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Keys to Understanding the Political and Economic Crisis in Venezuela

Venezuela

Peaceful demonstrations in Caracas, Venezuela on 12 February 2014. Photo by durdaneta under CC BY 2.0 license.

The crisis and the polarization that have put Venezuela in the international media spotlight are often beyond the comprehension of those watching the situation unfold, whether from up close or from afar.

For Venezuelans, the rise of Chavism as the so-called socialism of the 21st century, the oil crisis, the constitutional changes, the protests, the violence and the economic crisis seem to be unrelenting. At the same time, the political drama makes things even more confusing.

In the past, we at Global Voices have discussed the Venezuelan conflict through the lens of different perspectives, including social media. However, the country's state of affairs has become even more complex with the worsening shortage of medicines and basic products as well as the declaration of a “State of Constitutional Exception and Economic Emergency” that, according to the public opinion, challenges the democratic foundations of the system.

Recently, we spoke with Luis Carlos Díaz, a Global Voices contributor and a well-known media figure in Venezuela, to help us understand the key issues of the Venezuelan crisis and how they are all connected.

Global Voices (GV): Why the state of emergency?

Luis Carlos Díaz (LCD): Nicolás Maduro considera que necesita tener mayor control político, económico y social para gobernar el país en medio de la crisis. La realidad es que el Estado de Excepción es una manera de anular el trabajo de la Asamblea Nacional, nuestro parlamento, porque la oposición controla la mayoría de los curules. Con una emergencia económica, Maduro puede mover presupuesto y aprobar acciones sin rendirle cuentas al país ni ser auditado por los parlamentarios.

Lo curioso es que la crisis económica la ha creado él mismo, o los años de gobierno de chavismo.

Luis Carlos Díaz (LCD): [Venezuelan President] Nicolás Maduro thinks that he needs greater political, economic and social control to govern the country in the midst of the crisis. The reality is that the state of emergency is a way of annulling the work of the National Assembly, our parliament, because the opposition controls most seats. With an economic emergency, Maduro can make decisions regarding the budget and approve actions without being accountable to the country or being audited by the parliamentarians.

The interesting thing is that the economic crisis was created by him, and by the Chavez government.

GV: How has the economic crisis unfolded?

LCD: Venezuela tiene por 4to año consecutivo la inflación más alta del mundo. Solo en el último año ha superado el 750%.

También tenemos la escasez de alimentos y medicinas más grave del continente, así que la gente muere por falta de medicamentos y muchos venezolanos han dejado de consumir proteínas y optaron por saltarse comidas para rendir la alacena. El salario mensual es de 15.000 bolívares [aproximadamente $15 dólares estadounidenses al cambio del mercado paralelo, y aproximadamente USD$39 en uno de los cambios oficiales] más 18.000 bolívares [aproximadamente USD$18 o USD$47 en cambios paralelo y oficial respectivamente] de bono alimenticio, pero la canasta básica familiar cuesta 220.000 bolívares [USD$225 o USD$570]. Las cuentas no dan.

Todas esas variables dependen directamente del gobierno de Maduro, porque controla todos los dólares, la impresión de bolívares, las importaciones y la distribución de bienes en el país.

El Estado de Excepción y Emergencia Económica le permite a Maduro acumular más poder en medio de la crisis. Las organizaciones de derechos humanos han declarado que se excede tanto en su rol de presidente, que rompe el orden constitucional. Por ello consideran [el Estado de Excepción] como un golpe de Estado o el paso a un régimen de gobierno al margen de la democracia.

LCD: For the fourth consecutive year Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world. Only last year, it exceeded 750% .

We also have the most severe food and medicine shortages on the continent, so people die because of lack of medicines, and many Venezuelans have stopped eating protein and chosen to skip meals to stretch what's in their pantry. The monthly salary is 15,000 bolivars [approximately US $15 on the black market, and approximately US $39 on the official exchange rates] plus 18,000 bolivars [approximately US $18 or US $47 on the black market and official market, respectively] in food vouchers, but the basic family food basket costs 220,000 bolivars [US $225 or US $570]. People can't make ends meet.

All these variables depend directly on the government of Maduro, because it controls all of the dollars, the printing of bolivars, the imports and the distribution of goods in the country.

The State of Constitutional Exception and Economic Emergency allows Maduro to accumulate more power in the midst of the crisis. Human rights organizations have stated that he has overstepped so much in his role as president that he is breaking constitutional order. Therefore, they consider [the state of emergency] as a coup or a move to a system of government outside of democracy.

A little more on Venezuela's currency. In Venezuela, the foreign currency exchange rates are complex because of the exchange controls in the country. These controls result in different exchange rates depending on the use. Certain groups of importers (responsible for the purchase of food and medicine, for example) get preferential currency exchanges. For citizens, access to foreign currency involves other processes and complies with different rates. Government organizations are the ones who decide to grant different exchange rates, creating numerous conflicts between the private sector and the government entities.

To calculate the actual currency equivalent, the black market rates are usually taken into account. These exchanges, where one can access the few dollars that remain circulating, are illegal. Thus, the calculation of the current exchange rate is not only complex, but the rate can drop quickly, as it did during the writing and editing of this article.

GV: Within the Venezuelan Constitution, a recall referendum can be requested by popular demand. In recent months, political opposition groups have organized collections of signatures to request a referendum against the government this year.

However, it seems that for the National Electoral Council and for other government bodies, time limits and formalities about signatures have been justification for the recall referendum not to take place. In your opinion, will there or will there not be a referendum?

LCD: El Gobierno se ha atrincherado para impedirlo. Ha creado nuevos pasos que retrasan mucho más la realización del referéndum. Sus cuerpos policiales y militares impiden las manifestaciones y protestas.

