Briefing: Venezuela's deepening crisis

The Latin American country is seeing some of the largest antigovernment protests in nearly three decades, as the pressures of severe shortages combine with increasingly authoritarian tactics from the Maduro administration. 

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/ Reuters
Demonstrators attend a women's march to protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 6, 2017.

In 2001, Venezuela was the wealthiest country in Latin America. Today, its institutions and economy are crumbling, and public demonstrations have entered the second month straight. How the government and international community respond could determine the fate of not only Venezuela, but regional neighbors as well. 

Q: Why are Venezuelans protesting?

Protests have taken place on and off over the past several years. But they sparked anew this spring after a late March announcement by the Supreme Court that it would take over the powers of the National Assembly – the only opposition-run branch of the government and the sole check on President Nicolás Maduro’s power. The decision was reversed three days later, but in a context of food and medical-supply shortages, triple-digit inflation, the imprisonment of protesters and opposition politicians, delayed state and municipal elections, and the quashing of a presidential recall vote, Venezuela is seeing some of the largest antigovernment protests in nearly three decades.

Critics accuse Mr. Maduro of moving toward a dictatorship, while the government accuses protesters and the political opposition of colluding with foreign governments in an effort to oust him. The armed forces have been deployed to the streets, and government-allied militias have carried out violence against demonstrators. More than 35 people have died since protests ratcheted up in April. 

Demonstrators are demanding four key actions: new elections this year, government recognition of the humanitarian crisis, the release of political prisoners, and the removal of Supreme Court justices who issued the decision about the National Assembly. 

Q: How did Venezuela get here?

Venezuela has faced challenges including stark inequality and high inflation for decades – long before former President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. But over the past nearly two decades, inflation has skyrocketed, and it’s estimated to reach more than 700 percent by the end of the year. Mr. Chávez implemented vast social programs bolstered by the country’s oil wealth, catering to a segment of the population that was long overlooked by politicians. But policies meant to keep food prices low served as a disincentive for local production, leading to frequent shortages that spiked in recent years as international oil prices fell and Venezuela’s ability to import products declined. The combination of these factors has led to vast shortages, sweeping malnutrition, and a government grasping to hold on to power.

Maduro was tapped by Chávez before his death in 2013 to lead Venezuela. But Maduro lacks his predecessor’s charisma, and less than a quarter of the country approves of his administration. 

Q: How is the international community responding?

For years, neighbors stayed quiet on Venezuela. But the region is starting to speak up as the situation has become more serious – in terms of the economic crisis, increasingly violent face-offs between protesters and the armed forces, public-health concerns, and migration to neighboring nations.

The Organization of American States (OAS) called out the Venezuelan government once again this month, saying it has not only violated the country’s Constitution, but also “the principle of justice ... electoral rights of its people ... republican probity ... [and] sovereignty over its natural resources.” Nations including Peru and Costa Rica have withdrawn their highest-level diplomats, and earlier in May, eight Latin American countries, including neighbors Colombia and Brazil, as well as Mexico and Argentina, came together to denounce the government’s response to protests.

Q: How is the Venezuelan government responding to the protests?

The Maduro administration is aggressively defending the “Bolivarian Revolution,” launched by Chávez in 1999, from what it sees as a corrupt opposition angling for a coup. Not only have security forces deployed to the streets, where they have fired tear gas and violently clashed with protesters, but the government has gone on the offensive legally, as well. Maduro responded this month to protester demands for elections by announcing a new 500-member body that will have the power to rewrite the Constitution without legislative input. Opponents fear that the new assembly will be stacked with government sympathizers and not represent the voice of those looking for a democratic transition.

The government sees the opposition as launching an "unconventional war," according to the vice president. When pressured by the OAS to soften its reaction to protests last month, Venezuela said it would withdraw from the regional body, of which it’s been a member for more than six decades. 

Q: Is Venezuela still considered a democracy?

For years, the description of Venezuela’s government has come with a host of modifiers, from an illiberal democracy to democratic socialism. A slow erosion of checks and balances took place under Chávez, but many observers saw the decision by the Supreme Court to (in the end, temporarily) dissolve the National Assembly’s powers as the final straw.

“It’s an out-and-out dictatorship,” says Christopher Sabatini, a Latin American specialist at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. “The government indefinitely postponed elections and ignored the Constitution. There are dozens if not hundreds of political prisoners, waves of arbitrary detentions.... These things don’t occur in a democracy.” 

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