Security Advisory: Venezuela (17 May 2016)May 17, 2016 in Venezuela
President Nicolas Maduro has called a constitutional state of emergency in Venezuela in the face of the country’s severe economic crisis and ongoing social and political protests. MS Risk is closely monitoring the situation on the ground and has consultants in place to provide emergency evacuation services or security risk advice to travellers and personnel should the situation further deteriorate.
During the weekend May 15-16 significant demonstrations rocked the capital Caracas, as anti-government demonstrators clashed with the police and pro-government supporters. The opposition are calling for a referendum to challenge Maduro’s presidency in the face of the spiralling economic crisis. Demonstrations are likely to continue in Caracas and other cities throughout the country and intensify in the coming weeks. Maduro has called on the army to prepare for a major exercise to “safeguard” the country from foreign invaders and a potential coup. Maduro has systematically claimed that right-wing groups supported by the US, and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, are driving the civil unrest and attempting to carry out a coup. The highly sensitive relationship between the US and Venezuela is likely to ensure that the US will not intervene in the crisis, but push for a regional response.
MS Risk strongly advises against all non-essential travel to Venezuela at this time.
The opposition are likely to call for peaceful protests in the coming days to maintain pressure on the government to allow a referendum to depose Maduro and trigger presidential elections. There has been speculation that the military generals could carry out a coup, but MS Risk’s sources on the ground have not seen any significant activity to suggest that the army generals are likely to desert the president at this current time. However, Maduro’s hold on power is increasingly at risk as dissident factions within his own party are starting to turn against him in the face of the crippling economic crisis and widespread medical and food shortages. By calling a state of emergency he is likely to use the military to attempt to regain control in the coming weeks, and seize private assets to prop up the flailing economy.
There is a high likelihood of violent protests breaking out across major cities in the coming weeks and MS Risk advises all travellers to be highly vigilant and avoid demonstrations wherever possible. The political and economic meltdown have reached a crisis point and protesters are increasingly angry. Should the military and police respond with heavy handed tactics, violence is likely to break out. This is particularly worrisome given the dire situation of the country’s hospitals and lack of ambulance and paramedic supplies.
MS Risk strongly advises travellers in Venezuela to avoid engaging in political discussions in public in the highly polarised current environment. We advise not to wear any colours or items that could be misconstrued by the crowds as being partisan, eg red items of clothing, or khaki military looking attire.
There are widespread shortages of medicine on the open market and most pharmacies are empty. Hospitals and clinics are facing a serious public health crisis. The economic crisis has resulted in a major public health issue across the country with hospitals struggling to provide basic medicines such as antibiotics, intravenous solutions and sanitation products (soap, gloves, disinfectants). Alongside this, constant water shortages and blackouts have seen a significant uptick in preventable deaths. In January 2016 the opposition in Congress declared a state of humanitarian emergency and passed a law to allow international aid to prop up the health system. President Maduro rejected the effort as an attempt to privatise the hospital system. Protesters are now calling for the international community to intervene.
MS Risk advises travellers to Venezuela to bring their own emergency medical supplies and sanitary provisions (shampoo, soap, deodorant, toilet paper, etc). It should be highlighted that it is extremely difficult to purchase baby milk and diapers on the open market and MS Risk notes the high risk to travellers or expatriates that may fall ill. The crisis in the hospital and current widespread shortages and power shortages significantly limit the capacity of x-ray machines, oxygen tanks and other respiratory machines. Any traveller to Venezuela must make contingency plans on how to access medical attention should they fall ill, or plans for an emergency evacuation.
There are widespread food shortages, with many shops completely bare and long queues for basic provisions. Looting has become commonplace and violent scuffles regularly occur in the fight to gain basic food supplies. Numerous factories have stopped producing in recent weeks because of the shortages of key ingredients entering the country and constant energy shortages. The government has claimed in the current state of emergency it will seize private factories by force to make them produce basic provisions.
There are rolling blackouts throughout the country, including in Caracas. Schools are officially closed on Fridays and government workers are operating a two-day week in the face of constant energy shortages. Any travellers to Venezuela should be aware that internet access may be severely limited during power outages, and should not depend on electronic devices to navigate the city or make travel plans. It is advisable to map out your daily travel routes and to prepare for limited cell phone coverage and internet access, particularly if significant civil unrest breaks out and the networks are brought down.
