Since the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power in 1998, and after 13 years of economic and political reorganization of the country according to his “Bolivarian Revolution”, Venezuela has widely depended on oil revenue, which represented the 93 percent of the country’s exports in 2008, and generated an income between $90 and $100 billion, which helped Chavez with its social projects and the large share of imports.
The global economic crisis hit Venezuela strongly due to the drop in oil prices, altering the Venezuelan trade balance. The economic difficulties Venezuela has been facing since then, with a 475 percent inflation and a 10 percent fall in its GDP for 2016, have led to the current situation of shortage of basic commodities for the population, and political and social crisis affecting the country.
Far from self-criticism, Nicolás Maduro accuses the opposition and citizens who demonstrate against its government of the situation and of being part of an international plot to overthrow him. This has led to the polarization of the Venezuelan society in two blocs, Chavez’s supporters or pro-government seeking to perpetuate the spirit of Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”, and opposition groups, that blame the government of the disastrous economic situation and seek to dismiss Maduro.
The situation has become critical recently, since the opposition appears more united than ever and has received more support from the international community and the citizenship, which gave them the absolute majority in the National Assembly in the past elections, and tries to relieve Maduro from power. Maduro has responded authoritatively delaying regional elections and even dismantling the National Assembly’s powers. The opposition and the population, tired of the growing situation of poverty, take the streets constantly demanding the resignation of the president, who accuses them of coup and responds with brute force by the police, the army and even pro-government paramilitary armed groups, provoking clashes that have caused 28 dead in April.
The objective of this analysis is to glimpse the way in which the situation in Venezuela might evolve in the coming months. For that purpose, different scenarios will be generated using the cone of plausibility method according to the key indicators of the Venezuelan crisis, which are: economy, popular support and mobilization, military support, pro-government political forces unity, opposition unity and international influence.
Low oil prices are still devastating the Venezuelan economy, which is unable to provide commodities to the people, which demands, along with the opposition groups, the resignation of Nicolás Maduro for his handling of the crisis. The president, supported by the ruling party and the military, refuses to resign and accuses the opposition of coup attempt, which translates into strong repression of the demonstrations that causes casualties; meanwhile, the government is criticized by the international community, and tries to find an exit to the economic situation the country is facing.
Plausible Scenario 1
The discontent of the population, which starts to live in poverty conditions ever seen in Venezuela, has grown at an astonishing rate and has shown the little support Maduro has in the streets. Considering the popular discontent, the army begins to show itself increasingly neutral in the situation and, although it promises to maintain peace, it does not swear loyalty to the president. At the same time, members of the ruling party have created a current that seeks the internal overthrown of Maduro to save the image of the party for future elections.
Plausible Scenario 2
The implementation of negotiations between the government and the opposition, made the parties conforming the opposition to dissent around the demands they should ask the president. While some were clamouring for his resignation, others accepted other gestures such as the call for regional elections. The opposition’s division led to a demobilization of the population, which showed distrust to the parties asking only for the dismissal of Maduro at all costs. The social situation remains tense, but stable and contained, while the government has obtained more time to improve the economic situation at the expense of some regional governments that have fallen into the hands of opposition groups.
Plausible Scenario 3
The aggravated situation of poverty, because of a government that still does not know how to alleviate the economic crisis, has led to larger protests on the streets and has reduced popular support of president Nicolás Maduro. The president, who has the loyalty of the military and the ruling party, hardest repressed protests, increasing the number of dead to hundreds. Violent clashes and the refusal of the president to call for elections have led certain opposition groups and population to face the police and military by armed means. The government foresees an escalation of the situation after losing certain localities at the hand of such groups, which declared themselves free from central government’s control. The international community is already talking about civil war and the situation is being taken to the Security Council, with Venezuelan traditional allies, such as Russia, considering its neutrality on passing sanctions against the Caribbean country.
Social protests rise and president Maduro’s immobility led a sector of the army to question its generals and prepared a coup that overthrew pro-government commands. Straightaway, they ousted Maduro from power and maintain the status quo in the streets because of the strong protests of Maduro supporters and pro-government paramilitary forces. New commanders of the army have instituted the state of emergency until further notice.
December was not a good month for the Venezuelan people. The power political reverberations of former President Hugo Chavez’ death have reached a new climax in the last month of 2016. A widespread financial crisis sparked by governmental mismanagement; runaway hyperinflation and a severe drop in oil prices has ultimately led to major civil unrest and public violence. The current situation led the UK Foreign Office and US State Department to issue travel warnings for a country which has not been in this much turmoil for a long time. The month started on a bad note after Venezuela was expelled from MERCOSUR, the regional trading bloc. Following a decade in which strong growth and leftist policies across South America led the bloc to embrace Venezuela, the suspension now underscores the ideological split in a region struggling with plummeting commodity prices and weakening economies. It further isolates the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who is accused of exacerbating the political, economic and humanitarian crises battering the country.
