Country Profile: Venezuela

Venezuela
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Clockwise from top left: A queue at a food market in Caracas where prices are subsidized and regulated by the government; an armed guard in front of storage tanks at the world’s largest oil refinery in Punto Fijo; a fishing boat steers through the Anacystis algal blooms on Lake Maracaibo; a Cuban doctor measuring blood pressure in Caracas – one of thousands of Cubans employed out of oil revenues to improve healthcare for the poor; a family reads while awaiting relocation from a house in Ciudad Ojeda damaged by subsidence following oil exploration. © Piet den Blanken / Panos Pictures

It was the day before the violence started – the violence that would later be known as guarimbas, where rightwing street blockades saw 43 people killed and hundreds injured over a period of three months. It was 13 February 2014, and I was down the road from my home in Merida, taking photos of young men in balaclavas stopping buses at gunpoint. Three of them came up to me, and each put a gun to my head and said they would kill me if I didn’t give them my camera. The next day, two other journalists in Merida received gunshot injuries at that intersection.

The violence was part of the chapter that followed the death of President Hugo Chávez in March 2013. Chávez had been in power since 1999 and had utterly transformed the country, using oil revenues to pursue what he called the Bolivarian Revolution (after Latin America’s 19th-century liberator, Simón Bolívar) – taking state control of the oil, electricity and telecommunications industries and pursuing pro-poor policies, including key healthcare and literacy initiatives. Despite a rightwing coup attempt in 2002, Chávez maintained his electoral dominance right through to his death from cancer.

Having seen Chávez as unbeatable, the rightwingers saw their chance at last, but were surprised when former foreign minister and vice-president Nicolas Maduro won the presidential election in April 2013. Then, in December regional elections, the Chavista alliance won most municipalities.

The violence, food scarcity and inflation that have followed Chávez’s death over the past three years have in part been caused by a rightwing offensive against 14 years of avowedly socialist policies – policies which have seen increasing participation of excluded sectors of society in political and economic decision-making.

But the problems have also been spurred on by a massive drop in the price of oil, which is Venezuela’s main export, and many people blame the government for not having succeeded in diversifying the country’s production away from oil. The government’s reluctance to tackle exchange rate, import and price speculation issues has also played an important role.

Now, people’s wages are barely enough to cover groceries. Queues for regulated food start in the dark hours of the morning, there are periodic cuts in the supply of water and the internet, and some hospitals aren’t working as well as they used to. As a result, some of the millions of people involved in community councils and in Bolivarian movements may, finally, be starting to get a bit tired and fed up. The previously close relationship between these people and the national government is weakening. The government, attacked on economic and political fronts, is resorting too much to rhetoric rather than action, and forgetting how politically intelligent the Venezuelan poor have become. This decline in support was reflected in Venezuela’s most recent election in December 2015, when the right wing won a majority in parliament.

Meanwhile, in order to deal with food scarcity and prices, communities are turning to urban agriculture and to direct relationships with rural producers. They are coming to understand the importance of who controls the distribution of products, including food.

The Right is currently focusing its efforts on a recall referendum aimed at bringing down President Maduro. The constitution stipulates that, at the end of October, they must collect signatures from 20 per cent of registered voters, in order for the recall vote to go ahead. But many believe the Right, and the elites that support it, is profiting from the current crisis, and wouldn’t actually want to form a government.

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Human Development Index
Last profiled 2006

At a glance

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  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)