Protests in Venezuela are leading very quickly to full scale revolution, with the death toll at 28 and rising as student-led protests fill the streets to oppose the government’s poor handling of the economy. While Venezuela’s Foreign Minister denounces American support for the uprising, over 300 people have been injured and security forces have arrested nearly 1,300. Since everything is diplomatically on the table at this point, there is little reason for us to hide our involvement, verbally or otherwise.
The successor to Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last year, is also a former bus driver, so we should not wonder why President Nicolas Maduro has continuously dropped the ball in his ability to mediate the economic downturn that has created disincentives for investment, making Venezuela dependent upon imports and resulting in a skyrocketing inflation of 56 percent since he took office. To offset these problems, the central bank merely printed more of their currency, called the bolivar, to sustain the exchange rate. The government also introduced a foreign exchange system known as SICAD that allowed state-owned companies to join an auction for American dollars to allow them to pay foreign importers at a lower rate than the black market, unfortunately creating a state subsidy that could not be sustained.
All but 5 percent of Venezuela’s money comes from exporting oil, making the state-run energy company PDVSA into their own private bank, and while attempting to keep prices for food and medicine down, over the last two years the bubble has burst and their foundation is breaking apart beneath them. With a lack of capital investment, PDVSA received devalued currency from the government and the situation has degenerated across the country to such an extent that crime bosses and private armies are taking control of their resources. Highway robbers are even ambushing vehicles believed to be carrying American dollars, sinking the nation into despair.
The population’s anger reached a tipping point last month with the attempted rape of a female student, igniting anti-government protests at universities in the east. Though their arguments were based upon a lack of representation and protection, the police proceeded to respond with such brutality that even larger protests have been fomented in Caracas, the country’s capital, and now the disaffected middle class is joining the cause after watching their savings being undermined. This week, the government declared that a new exchange rate mechanism called SICAD II would provide more American dollars to private businesses, a tactic that promises to do nothing but devalue their currency even more and hasten the revolution.
This month-long protest in Venezuela is civil disobedience on a scale that the country has not seen since 2003 when then-President Hugo Chavez was close to being removed from power by a military coup, and now American involvement is not as much a question as it is a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, our history in the region is spotty at best. The US overthrew democratically elected governments in 1954 in Guatemala, 1964 in Brazil, 1973 in Chile, and of course supported the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. To also include the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh in favor of what essentially became a military-backed monarchy, we have a bad track record for sticking our nose where it does not belong, but that was a different era of Cold War politics and the democratic choice of the people is now our top priority. At this point Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador are aligned with Venezuela, while Mexico, Panama, Chile, and Colombia side with us. Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay are relatively neutral, and of course Cuba is absent from the table.
If we want to understand why this is relevant to us, Americans of Latin ancestry comprise of over 50 million people and constitute 17.2 percent of our total population, including 10.8 percent of eligible voters, making them a desirable political constituency. In 2012, it was their support of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a margin of 71 percent to 27 percent that helped re-elect the president.
As we keep struggling out of the Great Recession, we do not take our economic situation for granted, and as a result we should have extreme empathy for the people of Venezuela in addition to the liberty that is being stripped from them on a daily basis. Whether or not we choose to be the world’s policemen, our country was still founded upon the privilege of freedom that even now few humans have ever experienced. While a hardcore contingent of students vow to protest until President Maduro quits, they should know that concerning our involvement in their revolution, they have our unabashed and unrelenting support.
By Elijah Stephens