After a year without Chávez, is Venezuela unraveling?
March 6th, 2014
03:27 PM ET

After a year without Chávez, is Venezuela unraveling?

By Carl Meacham, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (@CSIS) in Washington, DC. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

This week, amidst political turmoil that has gripped the country and left more than a dozen dead and hundreds more injured and detained, Venezuela commemorated the passing of President Hugo Chávez.

Chávez was best known for his “Bolivarian Revolution,” through which he pursued aggressive, state-centered approaches to alleviate the social, political, and economic challenges facing Venezuela. And by some metrics he was successful – between 2004 and 2012, the country’s poverty rate halved, and literacy and access to healthcare increased substantially.

But Chávez also left behind a country deeply divided along political and socioeconomic lines, one suffering from skyrocketing crime and violence and bogged down by economic instability. Is his successor, Nicolás Maduro, now reaping the seeds of discontent sown by Chavismo?

Certainly, under Maduro the grim reality of rising crime has only worsened – though not for a lack of official policies aimed at reversing it. In his first year, Maduro dispersed thousands of troops through the country’s most dangerous areas as part of a crime-reduction strategy. He also requested special powers to rule by decree in order to fight corruption and economic troubles – a measure eventually approved by the National Assembly.

The latter is particularly reminiscent of his predecessor’s leadership. Indeed, during his presidency, Chávez requested the same decree powers on four separate occasions. And Maduro’s rhetoric has been largely in line with Chávez’s, accusing the U.S. government of meddling in Venezuelan affairs and labeling opponents of his administration “fascists” and “Nazis.”

Yet despite the mimicry of Chavez’s rhetoric and style, Maduro has struggled to live up to the legacy of his predecessor and mentor. Violence and corruption continue their steep rise, and Venezuela’s economy is wracked by instability. Inflation is sky-high (though the exact figure remains a subject of heated debate), and widespread scarcity of basic goods is rapidly hitting standards of living throughout the country.

All of these woes came to a head early last month, when students began protesting in a number of Venezuelan cities, focusing primarily on crime and insecurity. The government’s response was swift and aggressive, detaining students for their participation. In response, the demonstrations grew and spread, expanding their focus to corruption, human rights abuses, and economic concerns. Since then, the situation has only worsened. The confirmed death toll has reached 18, with over 250 injured and around 1,000 detained by government forces. Some reports of gruesome torture are beginning to emerge as well.

The media, meanwhile, has been subject to some harsh government censorship. For example, the government first cut the feed for Colombian NTN24, one of the only international media outlets operating on the ground, before later blocking picture services on Twitter as well. Most recently, the government revoked press credentials for CNN journalists in Venezuela before backtracking on the threat.

As daily violence and clashes continue throughout the country, many are reminded of the infamously brutal riots that paralyzed Venezuela’s capital in the late 1980s – the Caracazo. And while it’s evident that what the country is witnessing now is nowhere close to the crisis that struck Caracas almost 30 years ago, it’s important to note that recent developments signal a genuine shift in the way the opposition deals with the government – and vice versa.

So, what is at stake, for both Venezuela and the region as a whole? There are six things to keep in mind:

– As the crisis has deepened, divisions within the ruling party have increased – as has internal disagreement within the opposition. Without a stabilizing force in Venezuela, both major political groups appear to be unraveling, putting the government’s viability at serious risk.

– The military has long played a prominent role in Venezuelan politics. They have pledged their loyalty to Maduro, but as political unrest continues, it remains to be seen just how steadfast they will be behind the embattled president.

– PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm) and the Petrocaribe oil assistance program are among the most vulnerable if Venezuela implodes – a collapse that would, without doubt, send shockwaves throughout the hemisphere, particularly with the Central American and Caribbean countries most dependent on Venezuela’s oil assistance, namely Cuba.

– Such a heavy imbalance in the region could also invite criminality and increased drug trafficking – and even destabilize the already tenuous peace negotiations in neighboring Colombia.

– ALBA would also be in a dangerously vulnerable position, as the regional bloc is largely driven by the current Venezuelan government’s ideological zeal.

– Venezuela’s role as the fourth-largest oil exporter to the United States, a guarantor of the ongoing peace process in Colombia, and a key point of transit for transnational criminals transporting illegal narcotics make it still more pivotal to stability – both in its own neighborhood and in the region as a whole.