Meanwhile Maduro sent his Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriquez to Buenos Aires to attend a bloc meeting. Being expelled, Rodriquez was physically prevented from entering a meeting room, which led to the Minister becoming ‘gravely hurt’, according to Maduro. The removal of MERCOSUR put the Bolivar, the national currency, under increased pressure. Devaluation and soaring inflation led to the issuing of new higher-value notes. A backpack full of cash is often required to pay bills at a restaurant or supermarket. The central bank said that six new bills ranging from 500 to 20,000 bolivars would come into circulation halfway through the month. The largest note used to be 100 bolivars and worth about two US cents. Over the past month, the currency has tumbled by 60% against the dollar on the black market. In order to facilitate the use of higher denominations, Maduro pulled the 100 bolivar note creating a national cash shortage on top of the brutal economic crisis. After two days of unrest over the measure – including one death and dozens of shops ransacked – Maduro postponed the measure until 2 January. That helped stem violence, though there were still reports of more lootings in other parts of the country. The border between Venezuela and Colombia was closed for 72 hours in order to prevent the flow of cash out of the country. The Venezuelan crisis has also strained its relationships with allied countries and businesses.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that it has asked the Venezuelan government to take measures to protect Chinese people and their property. Multiple Chinese-run business have suffered from looting. Ford Motor Company has halted auto production in Venezuela and will not resume it until April: “It is a measure to adjust production to demand in the country.” The pressures on the Venezuelan people and economy are not likely to alleviate soon, although it is a realistic possibility to see an extension of the current rise in oil prices in the coming year, perhaps the country’s only hope amid a folly of bad news.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed to neighbouring Colombia to buy basic goods amid shortages during a brief opening of the border. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro authorized a 12 hour opening of the bridge that connects Tachira, Venezuela, and Cucuta, Colombia. According to the director of the Colombian border authority, an estimated 35.000 Venezuelans arrived in Cucuta. The border was closed in August 2015 as a part of a crime crackdown. President Nicolas Maduro ordered the border closure because the region had been infiltrated by Colombian paramilitaries and gangs.
Venezuelans who want to cross into Colombia in states where the border has been closed need a special permit to do so. But as the scarcity of food gets worse in Venezuela, many have crossed the porous border illegally. On July 6, about 500 Venezuelan women in search of food and medicine broke through border controls separating the western state of Tachira from Cucuta. After buying food and other goods which are scarce in Venezuela, they again gathered at the the border post asking the Colombian guards to let them pass. Goods such as rice, sugar, flour, and oil are hard to come by in Venezuela due to a deep economic crisis.
The ministers of defense from Colombia and Venezuela met earlier this months to discuss potentially reopening border gates on the 2.000 kilometres separating the two countries. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin also visited Cucuta last week to push for a reopening.
Demonstrators demanding food have clashed with rioting police in several Venezuelan cities in recent weeks amid demonstrations and looting that have turned deadly. Last month, Venezuelan security forces fired teargas at protesters chanting “We want food!” near the presidential palace in Caracas. National Guard and police officers blocked a road near the Miraflores palace in downtown Caracas, after scores of angry Venezuelans began trying to approach the building.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his cabinet blame the recession on an “economic war” they say is being waged against them by businessmen in league with the opposition. The Venezuelan opposition, however, says the real cause of the crisis is the state-led system defended by late leftist leader Hugo Chavez. After winning control of the legislature in January, the opposition launched its efforts to remove the president, including a bid for a recall referendum.
Venezuelan police have arrested more than 400 people in the city of Cumana after street looting over food shortages. Over 100 shops were hit and at least one person died during the incidents. Another death was also reported in the state of Merida from unrest which is breaking out sporadically across the country. Local authorities said that these incidents were inspired by a right-wing faction within the country’s opposition.
Food and medicine are in short supply and street protests and lootings have increased drastically. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local monitoring group, more than 10 incidents of looting are occurring daily across the nation of 30 million people, which is suffering a deep recession and the world’s highest rate of inflation at 180%. Roberto Briceno Leon, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, said the lootings were going to continue because there was hunger. Briceno Leon also said that the government’s response was insufficient and politicized, so people were resorting to robbery.
Earlier this month, Venezuelan security forces fired teargas at protesters chanting “We want food!” near Caracas’ presidential palace. Hundreds of Venezuelans heading for Miraflores palace in downtown Caracas were met by National Guard and police who blocked a major road. President Nicolas Maduro had been scheduled to address a rally nearby.
Venezuela is also facing a severe electricity shortage. In April, President Nicolas Maduro decided to shorten the workweek to two days in an effort to save energy and electricity. El Guri dam, the country’s most important source of electricity, has record-low water levels.
