What began as peaceful protests have turned into the most violent unrest that Venezuela has experienced in a decade. The majority of protesters are middle-class Venezuelans who feel sidelined by government policies which favour Venezuela’s poorer population.
The protests began in Tachira and Merida states and have spread throughout Venezuela. Protestors are voicing concerns regarding unavailability of staple food and hygiene products as well as the country’s egregious inflation, the highest in the region at 56.2% (2013). The incredibly high rate of inflation has led to the flourishing of black market trade, with a majority of Venezuelans now judging their living costs and other expenditures, such as property and vehicles, according to the black market exchange rate.
The black market, responsible for the country’s “dual economy,” has become a formidable problem for Venezuela, exacerbated by a fixed exchange rate and limited access to the American dollar, which is governmentally controlled. Restricting access to the American dollar makes imports virtually impossible, fuelling Venezuela’s deficit of basic goods.
On 16 February, the situation reached a critical juncture when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro expelled three American diplomats from Caracas who he believed were aiding protestors in a coup attempt. He claimed that the US was supporting a “fascist” plot to oust his government. Similarly, Maduro cut ties with Panama this past week on allegations that Panama was conspiring with the US to intervene in his country.
Maduro’s allegations, though seemingly ridiculous, are not altogether irrational: he does have minor reason to be suspicious after an attempted US-led coup of late President Hugo Chavez in 2002. The U.S. State Department has nonetheless deemed Maduro’s accusations as “baseless and false.”
Recently, the tone and purpose of the protests have altered in light of the arrest of main protest leader, Leopold Lopez, and the deaths of three supporters in Caracas. Now, the UN, along with various human rights groups, are pursuing Venezuelan security forces after allegations of disproportionate use of force against protesters. Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua insists that his country’s police force have only been using appropriate, proportional means to “re-establish order”, adding that the media has wrongly represented Venezuela as a country that violates human rights so that foreign intervention is justified.
Although I respect Minister Jaua’s opinion that it is the government’s responsibility to its people to ensure domestic order and security, the Maduro regime alone will not be able to gain the cooperation of anti-government protesters. Had Maduro addressed protesters with a more open mind, much earlier, the situation might be different, though there is no certainty protests would not have erupted.
There is also the debate about the proportionality of force used against protestors. On 5 March, Maduro called on “colectivos,” or paramilitary organizations, to help quell the protests. The word ‘paramilitary’ is not synonymous with ideas of ‘proportional force.’ The protests were relatively peaceful until government forces became involved and began shooting at participants or actively provoking them.
The way the Venezuelan government has retaliated against protesters is entirely inappropriate. It is for the safety of the Venezuelan population that the UN is calling out government forces for human rights abuses, and not out of the desire for interference. President Maduro has proven he can no longer ensure the security of his citizens, and it is likely that Venezuela’s chaos can only be remedied through intervention.
Maduro, along with his counterpart from Suriname, have called on the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a regional organization, to tackle the political unrest. Since Suriname currently holds presidency of UNASUR, it is likely that an intervention by the Union will advance Maduro’s political interests as opposed to working towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Venezuela is in uproar, and its future remains unclear, for the moment. However, events on the ground are moving fast, and it will be interesting to see how the international community will react to the continuously deteriorating state of affairs.