against the government ruled by Nicolás Maduro, the successor to the late charismatic firebrand Hugo Chavez.

But what is Chavismo? What are the origins of this political movement that has swept up the Venezuelan state and has until recently, been extremely popular?

Chavismo has its origins in the beginnings of Chavez’s political career. In 1997, the Fifth Republic Movement was founded to support Chavez in the 1998 presidential elections. The Movement was named the fifth republic because at the time, Venezuela was in its fourth republic and the movement intended to renew the state of Venezuela on revolutionary policies.

A key belief of Chavismo is that the state should support social welfare programs for its citizens. For instance, Chavez often used populist rhetoric to galvanize the lower classes and the disenfranchised with promises to make their lives better. Revenue from Venezuela’s significant oil reserves were put into programs designed to reduce poverty, improve education, and establish social justice and social welfare within Venezuela.

 Some tenets of Chavismo include nationalization of industries, and a strongly anti-neoliberal stance on economic issues with an emphasis on participatory democracy. Systems of “Bolivarian missions” or misiones bolivarianas exist in order to bypass the red tape that often comes with bureaucracy and where citizens can gather to express their opinions directly and have their voices heard.

Not surprisingly for a revolutionary political movement, Chavismo strongly identifies with the historic figure of Símon Bolívar, the 19th century liberator of Latin America from Spanish colonialism. This idea is carried on today with Chavismo attempting to rally countries around the region to oppose what is seen as imperialist US policies that put capitalistic gain ahead of basic human rights.

The idea of Chavismo works well theoretically, as most populist ideologies do. But the reality of the situation is that Venezuelans are unhappy with the way the country is being governed and the direction the current brand of Chavismo led by Maduro is taking them.

Instead of listening to the demands of the people, Maduro decided to take the thuggish route and try to quell the current protests by deploying hundreds of soldiers and ordering fighter jets to make low passes over the capital of Caracas.

Maduro’s responses to the protests give full view to his insecurity. In order to maintain a tight grip on the country, he has expelled three US diplomats from the country and detained 45 people. Maduro has also attempted to regulate media coverage of the protests and threatened to revoke press credentials for CNN reporters.

Unless he listens to and responds to the needs of the people, he will be put in an increasingly insecure position within his United Socialist Party. While an overthrow of Maduro’s government and an opposition-installed government in unlikely, what is possible is Maduro being forced to step down in favor of his Vice-President, Jorge Arreaza.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: The New York Times, The Huffington Post
Photo: Jorge Amin

Venezuelans took to the streets to protest against the successor government of the late Hugo Chavez led by President Nicolas Maduro. The oil-rich Bolivarian Republic, many citizens feel, is failing to provide them with an adequate living standard. Inflation of the Venezuelan bolívar is going up at an astronomical rate, the highest in Latin America at 56 percent. Basic commodities as well as absolute necessities are scarce and the murder rates are getting higher.

Struggling with capital flight—a consequence of the currency’s devaluation—and the enormous loss of its foreign reserves, authorities have done little to try to salvage the bolívar.  The poor state of the Venezuelan economy has an acute impact on the country’s political climate. Not only have the left-wing party’s populist policies deeply polarized the society. This deep polarization in the society—already plagued with a gargantuan disparity gap—is manifesting itself on the streets of Caracas as both supporters and opponents of the current government are staging rival rallies.

With already four casualties at the hands of the authorities, the violent Venezuelan protests on the streets of Caracas are a direct result of years of accumulated policy mistakes and economic woes that Venezuelans have endured. Shortages of the most basic necessities such as toilet paper, rice, coffee and corn flour, the lastest of which is a crucial ingredient in the Venezuelan daily diet.

Years of over-reliance on imports, price controls, unsustainable petroleum money coupled with the lack of cash in general and the government’s obstinacy to not deliver United States dollars to importers have made many common and vital items to be absent from Venezuelan markets. Many industries that used to provide these basic resources for the country have also all been greatly diminished.

However, many Venezuelans still support their government. The populist regime created—arguably with the oil revenue—during Hugo Chavez’s administration has seen the power of the elite substantially curbed and the state’s roles exponentially expanded. The policies that follow the government’s egalitarian and anti-imperial discourse (which had caused an abrasive verbal duel between the King of Spain and the late Hugo Chavez) have generated a short-term but unsustainable well-being for the Venezuelan people.

However, the aforementioned price control, decreed wage raises, the notorious nationalization of foreign capitals (a measure taken by many Latin American governments of the same political camp as Venezuela,) the reduction of interest rate as well as the inorganic credit manipulation all contribute to the present hardship facing the people of Venezuela. However, it is because of these policies that so many people, especially those from the poorer sectors of the society, are still in favor of the government.

Thus, the student-led Venezuelan protests and the deadly clashes in Caracas is an archetypal manifestation of the political paradigm that is appearing across the developing world. It is a paradigm that presents a discourse that puts into question the very principles of democracy.

In places where there is wide disparity in terms of material development and education, should good governance take precedence over popular support? Is democracy a panacea for all malaises, a one size fits all model to which every society should aspire? These are not simply rhetorical questions; they are vexing dilemmas that will necessitate answers as Western hegemony yields.

– Peewara Sapsuwan

Sources: La Tercera, Rumbo, The Guardian, Financial Times, Bloomberg
Washington Post