The economy is in a state of freefall with the IMF predicting inflation at 700% this year. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, but its economy retracted 5.7% last year and is predicted to further retract 8% this year, sharply affected by the falling oil prices. The government has so far managed to not default on its debt by significantly cutting costs that have exacerbated the aforementioned food and medical shortages. However, it is increasingly likely that the Venezuelan oil firm PDVSA will default on its $5bn bond payments between now and the end of the year, further shaking confidence in the economy’s ability to rally. The country has drained its foreign reserves, and despite hyperinflation cannot print money quick enough to pay the current debts.
Private companies face a significant risk of non-payment on government contracts. Numerous airline carriers have cut their services to Venezuela since 2014 because of rising insecurity and the government’s inability to pay many contracts. In the oil services sector, providers such as Halliburton and Schlumberger have scaled back their operations because they are owed hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts. In the current state of emergency that is likely to extend into July, private companies’ assets are at risk as the government will look to nationalise companies to prop up the economy.
Venezuela has some of the highest rates of violence crime in the world, with Caracas registering one of the highest homicide rates in the world in 2015. MS Risk advises travellers to be particularly aware of the dangerous on the road between the Simon Bolivar Airport and Caracas, where regular violent muggings and attacks are reported, often by criminals posing as taxi drivers. MS Risk strongly advises travellers not to use any street taxis or public transport, and to use official drivers with secure vehicles to navigate in the city, particularly in the current climate of widespread roadblocks amid demonstrations.
Major Incidents (1 – 15 May 2016)
15 May Venezuela will hold national military exercises to prepare the country for “any scenario”, President Nicolas Maduro said. On Friday, Maduro extended the economic state of emergency in the country for three more months.
14 May Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency on Friday due to what he called plots from within the country and from the US to topple his leftist government. Maduro did not provide details of the measure. A previous state of emergency, implemented in states near the Colombian border last year, suspended constitutional guarantees in those areas, except for guarantees relating to human rights.
The Venezuelan government has imposed a ban on protests in the capital Caracas over concerns that they could lead to deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro. The decision comes as the opposition is pressing ahead with a drive to remove Maduro from power through a referendum.
13 May Venezuela’s Attorney General on Wednesday charged nearly a dozen people, including an Interpol official and five national guards in connection with a shipment of drugs seized in the Dominican Republic in March. Prosecutors charged the men with drug trafficking and conspiracy.
11 May Soldiers and police officers fired tear gas at protesters on Wednesday as Venezuela’s opposition marched to pressure electoral authorities into allowing a recall referendum against leftist President Nicolas Maduro. Hundreds marched in the capital of Caracas as well as the provinces but authorities blocked them. The Democratic Unity coalition has ramped up its push to oust Maduro amid a worsening economic crisis, but says the government-leaning electoral body is intentionally delaying the verification of signatures in favour of the referendum.
Nine members of a criminal gang were killed during a crackdown by security forces on crime around the capital of Venezuela. Authorities seized rifles and grenades during the raids. Officers also arrested 15 other suspects wanted by the courts for homicide, drug trafficking and robbery. They also detained 80 Colombians who were in the country illegally.
7 May The leader of a Venezuelan opposition party in the north-western state of Lara was shot dead by unidentified attackers on Friday. The victim was German Mavares, the state head of the New Time party. It is difficult to establish whether the killing was politically motivated or random violence in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Venezuela’s National Guard killed a notorious paramilitary chief during a military ambush in the rural state of Guarico. Jose Tovar Colina was the leader of Los Picures gang, a paramilitary group involved in a series of hired killings, kidnappings and vehicle hijackings. Three other alleged members of Los Pictures gang were also killed in the shoot-out.
4 May Venezuelan officials say the country’s most wanted gang leader has been killed in a shootout with police. Interior Minister Gustavo Gonzalez identified Jose Colina as the leader of a gang that dominated several states in the center of Venezuela.
2 May Venezuelan opposition has delivered Monday more than 1.85 million signatures to the National Electoral Board for verification as part of a petition to launch the first stage for a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro. If the electoral board accepts the signatures as valid the opposition will then have to collect four million more for the board to organize the vote.