Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The fracas in Caracas

Why is Venezuela in turmoil when the country has such tremendous wealth

The fracas in Caracas
The fracas in Caracas

Wealthy Venezuelan businesspeople are up in arms, and with Washington’s full backing they are determined to undermine the Venezuelan government. Venezuela is a nation sitting on some of the world’s biggest oil reserves, but it is now the Latin American region’s poorest performer in terms of GDP growth per capita.

What has happened to torpedo Venezuela’s phenomenal wealth? Who is responsible for Caracas’s current predicament? The Venezuelan opposition and several other Latin American nations have condemned the Venezuelan government’s call for a new constitution to end the country’s economic and political crisis.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has invoked presidential powers to call for the formation of a constituent assembly to replace the current constitution. While late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, in charge of the country from 1999 to 2013, was a legendary leader, his successor is in a predicament. He is still backed by the army, even though the opposition is growing more powerful.

Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 and was re-elected in 2000 and again in 2006 with over 60 per cent of the votes. After winning his fourth term as president in the October 2012 presidential elections, Chavez was to be sworn in on 10 January 2013, but the country’s National Assembly postponed the inauguration to allow him time to recover from medical treatment in Cuba.

Chavez died in Caracas in March 2013 at the age of 58, a popular leader and a charismatic man loved by his people. He first came to prominence in the early 1990s as a young military officer leading a failed coup attempt. He led his revolutionary movement in an unsuccessful coup d’état against the Democratic Action government of then president Carlos Andrés Pérez, for which he was imprisoned, but released two years later.

He founded a political party known as the Fifth Republic Movement and was elected president in 1998. He galvanised the Venezuelan masses and won the hearts of the poor. “It wouldn’t be strange for there to have been civilisation on Mars, but capitalism and imperialism likely arrived there, and put an end to the planet. Watch out! Be careful,” Chavez warned of his opponents.

His slogans irritated the country’s economic elite who fought to retain control of a country that was fast heading towards socialism. Chavez’s successor, Maduro, has been easier for them to control. For the likes of opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez, he is weak and ready to be taken down.

United States President Donald Trump tweeted that Venezuela should allow Lopez, a political prisoner, out of prison immediately this week in a move tantamount to Washington’s policy of treating Latin America as its “backyard” or sphere of influence in the Americas.

The irony is that Lopez himself dispelled ill-health rumours on a widely-circulated video after a Venezuelan journalist tweeted that he had been transferred from a prison just outside Caracas where he has been detained since 2014. To add to the confusion on social media, US senator Marco Rubio tweeted earlier that Lopez had been hospitalised in “very serious condition.”

The Venezuelan opposition parties backed by US politicians are deploying the power of social media to undermine Maduro’s authority. Both Washington and the opposition are bent on the overthrow of the Venezuelan government.

The vast majority of Venezuelans have a vague recollection of life before Chavez since most are under the age of 35. According to the CIA, the country’s economy is in a shambles. “More than one million predominantly middle and upper-class Venezuelans are estimated to have emigrated. The brain drain is attributed to a repressive political system, lack of economic opportunities, steep inflation, a high crime rate, and corruption. Thousands of oil engineers have emigrated to Canada, Colombia and the United States,” its World Factbook states.

“Additionally, thousands of Venezuelans of European descent have taken up residence in their ancestral homelands,” it says. Most of the elite in Latin American nations are of European descent, and the US has traditionally championed their cause. Chavez, by contrast, focussed on liberating the poorer, disadvantaged non-white sections of the population, while enacting radical social reforms as part of his socialist-oriented Bolivarian Revolution.

Chavez thus gave power to the people. Maduro, too, has followed in the footsteps of Chavez, and like his mentor he comes from a poor working-class family. A former bus driver, Maduro rose to become a prominent trade union leader and caught the attention of Chavez before being elected to the National Assembly in 2000. He was appointed to a number of positions within the government, serving as minister of foreign affairs from 2006 to 2013 and as vice-president from 2012 to 2013.

Unfortunately, during Maduro’s presidency Venezuela’s socioeconomic fortunes have declined, with crime, inflation, poverty and hunger increasing. Some of the poorer classes have been seduced by the US-backed opposition.

When Maduro invoked presidential powers to call for the formation of a constituent assembly to replace the current constitution, there were protests from the international media, though this did not explain why Maduro had opted for the move.

The new assembly will be composed of some 500 delegates, half of them from community organisations and the other half elected from voting districts. A well-known jurist from the assembly’s organising commission has said that the goal is not so much to replace the existing constitution as to change the form of the state. Nevertheless, rioting ensued in the Venezuelan capital and other cities.

It should be remembered that Maduro’s decision has an excellent precedent in Chavez’s decision in 1999 to convoke an assembly to replace what he called the “moribund constitution” of the Venezuelan Fourth Republic.

“Hours after Maduro’s announcement, there appeared magically on television ‘representatives’ of university students, evangelical churches, and indigenous peoples (with their faces painted to avoid any possible confusion), among others. This idea, apart from being ridiculous in itself, has the effect of denying the possibility of an organic and real representation emerging from these very sectors,” notes Chris Gilbert, a professor of political science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in Caracas.

In short, the international media has not considered the real reasons behind the current upheaval in Venezuela, there being a deliberate attempt afoot to hoodwink the world as to the true dynamics of the country’s politics.

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