The crisis in Venezuela reminds us to look beyond the front pages

18 Jun 2016




The last week or so has seen the appalling news about the shooting of over 50 innocent LGBTI people in Orlando, as well as a popular and hard-working MP, the beginning of Euro 2016, celebrations for the Queen’s 90th birthday, and continuing discussion regarding the imminent EU Referendum.



However, Venezuela, one of the most unstable countries in Latin America, is facing severe food shortages recently which have triggered widespread looting and riots. Some of these have been co-ordinated in order for people to sell the food on for their own gain. Others come from the genuine desperation of people trying to feed their families.



According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, these food riots are only a quarter of the protests in the country. There were a total of 641 protests in May. However, the majority of these were linked to the rapidly declining standard of living under President Nicolas Maduro. Inflation has reached 180% and the economy has contracted by 5.7% in the past year according to official figures – though it is possible these figures are somewhat conservative.



Maduro is the successor to Hugo Chavez. Chavez had led the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MBR-200) in the 1980s, which was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1994, after being released from prison he founded the Fifth Republic Movement and was then elected the President of Venezuela in 1998. He was re-elected in 2000, 2006 and 2012. His revolution was a socialist revolution. He was famously a staunch, vocal enemy of the United States.



Chavez utilised the revenue from Venezuelan oil and its improving price to implement radical social change in Venezuela. These reforms were not sustainable however, and it seems that Maduro is now having to deal with the hangovers from Chavez’s rule as well as his own mistakes. There is a feeling that there may be a repeat of the 1989 "Caracazo" or "Caracas disaster", where hundreds died in riots and looting triggered by a fuel price increase during an economic crisis. Maduro’s handling of the situation, which currently primarily consists of blaming and attacking the opposition and foreign "aggressors", will be instrumental in deciding the outcome of these riots. The situation is worth keeping an eye on as it develops.



Alongside these popular protests demanding food and social improvements, the opposition in Venezuela have called for a referendum to replace Maduro and hold new elections. They presented a petition signed by 1.85 million people to the National Electoral Council at the beginning of May. This would have exceeded the number of signatures required under the constitution. Yet, the Electoral Council has invalidated over 600,000 signatures and needs to decide if the opposition campaign will progress to the next stage where they will need 20% of the population to sign a petition (almost 4 million people). Then an equal or greater number of voters than those who elected Maduro in 2013 would need to cast their vote in favour of the recall. This would mean 7,587,579 or more Venezuelans would need vote to remove Maduro. It is impossible to tell at this point how likely the referendum would be to succeed, but given the widespread and intense popular protests, he should certainly be worried. 



Maduro announced a week ago that if the referendum were to go ahead (contingent on it meeting the criteria) then it will be scheduled next year. Since this is within Maduro’s final 2 years in office, the constitution dictates that he will be replaced by his Vice-President rather than new elections being called. The opposition were hoping they could push the referendum through earlier since Maduro’s Vice-President would be unlikely to implement radically different policies, and thus very little would actually change. The reaction of the opposition to this will be interesting – will they manage to rally support against Maduro’s ability to stall the referendum? Or will they be forced to accept Maduro’s timetable in order to achieve any kind of victory, and have to attempt not to lose momentum?



I will certainly be watching closely. I would urge you to do the same. It's easy to be sucked in to paying attention only to the stories making the headlines. But we must remember to look beyond them if we want to know about all the important events occurring across the world, and thus genuinely stay up to date with the "news".



Struggles of the kind faced by ordinary Venezuelans for survival deserve coverage and notice, even when other big stories are quite understandably making waves. The events in the next few weeks and months could radically determine the political composition of Venezuela, and could have wider reaching effects across South America. So I urge you to keep an eye out for multiple news stories, not just those that pop up on your phone’s home screen from your BBC News app.


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