Venezuela’s political opposition says President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez are to blame for failed economic policies. The opposition is pursuing a recall referendum this year in an effort to remove President Maduro from office. Last Tuesday, Venezuelan police fired rubber bullets and tear gas grenades at students from the public Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, who demonstrated in demand of a referendum on removing Maduro.
But the government says the shortages are part of an economic war being waged to drive President Nicolas Maduro from office. Government officials say there is not enough time this year to organise a referendum. To avoid the threat of unrest associated with long food lines, the government has assigned neighbourhood committees linked to the ruling socialist party to distribute food. The move has angered the opposition, who equate it to an attempt to force loyalty among Venezuelans.
A bloodstained weekend marked the latest chapter in a year of increased violence against Venezuela‘s security forces, a trend that is expected to continue as the country’s political and economic crisis deepens. According to Venezuela‘s Foundation for Due Process (Fundación para el Debido Proceso – Fundepro), 163 police officers, military officials and bodyguards were killed during the first five months of 2016, a 14 percent increase from the same time period last year, reported El Nacional. Fundepro’s study found that only 11 of the 163 killings have been resolved in court.
In 80 percent of the cases, the attacker also stripped the security officer of his weapon. An unidentified source within Venezuela‘s investigative police force, the CICPC, told El Nacional that the officer’s weapon was only recovered by authorities 3 percent of the time.
This past weekend was a particularly violent one for the country’s security forces. On Saturday, June 4, a group of assailants shot and killed a member of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) while he was conducting a routine patrol in the northern state of Miranda. Two other officers were wounded, while one of the assailants was killed in the ensuing shootout.
On Sunday, a group of police officers in Miranda were attacked after they arrived at a food distribution center that was being plundered by bandits. Although no officers were injured, the thieves reportedly made off with 25 tons of food.
That same day, a group of individuals ganged up to beat with sticks a member of the CICPC homicide division, after the agent was reportedly seen committing a robbery at a gas station in Caracas. One of the agent’s family members, who was allegedly involved in the robbery, was shot and killed.
Earlier in the week, on June 2, a retired GNB officer in the state of Aragua was killed by six men wielding shotguns as he went to meet with local authorities.
As the Fundepro study shows, the majority of assaults against police or military are rooted in attempts to rob the agents of their firearm. This suggests criminal gangs are behind a great deal of the attacks directed at security forces, since they need weapons to mete out violence and protect themselves from their rivals.
But anecdotal evidence from this weekend, as well as from previous weeks and months, indicates the violence against security forces is becoming more generalized. If this is indeed the case, this trend is likely linked to Venezuela‘s worsening crises on the political, economic and security fronts.
Amid runaway inflation, chronic food shortages and falling approval ratings, President Nicolás Maduro finds himself increasingly relying on the country’s security forces to maintain some semblance of law and order. Last year the government launched a massive security offensive dubbed Operation Liberation of the People (OLP) to combat crime in the country, which regularly ranks as one of Latin America’s most violent. The president has also stationed troops at supermarkets and food distribution points in an attempt to prevent looting.
This is not only stretching police resources, but it also puts the security forces in more direct conflict with ordinary citizens who are growing restless as the lines lengthen and more food products disappear from the shelves.
It’s not just food that is running out. In late April, Maduro shortened the work week to two days for public sector employees in order to save on electricity. A shortage in medical supplies has also caused a public health emergency, with reports of infants dying in hospitals on a daily basis. The recent death of an 8-year-old boy diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, who had become the symbol of Venezuela‘s health care crisis, drew outrage across the country.
Widespread corruption within the security forces, especially those stationed along the Colombian border, is another source of public frustration. During recent field research in the border area InSight Crime was told by a Colombian intelligence agent that members of Venezuela‘s National Guard are threatening to kill smugglers of gasoline and other contraband products if they do not agree to a pay a protection fee to the authorities. Covert networks of military officials, collectively known as the Cartel of the Suns, are also believed to be heavily involved in the country’s lucrative cocaine trade.
As public resentment builds against a corrupt force, acts of violence directed at the security forces — such as the one last weekend against the CICPC agent — could become more common.
Venezuela’s precarious political situation is another ominous indication that things could get worse for the security forces before they get better. The political opposition hascollected 1.8 million signatures — it only needed 200,000 — petitioning the government to set up a referendum on whether to depose Maduro from power. Electoral authorities, however, have yet to approve the petition or set a date for the recall vote.
As political scientist Ian Bremmer points out at Time Magazine, this delay could be a ploy to push the referendum into next year, when the vice president — a party loyalist — would automatically assume the presidency if Maduro gets ousted. So while Maduro is fighting for his political life, it appears his party is already scheming to stay in power until the official end of the president’s term in 2019.
The end may or may not be near for Maduro, but Venezuela‘s ongoing turmoil — and the attendant violence against the country’s security forces — is unlikely to subside any time soon.