Venezuela appears to be poised for a major political crisis, after the dramatic change of government in Ukraine earlier this week. The South American state has been flirting with dictatorship since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998. Chavez held office until his death last year, and was immediately replaced by Nicolas Maduro, who is now facing protests against himself and his government.
Chavez was a long-serving military officer who had, at times, specialized in counterinsurgency. His rule started to be marked by these tactics, and they appear to be continuing under the new president. Whereas Chavez maintained strong popularity among his constituents, Maduro has proven less able to hold the country together.
The unrest in Venezuela has cost at least 15 lives so far, and the country has blamed the U.S. government for the protesting. But the creation and manning of barricades by hundreds of young Venezuelan students is highly unlikely to be due to U.S. action. On the basis of the claims of “organizing rock throwing protests,” Venezuela expelled three American diplomats earlier this week. Today, the United States responded and sent three Venezuelans home. The diplomats have been given 48 hours to leave the United States. Although it is highly unlikely that diplomats in either country will have personally been involved in illegal activity, it is unclear what will happen if they remain. Venezuela could be poised for a political crisis.
This is not the first diplomatic spat. Neither the United States nor Venezuela have had representation by an ambassador in either country since 2008. The Venezuelan government has sought to find the next ambassador to the United States, despite the political crisis they partly blame on America.
The student protests in Venezuela are mostly based on the difficult economic conditions in the country, where inflation and high food prices are making life tough for its citizens. The direct responsibility that the president holds for this is not altogether clear, even if the buck does stop with him. The barricades have been criticized by moderate opposition groups as potentially isolating for people in the neighborhoods where the protests have taken place.
The crisis, however, is being taken seriously by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who is planning a trip to Caracas in order to mediate the two sides. Carter had previously visited Venezuela when an attempted coup against Chavez brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2002.
An oil-rich country, Venezuela holds the world’s largest oil reserves, which could be the likely cause of economic hardship despite the financial boom of oil, due to overspending and corruption. The self-proclaimed socialist government of Venezuela has spent billions on the country’s poor, leading to the highest general standard of living in South America. But the government has also enforced price controls and carried out policies of expropriation of land which has led to significant food shortages. Added to this are currency controls that prevent movement of capital, leading to devaluation of the currency as fluidity regularly becomes unavailable.
If Maduro cannot deal with these issues, Venezuela looks like it will be poised for political crisis.
By Andrew Willig