COMMENTARY | Before the world turned its attention to the Ukraine, Venezuela seemed to be the most unstable place in the world. The turmoil hasn’t gone away, as evidenced by President Nicolas Maduro’s arrest of several military officers, accused of plotting to overthrow him.
To find out more about what’s going on in Venezuela during the post-Chavez era of economic shortages and crime, I interviewed Damarys Josefina Canache, Associate professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, part of the faculty of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Dr. Canache got her undergraduate degree at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas, Venezuela, and doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh.
Who is engaging in the protests in Venezuela? Are the protesters upper class, lower class, middle class?
The protests that we are seeing in Venezuela began early in February. The trigger of the first protest relates to personal security issues inside the campus of one of the universities in the state of Tachira. The governor, from the PSUV, the official party, responded with repression. Since then, protests have extended throughout the country.
The scope and nature of the protests have changed in reaction to the government’s repression. I believe that we are looking at a cycle of protests that is not going to end in the near future, although it may calm down temporarily at some point. It is clear that there is a strong reaction of the Venezuelan society, and not only from the students and the middle class. We may well be seeing the formation of a powerful social movement that is challenging the government, and that includes among its goals significant political and institutional change and justice for those whose human rights have been abused.
While it is true that the visible leadership of the protests comes from the students, it is important to note that these students come from all sectors of Venezuelan society and not only from the middle class. These protests are happening in many cities; and in many of these cities and in the countryside there is active participation from popular sectors. In Caracas, we have not seen the people from the poorest areas protesting, but what has been evident is that when the government has called various rallies to show support, the poor have not participated. I believe this a sign of discontent with the government. How long they will remain quiet I don’t know, but I think that it will not be for much longer given the economic crisis.
What are people upset about? Do they blame Maduro, his party, or the USA/globalization?
People are upset about many things: inflation (Venezuela has the highest level of inflation in the world, 57%), shortages of basic goods, and personal insecurity (last year there were about 25,000 murders in the country). In short, there is a very serious social and economic crisis. This is not something that Maduro created. This situation in large part is consequence of the policies implemented by the government of Hugo Chavez. But all of these problems have worsened under the administration of Maduro.
Of course, there are less tangible, but no less important, concerns such as the limitations of political and civil liberties. Maduro and the chavistas have continued with the authoritarian style of governing of Hugo Chavez. But Maduro does not have the charisma or the financial buffer that Chavez did and that allowed him to govern in what many critics saw as a very arbitrary and authoritarian manner.
How popular is he really?
We have to wait for poll data to assess the level of Maduro’s popularity today. The only credible data I have seen are from the company DATOS which released findings from a study conducted between February 28 and March 2. From this survey, for example, one question asked about how people evaluated the government’s performance and 50.4% have a negative evaluation, 23.6% percent of respondents have a positive opinion, and 21.3% have a neutral view. Thus, less than a quarter of the respondents had a positive view of the government by late February.
Other questions asked people who was responsable for the economic crisis and for crime, and 51.6% and 50.1%, respectively, indicated that Maduro was responsible. These data show that Venezuelans are linking Maduro and his government with the country’s problems. This is despite the government’s efforts to present Venezuela’s economic troubles as the result of an ‘economic war,’ and to diminish the seriousness of crime in Venezuela by saying that it is a question of perception rather than a reality that citizens experience every day.
Is there a chance Maduro could be ousted, either via protests or the next election?
I cannot really answer this question. What I can tell you is that Venezuela is experiencing a very, very uncertain and unpredictable juncture. Also, that this cycle of protest and the social movement that is emerging will likely increase its organization and find political articulation, and the eventual outcome will be political change. How and when this may happen, I don’t know. The answer depends in part on what the government, the PSUV (and its different factions), and the military, who until now appears to support the government, decide what they want their future to be.