Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro seems poised to send the country into its first ever state of emergency in response to the nation-wide protests against his regime. As a precursor, Maduro has already ordered troops into San Cristobal, the capital of Tachira state, to control protestors. Hordes of protestors have taken to the streets to revolt against the pathetic socio-economic state of their country since Maduro came to power in April 2013. Caracas, the country’s capital has become the epicenter of the anti-government protests demanding the immediate resignation of Maduro.
Under Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has plunged into a state of 56 percent inflation and seen a 50 percent increase in its budget deficit. To make matters worse, China has rolled back its $20 billion loan and Venezuelan bonds have been downgraded to “junk” status by Moody’s and Standard & Poor. The currency, which Chavez had renamed bolivar fuerte (strong bolivar), has dropped precipitously against the U.S. dollar – 87 to one on the black market. At the time of Chavez’s death, the bolivar fuerte stood at eight to one U.S. dollar.
The deficit in hard currency sparked severe shortages in food and other basic essential items right from cooking oil to toilet paper. The shortages have hit normal life hard in Venezuela, provoking massive protests everywhere. Maduro’s reactionary response in increasing state interference has crippled the private sector, which has made it almost impossible for Venezuelans to access food and other essentials. Today, the country imports almost everything except for oil, its prime economic driver.
In his typical rhetoric that usually lasts for hours at a stretch Maduro has blamed “fascists” backed by the United States and the “parasitic” bourgeoisie for the nation-wide unrest. A few days back, Maduro ordered three U.S. diplomats to leave Venezuela, stating that they were organizing youngsters into a protest force. Washington has dismissed these charges as baseless, and President Obama has called on Maduro to stop the repression of civilians in Venezuela, when he spoke at the 20th anniversary summit of NAFTA held in Mexico.
Opposition party leader and Harvard-educated economist Leopold Lopez has become the face of these protests, and has been leading the disgruntled masses against the President for a few months now. The protests, which were largely peaceful, turned violent on Venezuela’s Youth Day when the state police fired into a massive rally of mainly youth protestors in Caracas killing at least three and injuring many more. Both parties have accused each other for the violence.
Lopez, who was later charged with murder and terrorism after the killings, surrendered himself this week, challenging the Maduro government to persecute him for crimes he did not commit. His surrender has caused a fresh wave of upheaval amidst the Venezuelan youth. Thousands of them clad in white blockaded the motorcade transporting Lopez to the La Carlota air-base for several miles, reflecting the mood of the country. The growing dissent in Venezuela has pushed the Maduro government to the edge, where it seems poised to declare emergency following curfews that are already in place.
Lopez’s lawyers confirmed Thursday that the charges of murder and terrorism against him have been dropped and replaced with new charges of arson and conspiracy. He remains detained at a military prison, according to his wife, Lilian Tintori de Lopez. Lopez has also been denied an open court hearing as is mandated by Venezuelan law. Many observers feel the charismatic opposition leader is being targeted because he organized protestors demanding an end to shortages, better security for life, more opportunities for the young and greater freedom of speech.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have opined that the charges leveled against Lopez were obvious politically motivated measures to mute the dissent. They have also warned the Maduro government against “scapegoating” its political opponents. Much of the happenings within Venezuela remains shrouded because of the strict government embargo on international media outlets. Twitter was shut down at times within the country in the past week prompting protestors to organize through Facebook messages and video clippings on YouTube. Most of these too have been swiftly taken down by the government.
The looming threat of an emergency will be watched closely by the world because it would signify an unprecedented move in Venezuelan politics. Even in the days of Hugo Chavez, when there was an unsuccessful coup and a two-month long strike at the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela oil company, there was no threat of emergency in Venezuela. The curfew in 1989, imposed by the then President Carlos Andres Perez after he introduced hugely unpopular economic reforms, is the only instance comparable to the present times.
Maduro fears that a coup, similar to the one that ousted his mentor Chavez for a brief 36 hours, is being organized against him by Washington backed opponents. The political instability, fueled by the arrest of Lopez, seems to be forcing the Maduro government into declaring a state of emergency in Venezuela.
By Aruna Iyer