10 things you should know about the current crisis in Venezuela

Opposition demonstrators rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron - RTS136GP

In recent days, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans across the country have been demonstrating on the streets against the government of Nicolás Maduro. They have been repressed by the National Guard (a branch of the Armed Forces) and the National Police with tear gas (often expired) and even deadly ammunition. More than 20 people have died and hundreds injured. There have been more than 800 arrests. Opposition leaders say they will remain protesting in the streets until constitutional order is restored, political prisoners are released, humanitarian aid is allowed into the country, and general elections are scheduled.

Here are 10 things you should know about how things got to this point:

1Since 1999, when the late Hugo Chávez took office after being elected for the first time, the Venezuelan democracy has progressively moved towards a one-man rule. In spite of numerous elections up until 2015, the independence of powers progressively weakened throughout the past two decades. However, this process strongly accelerated after Nicolás Maduro, chosen by Chávez as his successor before his death, took office in 2013.

2Venezuela is going through a deep economic crisis reflected in the abrupt loss of about 30 percent of its GDP in only three years and an annual hyperinflation that exceeds 1,000 percentage points. This is the result of decades of mismanagement and a major drop of oil prices in 2014 (Venezuela’s main and almost only export). This has caused a humanitarian crisis where food, medicines, and basic goods are scarce. Most Venezuelans are not able to eat three times a day, and poverty rates are back to pre-Chávez levels, in excess of 70 percent according to independent surveys. This vast humanitarian crisis has contributed to popular discontent towards the government, and opposition parties have attracted increasing support. According to most polls, the opposition (gathered under a unified front that represents a number of political parties), would easily win national elections.

3Legislative elections held in 2015 resulted in a massive victory for the opposition, when they surprisingly gained control of the National Assembly, obtaining two-thirds of the seats in the house. Ever since, however, the Supreme Court—loyal to Maduro and his Venezuelan United Socialist Party—have effectively invalidated all legislation promoted by the Assembly on increasingly spurious constitutional grounds.

4The opposition mobilized in 2016 to request a recall referendum for President Maduro (a right provided by the constitution, and which was used—unsuccessfully—to try to remove Chávez in 2004). After the opposition cleared elaborate hurdles put in place by the National Electoral Council, the judiciary cancelled the process so as to avoid an election that President Maduro would nearly certainly lose. The intensified political crisis attracted renewed attention of the international community, and the Vatican sponsored a dialogue between the opposition and the government. The dialogue failed to produce results, the recall referendum remains blocked (and irrelevant since at this point of Maduro’s term, recalling the president would result in the vice president taking over instead of new elections), and even regional elections for state governors and legislative assemblies, due in 2016, have been delayed indefinitely by the government.

5The Supreme Court took a decisive step against the opposition in March 2017, issuing two sentences nullifying the National Assembly and taking over all legislative powers. The move was denounced by the opposition as a coup d’état, perpetrated by the government itself. In the eyes of the opposition and many Venezuelans, this move redefined Maduro’s regime as a dictatorship. Even the attorney general—known to be loyal to Maduro—stated on national television that the move by the Supreme Court was unconstitutional.

6The Supreme Court actions provoked strong coordinated criticism from the international community for the first time. In a break with recent practice, the majority of states in the Americas, including the region’s most powerful states, condemned the Maduro administration, and supported efforts by Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to sanction the Venezuela. Facing overwhelming international and domestic criticism, the Supreme Court revoked its previous sentence and gave back some powers to the National Assembly.

7The opposition responded with massive and peaceful street protests to demand the release of political prisoners, an official opening to humanitarian aid (e.g., food and medicines) and general elections. In return, Maduro and his closest supporters have frequently accused opposition leaders of being traitors and of promoting violence and have engineered a decision to declare one of the leading opposition presidential candidate and current governor of the most populous state in the country —Henrique Capriles Radonski— ineligible for election. Leopoldo Lopez, another potential contender for the presidency, has been in a military jail for over two years after leading protests against the government in 2014.

8The opposition has vowed to remain in the streets until their demands are met. Maduro and other government officials are thus far unwilling to negotiate. They instead are resorting to repression by the National Guard and National Police, together with armed pro-government paramilitary groups known as colectivos. They have also instituted a nationwide media blackout to prevent average Venezuelans from learning the extent of the protests. Venezuelans have taken to social media in massive numbers to document the repression and coordinate their responses.

9The opposition have frequently made calls to the armed forces to stop defending the regime by repressing fellow citizens, and instead to defend the constitution. The armed forces thus far either remain loyal to the Maduro administration or paralyzed. This is, in part, because if the current regime falls, some of the most senior officer would risk trial for corruption and drug-dealing, something that is also true of the most senior civilian government officials.

10The opposition now appears to be betting on achieving its goals by raising the costs of repression, putting demonstrators on the street day after day until government security forces break, stay home, or disobey orders. The international community is an important vehicle for raising costs to the government of pursuing its present repressive and authoritarian course of action. But both the opposition and the international community should also consider ways to lower the costs of exit so that rank and file government supporters, in and out of uniform, can find a way past the present crisis by supporting calls for free, fair and consequential national elections, isolating their leaders even if they continue to disagree. An extended set of recommendations on what the international community could do can be found here.