Venezuela is a country gripped by crises, both political and economic.
In recent weeks, what began as an energy shortage has become a ‘humanitarian crisis’ according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The price of oil, once the country’s main commodity, has plummeted and price controls and cash withdrawal limits imposed by the government have made basic goods increasingly unaffordable. A recent survey by Simon Bolivar University found 9 out of 10 Venezuelans can no longer afford to buy enough food to eat.
Mr Ban blamed the crisis on ‘political instability’ within the country. Current President Nicolas Maduro, whose approval ratings recently fell to a nine month low, has been accused of orchestrating a brutal crackdown on his political opponents ever since the opposition won a landmark majority in the country’s parliament last December for the first time since the election of former president Hugo Chavez in 1999. The Foro Penal Venezolano, a group which tracks repression and human rights abuses by the Venezuelan state, found in a recent study that 5,853 arrests were made in relation to political protests or statements made on social networks between January 2014 and June 2016.
Of those arrested, 96 are currently behind bars while almost 2,000 people are having their personal freedoms restricted by the Venezuelan authorities. In spite of his recent electoral success, Opposition Leader Leopoldo López is among those incarcerated and is likely to remain so for some time after a Venezuelan court recently upheld his 14 year conviction for inciting violence during 2014 protests against the government.
Due to the closely linked nature of Venezuela’s government and executive (which has been suggested as a legacy of former President Chavez’s attempts to emulate the one party state established in Cuba by Fidel Castro), calling a vote of no confidence in Maduro’s premiership is again a difficult process.
Venezuela’s constitution, implemented by Chavez in 1999, allows for a recall referendum on the presidency to be held this year. However, the country’s National Elections Council has already ensured that this is unlikely to happen until 2017 at the earliest. Council President Tibisay Lucena indicated that the authorisation to collect the signatures of 20% of the electorate (around 4 million people) needed in order to launch the referendum process is likely to be granted in October this year.
The 90 days needed to confirm the signatures after this mean the date would most likely be January or February next year. An opposition victory next year is unlikely to result in a change of government and would most likely result in Vice President Jorge Arreaza carrying out the end of Maduro’s term in office until early 2019.
In the midst of economic slowdown and political vacuum, increasing numbers of Venezuelans are opting to leave the country and apply for asylum after arriving in the United States. Backlogs in the American asylum system mean that they are likely to be guaranteed several years in the US even before a final decision is made on their request.
All the while, attempts are being made to mitigate the economic downturn. After negotiations with Venezuela, Colombia recently reopened its border with Venezuela for the first time in almost a year, allowing thousands of Venezuelans to cross and buy much needed medication and supplies. Venezuelan ministers have also reportedly toured various countries in an attempt to negotiate an increase in the price of crude oil and bring more cash into the country.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing any resolution, however is the Venezuelan government’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of a crisis. Rafael Ramirez, the Venezuelan UN ambassador, said last week that any suggestion of a humanitarian crisis within the country was ‘wrong’. In the face of increasing condemnation from world leaders including the UN and the USA (who have now backed the opposition), this position appears to be increasingly under threat.