The situation in Venezuela is somewhat unimaginable from a British perspective.
That which is merely the day to day life for so many is inconceivably strange from a cosy Western perspective.
We might think we’ve had it pretty rough over here, but the Venezuelan inflation rate for 2013 was one of 56.2%. Not only has everything almost doubled in price, but staples such as toilet paper and milk can at times be a scarce commodity.
You might find yourself touring from shop to shop to find this most rudimental of hygiene products, or fighting in the isles over powdered milk. Not only are the most basic of household goods scarce, but so are also essential amenities: Last year the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, suffered two full scale blackouts – the country outside of the capital unfortunately doesn’t get it quite so easy.
We may be faced with a so called ‘cost of living crisis’ but at least our cost of living isn’t measured by the exchange rates of a dollar black market. As a result of said black market and extreme government controls over who has access to the US dollar, Venezuelan society is warped even further; As the exchange rate of Bolivars (the Venezuelan national currency) to the dollar on the black market is ten times higher that the official exchange rate, those who have access to actual US dollars have ten times the buying power.
If you take to the streets in protest as to the absolutely terrible state the government is leaving the country in, it isn’t just the police you have to worry about, but more so the militantly pro government ‘colectivos’ – a term referring to a number of groups that from many angles look more like street gangs than political associations. These aren’t just the usual paid thugs that the world has seen throughout history.
The colectivos don’t just promote the hard left policies of the government, they literally drive voters to the polls, and they run bookshops, study groups, children’s summer camps and radio stations. One group even operates a veterinary practice!
Sinisterly colectivos often take charge of security across whole neighbourhoods, setting up armed road blocks, stopping motorists to question them. Most importantly they come out to guard pro-government rallies and come out to oppose dissidence. And the people have reason to think the colectivos mean business – they have been accused of everything from sending death threats to journalists, to gassing the residence of a Vatican envoy.
The situation isn’t much simpler for Venezuelans looking on from outside protest or civil unrest. As soon as a movement gains traction the government will come out to say that the situation is in fact the beginnings of a US backed coup. And those onlookers would have fair reason to take the government seriously: Not just for the USA’s messy history of South American intervention, but also given the failed military coup of 2002, that saw Hugo Chavez ousted for just 47 hours.
The coup was preceded by talks between Washington official and figures instrumental in the rebellion. A defence department official had this to say shortly after: ‘We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don’t like this guy. We didn’t say, ‘No, don’t you dare’ and we weren’t advocates saying, ‘Here’s some arms; we’ll help you overthrow this guy.’ One can see how it becomes difficult to know what to think.
On the first weekend of February President Nicolas Maduro, successor to the late Hugo Chavez, came to Venezuela’s MargaritaIsland for the Caribbean Series Baseball Tournament. Whilst he performed the ceremonial opening Maduro was booed by some in the crowd. Some saw this as the emergence of ill feeling surrounding suspicion that Maduro is in fact a puppet of the Castro family, holders of the Cuban presidency; such sentiments were allegedly displayed when protesters pelted the Cuban team’s bus. Maduro ordered the response himself, ‘It’s unacceptable that they have tried to assault sportsmen. That is pure fascism. They’re going to prison’. Seven protestors were arrested.
Thus, Harvard educated, Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the hardline opposition party ‘Popular Will’ was able to argue ‘These young people are behind bars for raising a banner… Maduro’s plan is to spread fear via repression so that we do not take to the street’. Lopez and others had been trying to spark protests against the President as his disastrous economic policies, but had yet to gain the momentum necessary for the desired impact’.
By Friday four more protestors had been detained following student demonstrations in the west of the country. Maduro, again using the ‘fascist’ label, boasted ‘We have made four arrests… there will be no mercy.’ By Tuesday the 11th a total of nineteen had been detained following another student protests the night before. It was claimed, by those of opposition movements, that others protesting in the west of the country were short at by colectivos that day. The President was by now declaring that the protestors were being organised by foreign-backed coup seekers.
On Wednesday thousands of students gathered to attended rallies coinciding with Youth Day, an occasion in the Venezuelan calendar commemorating the involvement of students in 19th century resistance to colonial authority. ‘Popular Will’ had finally managed to get large protests under their banner ‘The Exit’, referring to a desired resignation of President Maduro. The protest was mostly peaceful but would end in terrible violence.
After ten-thousand or so departed, a minority remained behind and clashed with security forces. At this point armed men arrived on motorcycles and shot into the crowd. This was to spark bloody violence and shooting, in which many were injured, between protestors, colectivos, and police.
Hours later the President took to the airwaves to inform the nation that they could be sure there would be ‘no coup d’etat in Venezuela’ and to call the people to the streets to supposedly defend the peace. Before the day was out the government had secured an arrest warrant for Leopoldo Lopez (on charges relating to murder and terrorism), another hundred had been arrested, and three people had lost their lives.
Twitter announced on Friday that Venezuela had blocked images on its service, that it had been at its most intense on Friday but had ended Friday morning.
Protests carried on into Saturday meeting counter protests from the colectivos. Police were using teargas and water canon to prevent protestors blocking a highway in the capital. On Friday the authorities had released 25 protestors but the majority still remained bars. The government had not managed to find Lopez despite searching the ‘Peoples Will’ headquarters and his family home.
On Sunday peaceful protests remained ongoing, whilst at times other clashed with police forces. The President showed no signs of going, yet a will to keep going till he does just that evidently remained. Leopoldo Lopez announced via his twitter that he would be showing his face and at protests on Tuesday, and that he would risk being jailed. President Maduro is now expelling three US consular officials having alleged their communication with students involved in the protests.
At the time of writing ‘Live Leak’ streams originally set up to shine a light on the chaotic and bloody struggle in Venezuela now display run of the mill inner city traffic. Although this will undoubtedly not be the case come Tuesday, at the moment the scene looks rather tame and familiar. It isn’t.
Underneath is a situation of such extreme political tension and potential tragedy, as to be entirely alien to the politics of the United Kingdom. At the drop of a hat there could suddenly be gunfire in the streets and the threat of something like a revolution. Looking at Venezuela one wonders whether us living under considerably more stable political climates properly appreciate, and make use of, our ability to engage in politics without having to fear it may result in chaos and bloodshed.