SOUTH AMERICA ∙ Crumbling Democracy: Behind Venezuela’s Economic and Political Instability

Venezuela was once among the strongest of South America’s economies, however, in the last several years, the country has been gripped by volatile instability. From a collapsing economy, to deadly political protests and highly controversial government policies, Venezuela and its people are in turmoil. As Venezuela’s president, Nicolàs Maduro, fights for a revolution that he claims will bring justice, peace, and equality to the country, critics of his regime are fearful of the government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies to the extent that Venezuela is at risk of becoming a dictatorship.

A Country Destabilized by Plummeting Oil Prices

The whole world was watching when oil prices began dropping in 2014, however, for Venezuela, a country that significantly relies on oil profits, the effects on their economy were radically more destabilizing than anywhere else in the world. Venezuela is certainly not the only country affected by variable oil prices; however, government mismanagement is a key factor in why Venezuela’s economy has seen a dramatic downturn over the last several years. As the economy shrank from a loss of oil profits, Venezuela could no longer afford to import the same volume of goods required to keep the country functioning. This means essential items, such as food, medicine, and other basic necessities have become increasingly sparse. Combined with an inflation rate that may exceed 700% and a currency that has become so devalued it is nearly worthless, the Venezuelan economy is crumbling. A struggling economy often hurts the most disadvantaged members of society but, in Venezuela’s case, the economic troubles have been affecting the entire country; a significant portion of the population has been pushed onto the brink of poverty, jailed for protesting the regime, or have been forced to flee the country.

From Democracy to Dictatorship: The Weakening of Venezuela’s Institutions

When Hugo Chavez passed away in 2013, he entrusted his successor, Mr. Maduro, to continue his socialist agenda. Many argue that Mr. Chavez’s strict protectionist and highly-regulated regime weakened the country’s institutions and that, since taking power, Mr. Maduro has only worsened the state of Venezuela’s governance structure.2 In response, the divide between regime supporters and opponents has been steadily deepening, and protests against the regime have intensified in the wake of the government’s handling of the country’s various crises. Opponents of the regime allege Mr. Maduro and his government are riddled with corruption and have no intention to address the serious crises affecting the country and the population. Supporters of the regime, conversely, contend that the opposition is elitist and is working with the United States in their efforts to destabilize the regime.2

Constituent Assembly: For the People, or For Power?

Earlier this year, Mr. Maduro called for an election of a Constituent Assembly, arguing for its necessity in preventing a coup d’état and restoring peace and stability to the country. However, critics reason this was a desperate move by Mr. Maduro to cling onto power, thereby making it harder to remove him from office. The election on July 31, 2017 resulted in a new Constituent Assembly almost entirely consisting of regime supporters; however, the election and the results have been widely criticized and refuted from both opposition parties and their supporters, as well as many in the international community.6 This new assembly effectively allows for the regime to not only be in control of all arms of the government, but also to embolden the regime’s desire to rewrite the country’s constitution – without seeking citizens’ input by calling a referendum. Furthermore, the assembly has the power to additionally overrule Parliament and dismiss any dissenting officials.6

A Global Response to Authoritarianism

Many in the international community – including the United Nations, European Union, and a newly-formed bloc of countries from North and South America – widely refuted the results of the Constitutional Assembly election.6 Critics question its legitimacy and additionally point to not only the low voter turnout (the opposition estimates approximately only 12%, which includes citizens who were allegedly manipulated and blackmailed into voting for the regime), but also the lack of safeguards against voter fraud. The United States was among the first countries to send a strong message by instituting sanctions, particularly centred on freezing assets Mr. Maduro has in the US and banning American citizens from working with him.5

Does Venezuela Need a Political or Economic Solution?

In the wake of the election of the Constituent Assembly and ongoing violent protests, many anticipate Venezuela’s economy troubles to persist and likely worsen. For now, it remains unclear whether and how Mr. Maduro and his regime will respond to the international community’s sanctions and condemnation of the election. The hope of the ongoing protests and international sanctions are to convince the regime to consider negotiating with the opposition. However, as the price of oil rises again, it begs the question whether this alone will be enough to help Venezuela’s economy to recover from several years of recession; and if the economy recovers, will the political stress also be eased, or will the opposition continue their fight?

Article written by Sarah THOMPSON










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