The atmosphere in the streets of Caracas must be tense: people queue for hours at supermarkets to buy basic needs such as oil or medicine. Mothers are desperately looking for milk powder, as the food shortage makes it impossible for many to feed a baby. Even the maize flour for arepas, the country’s favourite dish, is almost unattainable: The price for a pound of flour on the black market has risen to 1,500 Bolivares Fuertes – while it normally costs 19 Bolivares. The situation is grotesque: last year alone, the Venezuelan government has sold oil worth 113 billion USD, but they still have to rationalise toilet paper. How did the country end up in this economic misery and what implications does it have on the political realm?
An implosion of socialism
The decline of the oil price, the major revenue source of the country, has hit Venezuela hard. Consequently, the government’s access to foreign exchange is limited, and the regime has trouble paying for its imports – from which the economy largely depends. Additionally, Venezuela suffers from a severe drought that leaves the hydropower-based energy sector almost completely incapacitated. These unfavourable circumstances, in combination with the inefficiency of state-controlled businesses and the high levels of corruption, have brought the Venezuelan economy to the verge of a collapse. While president Maduro blames the US and enemies of the system for the crisis, people around the country continue to starve.
A Referendum about Maduro’s future
Understandably enough, the Venezuelans are tired of the economic state of emergency in a country that holds the largest oil reserves in the world. Thus, violent protests and riots have regularly emerged in the past months. During the last parliamentary elections in December 2015, the Socialists, President Maduro’s party, experienced a painful defeat. The candidates of the opposition alliance Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) won a two-thirds majority. Nonetheless, the MUD remains powerless as the government-controlled constitutional court revokes every legislation they pass.
In May this year, the power play between the Socialist regime and the MUD entered a new round, since the opposition announced a referendum to recall Maduro. Within two days, supporters collected two million signatures – although only 196,000 were necessary to trigger the next step of the impeachment. In order for the referendum to occur, the opposition now had to collect the signatures of 4 million voters within three days. This was scheduled to happen during the end of October, but the Chavismo-dominated election office stopped the process and stated that they detected numerous forgeries of signatures. The MUD called this a ‘coup of the Maduro regime’ (while the Socialists called the referendum itself a coup) and announced a lawsuit against the government. Long story short, in addition to the economic depression, Venezuela faces the most threatening political crisis in recent years.
Another parliamentary coup d’état in Latin America?
From an outside perspective, one might argue that it is legitimate to recall a government that fails to meet the needs of its people. But the reality on the ground is more complex. Hundreds of thousands supporters of the Chavismo protested on the streets during the whole referendum process. One should not forget that 50 per cent of Venezuela’s people voted for Maduro and the continuation of the Socialist project during the last presidential elections in 2013. Particularly for the poor, Maduro still is the legitimate successor of their beloved Comandante Hugo Cháves. The lower social classes feel represented by the regime, not the bourgeois opposition. An eventual success of impeachment would mean an end of the Chavist era, which is certainly not in the interest of the poor. Their fear is that the opposition will use the referendum as a pretext to take over power and establish a neoliberal economic system that leaves the interests of the poor behind. If put into the regional context, and with a particular consideration of recent developments in neighbouring Brazil, this concern is clearly justified.
Thus, different political narratives co-exist in Venezuela, and one should be careful to consider the anti-government protests as a grassroots-movement for democracy. They are much rather the expression of a struggle for power, which is backed up by conservative upper classes that seek to establish a neoliberal market-model in Venezuela.
The calm before the storm
Luckily, the Vatican intervened last week and conciliated between the MUD and the government. For the moment, this prevented an escalation of the crisis. However, the situation remains volatile and the way ahead is unclear. One cannot rule out the possibility that the current state of affairs will reach existential dimensions for the future of socialism in Venezuela. There is a fertile ground for political violence and much of this recalls 11 April 2002, the day the elite of the country staged a coup against Hugo Chávez.