The crisis in Venezuela didn’t occur overnight. When Hugo Chavez died in 2013, the dismantling of Venezuelan democracy was well underway. In 2004, the self-proclaimed “socialist” leader passed a court-packing law that filled the Supreme Court with his political allies and effectively ended the separation of executive and judicial powers. He shut down independent media outlets that were critical of the government and pushed others to the point of self-censorship. He stacked the National Electoral Council, which is supposed to independently oversee elections, with government loyalists.
As the country’s economy became increasingly reliant on oil production, Chavez supplied Cuba with free barrels in exchange for doctors, dentists, and teachers, some of whom now claim had falsify documents and dump medicines to meet quotas. Expropriation, nationalization, and infiltration of Cuban control became rampant. The social welfare programs that initially earned Chavez praise eventually stopped delivering.
Under his successor, Nicolas Maduro, economic and humanitarian conditions spiraled, especially as oil prices dropped. In 2017, Maduro ordered the Supreme Court to dissolve the opposition-controlled legislature and assume all of the National Assembly’s powers. A wave of protests soon erupted across Venezuela in the face of rising inflation, basic food shortages, and political corruption. More than 120 people died during the demonstrations, and thousands more ended up detained, beaten, and tortured. Although the Supreme Court eventually reversed its ruling, Maduro’s regime banned protests and installed a highly contested National Constituent Assembly lined with government loyalists to draft a new constitution. Now, almost two years later, Venezuela is once again in political upheaval.
While it’s impossible to cover every factor or incident that has affected the crisis, here’s a breakdown of what’s currently happening in Venezuela.
Inflation and crime rates soar
Venezuela’s hyperinflation topped 1.3 million percent in November of 2018, and the International Monetary Fund predicts the rate will reach 10 million percent in 2019. Despite the government’s attempts to fix the problem by establishing a “sovereign Bolivar” and raising the minimum wage, prices of products continue to increase drastically. In December, Bloomberg reported that the price of a cup of coffee doubled in the span of one week in Caracas.
Although Venezuela’s murder rate has seen a small decline in recent years, which Venezuelan Observatory of Violence Director Roberto Briceño links to the influx of people migrating out of the country, it is still the highest in the world at 81.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2016, Associated Press correspondent Hannah Dreier recounted that many people choose to drive through red lights at night to avoid carjackings like the one that claimed Mónica Spear’s life in 2014.
People lack the basic means to survive
Approximately 90 percent of the Venezuelan population lives in poverty, and nine out of 10 households report they can’t afford food in the face of drastic shortages. People trying to feed their families are usually met with long lines, empty grocery store shelves, and sometimes, they have no choice but to rummage through trash to try to alleviate hunger.
Medicines, vaccines, and medical supplies are also scarce, leading to the return of formerly eradicated diseases like malaria. In 2017, the government released data from the previous year showing that the infant death rate had climbed up by 30 percent, while the maternal mortality increased by 67 percent.
There’s a mass exodus of migrants fleeing the country
Three million people have left Venezuela since 2015 – with 5,000 fleeing on a daily basis – and the United Nations expects that number to reach 5 million by the end of this year. Many are forced to flee on foot to neighboring countries like Colombia, Peru, and Brazil for thousands of miles. One mother and daughter followed by the Associated Press walked approximately 2,700 miles, roughly the distance from Los Angeles to New York City, over the course of nine days.
The government is shutting down dissidents and independent media
Like Chavez, Maduro poses serious challenges to Venezuela’s freedom of the press. In 2013, television station Globovision faced heavy fines for airing information that criticized the government and was therefore accused of creating “civil unrest.” The financial pressure led the owner to sell Globovision to group of government allies, who scaled back on dissident programming.
Journalists are assaulted, arrested, and kicked out of the country on a regular basis. State-controlled media provide most of the information within Venezuela, and restricted Internet connections make it difficult for citizens to access other outlets. Still, young journalists at outlets like El Tambor and Efecto Cocuyo continue building independent projects to fill in the gaps where government data falls short.