El juego es que la mitad del periodo de Nicolás Maduro se cumple el 10 de enero de 2017. Si el referéndum es antes de esa fecha y lo pierde, sale del poder y se escoge nuevo presidente en 30 días. Pero si es después del 10 de enero de 2017, sale Maduro y se queda el vicepresidente para completar el periodo hasta 2019. El problema es que un día antes podría nombrar a su esposa, a quien quiera. Por eso el chavismo intenta retrasar el referendum.

La oposición vive el drama de ser mayoría electoral, pero no puede accionar otro método que no sea civil, pacífico y democrático. Así que si le piden firmas, firmará, si las debe entregar 10 veces, lo hará. Pero es un juego desigual.

LCD: The government has made efforts to prevent it. It has created new steps that further delay the referendum. Its police and military forces prevent demonstrations and protests.

Nicolas Maduro's half-term will be on January 10, 2017. If the referendum takes place before that date and he loses it, Maduro leaves the office and a new president is elected within 30 days. But if it occurs after January 10, 2017, President Maduro leaves and the vice president is left to complete the term until 2019. The problem is that the day before he could one day appoint his wife or whomever he wants. So, this is the reason why those supporting Chavism are trying to delay the referendum.

The opposition is in the difficult situation of being in the electoral majority, but it can take only civil, peaceful and democratic action. So, if [the government] asks them for [people's] signatures, they'll give them to them. If they have to deliver them 10 times, they will. But it is an unfair game.

GV: So then, what is the role of the opposition?

LCD: Hay dos niveles: por un lado se puede hablar de los partidos políticos opositores. La mayoría son de izquierda, centro izquierda o centro. No hay derecha en Venezuela que sea electoralmente considerable. Lo importante es que desde hace una década han ido consolidando una arquitectura de acuerdos llamada Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, que es una suerte de coalición o concertación que les ha permitido ir a elecciones con candidatos unitarios. Ese ha sido el secreto de su éxito y su crecimiento sostenido elección tras elección. Eso significa que también hay ruidos y diferencias entre algunos voceros, pero hay consensos en la mayoría.

Esa oposición es un acuerdo electoral y funciona porque al final se convierte en una tarjeta por la que la gente vota. Pero el país es más que un conjunto de partidos. La mayoría de la población no milita en partidos políticos, así que ese más de 70% que rechaza hoy en día a Maduro no tiene en realidad un solo líder, ni necesita tenerlo. Ese segundo nivel de la oposición es clave porque son los votos o firmas efectivas y hay acuerdo en que se espera una salida electoral del conflicto porque es la menos violenta. Sin embargo, cada día que pasa el gobierno en el poder, significan más muertos por violencia, falta de medicinas y alimentos. Es decir, los costos sociales son bastante altos ya sin referendum.

La oposición tiene entonces varias tareas en simultáneo: dar las malas noticias sobre lo que niega el Gobierno, pero también tejer un discurso de lo posible, de la esperanza. Aunque sea frustrada con burocracia y represión.

LCD: There are two levels: on one hand, we can speak of the political parties from the opposition. Most are left, center-left or center. There is no right-wing political party in Venezuela that is electorally significant. The important thing is that for a decade they've been consolidating a system of agreements called Democratic Unity Roundtable, which is a kind of coalition or consensus that has allowed the parties to participate in elections with unified candidates. That has been the secret of their success and their sustained growth in elections. That means there are differences between some spokesmen and women, but there is consensus in the majority.

This opposition is an electoral agreement and it works because in the end it becomes a ticket for which people vote. But the country is more than a set of parties. Most of the population is not active in political parties, so the more than 70% of people who reject Maduro do not really have a single leader nor the need to have one. This second level of opposition is key because they are the votes or effective signatures and there is agreement that an electoral solution to the conflict is hoped for because it is the least violent. However, each day of this government in power means more deaths by violence, lack of medicines and food. That is, the social costs are quite high even without a referendum.

The opposition then has several tasks simultaneously: to give the bad news about what the government denies, but also to promote a discourse of possibility, of hope. Although it is frustrated with bureaucracy and repression.

GV: Are there grassroots organizations that are listening to the demands of the people? What are they?

LCD: La mayoría están desbordadas. He trabajado con organizaciones de derechos humanos, con la Iglesia, con medios de comunicación, y hay un registro cotidiano de la crisis. Pero es poco lo que se puede hacer, más allá del acompañamiento y la denuncia. El Gobierno, por ejemplo, ha bloqueado la ayuda humanitaria, así que cuesta repartir medicinas. Hace unos días pudimos meter unas maletas de donaciones, pero eso raya en lo ilegal y no es sostenible en el tiempo.

LCD: Most are overwhelmed. I have worked with human rights organizations, the Catholic Church, the media, and there is a daily record of the crisis. But there is little that can be done, beyond support and condemnation. The government, for example, has blocked humanitarian aid, so it's difficult to distribute medicines. A few days ago we provided some bags for donations, but this is almost illegal and is not sustainable over time.

GVIn the end, the complexity of the situation is due to the large number of events occurring simultaneously, which is typical in critical situations.

LCD: En momentos de crisis todo ocurre en simultáneo, así que las organizaciones populares viven también dificultades. [Es en estas dificultades] concretas en las que el país se te desmigaja… y otra simbólica y difícil: la polarización.

Somos un país dividido, herido y en conflicto, así que en las organizaciones de base hay que lidiar constantemente con las diferencias entre las partes.

LCD: In times of crisis, everything happens simultaneously, so grassroots organizations also experience difficulties. [It is through these real difficulties] that the country crumbles before your eyes… and there are other symbolic difficulties, like polarization.

We are a divided, wounded country in conflict, so the grassroots organizations have to constantly deal with the differences between the parties.

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