Government officials are tied to crime and extreme wealth
Although the Venezuelan government labels itself a socialist state, it’s been called a “mafia state” and “kleptocracy” by critics for widespread corruption and criminal activity. In November 2016, two nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife, were convicted on US charges of drug trafficking. Former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, two ex-narcotic officials, and a former Director of Military Intelligence have all received U.S. sanctions for links to trafficking, as well.
In November, the BBC reported that former bodyguard to Hugo Chavez and head of Venezuela’s treasury Alejandro Andrade pleaded guilty to accepting $1 billion in bribes related to foreign currency exchange rates. Andrade was living in a Florida mansion at the time of his arrest and also owned luxury cars, private jets, show horses, and more. Outside Venezuela, those who have left the country due to the crisis popularly engage in “escraches,” or public shaming of government supporters and allies that live lavishly abroad.
Fraud allegations plague the May 2018 elections
Last February, the Presidential elections initially scheduled for December 2018 were pushed up to April 22 and then back to May 20. Although left-leaning US leaders, such as Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar, claim that Maduro was democratically elected by the Venezuelan people, several opposition candidates were barred from running or participating. Maduro also required Venezuelans who receive subsidized groceries – the majority of the population – to show their special ID cards at voting polls run by his party, which many interpreted as an effort to intimidate them into voting for him to receive their benefits.
These conditions led both the opposition and a majority of Venezuelan voters to boycott the election, resulting in a 46 percent turnout rate. The Lima Group subsequently issued a statement saying that because the elections did not “provide the guarantees or meet the international standards necessary for a free, just and transparent process,” they would not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s leader upon his inauguration on January 10.
A constitutional change in leadership occurred January 23
The Venezuelan Constitution states that in the absence of a democratically elected president who respects the people’s rights, the head of the National Assembly will be sworn in as interim president until fair and democratic elections can be organized. On January 23, the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that overthrew dictator Pérez Jiménez, thousands of Venezuelans turned out to the streets to protest Maduro’s leadership. The wide disapproval against Maduro as illegitimate solidified the notion that Venezuela was missing a constitutionally mandated president – therefore enacting the swearing in of Juan Guaidó, an elected legislator, as Venezuela’s interim leader. Later that night, police and intelligence agents raided Venezuelan newsrooms that covered Guaidó’s assumption of power.
The international community recognizes Guaidó as the interim leader
These are the countries that recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s new president: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Luxembourg, Georgia, Macedonia, Hungary, Morocco, Finland, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Belgium, Romania, Latvia, Israel, Kosovo, Malta, Slovenia, Lithuania, Albania, Ukraine, Croatia, and Bulgaria
These are the countries that recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s current president: Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Dominica, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Suriname, Syria, Turkey, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Although much of the spotlight has been placed on the United States’ support for Guaidó, more than three dozen countries have also supported the change in leadership, putting pressure on Maduro’s regime to step down. The Carter Center, which has long been cited as a defensor of Venezuela’s electoral system, also issued a statement in support of the opposition.
Disputes arise over legitimacy, sanctions, and intervention
Despite the fact that many Venezuelan people support the constitutional actions of the National Assembly and Guaidó, Maduro — who currently has military support maintaining him in power — continues to claim it is a US-backed coup. This is a statement some American Democrats have echoed, going so far as to incorrectly allege that the economic collapse of Venezuela is mainly the result of US sanctions and not the government’s mismanagement of resources. Until the recent struggle over executive power, most US sanctions targeted individual government officials involved in corruption scandals.
The appointment of Elliott Abrams – who supported and covered up human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala and pleaded guilty to withholding information during the Iran-Contra investigation – as Special Envoy to Venezuela further complicates feelings surrounding US intervention. Because it has special interests as Venezuela’s biggest oil market, many fear the repercussions of US involvement on what they believe should remain a Venezuelan-led effort.
To further corner Maduro’s regime, the US imposed additional oil sanctions on January 28 that could deplete more than $11 billion in export revenue this year. On February 7, Maduro retaliated by ordering the military to block food and medicine sent by the U.S. from entering Venezuela through the Colombian border. In the meantime, Venezuelans worry about the uncertainty ahead.