Despite these significant possibilities, much of the region has remained quiet even as potential paths toward a peaceful solution remain a hot topic of debate. The ALBA and Mercosur blocs (to no great surprise, given their close ties) have indicated their support for the Maduro administration. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has remained noticeably tempered in its remarks regarding the crisis, although some political voices in the United States believe that Venezuela’s crisis requires a strict sanctions regime. U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), for example, recently proposed a bipartisan resolution urging President Barack Obama to “impose targeted sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against individuals planning, facilitating, or perpetrating gross human rights violations.”

Such a targeted proposition could be effective in helping moderate the Venezuelan government’s response, although any measure broader than this use of sanctions risks exacerbating the country’s economic instability, in turn creating an even more challenging situation for the Venezuelan populace – not just the government.

Regardless of what the U.S. does, it’s clear that what began as a series of student demonstrations in Venezuela has, over the course of just a few weeks, grown into a protracted conflict, splintering the country and spilling blood – and Maduro’s ineffective response to the protests, and the genuine opposition they represent, has allowed for the development of an increasingly complex crisis with ever more grim prospects.

But with the global community understandably focused on Ukraine, there is a risk that Venezuelan protestors’ concerns will fall on deaf ears. True, Russian involvement in the Ukraine – and the implications that carries for U.S. foreign policy – makes that crisis an inherently global one. Yet as the Ukraine destabilizes Eastern Europe, so too does Venezuela destabilize the Western Hemisphere.

The reality is that energy, human rights and regional stability are all on the line right now. Sadly, with most of the world’s attention focused elsewhere, it’s increasingly likely that for now at least the political crisis and injustice currently tormenting Venezuela will continue – and that Venezuelans’ plight will go largely unnoticed.

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Topics: Latin America • Venezuela

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Haha
    3 months after tapering is the US unravelling?
    Is the dollar worth even a cent?
    Sometimes the question tells you more than the article

    March 7, 2014 at 6:28 am | Reply
  2. Arnold Cabasso

    Despite the importance of Venezuelan oil to the world's energy needs, particularly the U.S., we should not engage in sanctioning this country. Doing so would give Maduro a valid reason to say America targets Venezuela. As Maduro's policies cause a continued downward spiral of the Venezuelan economy, eventually the military will step in or at least he will lose the next election due to his incompetence. When your enemy is digging his own grave, just stand back and watch.

    March 7, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • rom2894

      People need to quit rehashing some idea the Venezuelan oil is "important" to the US. It simply is and has not been for about 20 years. We export back to Venezuela most of the oil the Export to us as diesel and gas fuels. In actuality, the Venezuelans need the US much much more as a trading partner than the other way around.

      March 11, 2014 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • alex

      Arnold it doesnt matter if you give the venezuelan gov a reason. They have been using the us rethoric for 16 years....

      March 15, 2014 at 2:24 am | Reply
  3. Art Fridrich

    Unfortunately, I don't see any outcome that will yield positive effects on Venezuela. The country is nearly torn down the middle in regards to being pro and anti government. So even if there were a change in the government, the only change that would occur socially is who would be out on the streets as the anti-government protesters. For one who has loved this country since the 1980's and my initial visit there, I find this situation very disheartening.

    March 7, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Chavez had, what Maduro doesn't have: Charisma and wits. The former bus-driver is better-off to resign and let somebody else to take over. National interests are more important than personal ego!

      March 11, 2014 at 7:33 am | Reply
  4. Donny Brassco

    Ever since the Spanish influence waned from South America, and Simon de Bolivar decided to "energize" the South Americans towards "revolution"............... they have always been on the cliff of disaster.............. one step away from "rule of chaos" as opposed to "rule of law"........... how sad is that?????!!!!!!!!!!! Even the ex-Nazis, that ran to Sao Paulo, Brazil, after WWII, and make Volkswagons over there, could not straighten out the mess that is South America............ Hugo Chavez and his aftermath, is just another soap opera, that must enfold, in their history!!!!!!!!!!

    March 7, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Reply
    • divinacarne

      You generalize to much. Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Perú, Panama, Costa Rica are more than exceptions to what South America really is about in present times.

      March 9, 2014 at 10:19 am | Reply
    • alex

      Donny you are 100% right on what you are saying. South America is a society that came from mixes of Indians black slaves and most of the criminal population of Spain. We have a lot of Spanish baggage that is really difficult to explain. On top of that we have a very paternalistic mentality. We are not united we need the charisma of a leader to live in peace. It really sucks.....

      March 15, 2014 at 2:30 am | Reply
  5. capnmike

    Venezuela started "unraveling" when Chavez, the communists, and the Cubans took over. Maduro has, through gross stupidity and corruption, simply accelerated the process to the point where the people have simply had enough and want their country back. .

    March 8, 2014 at 9:11 am | Reply
    • rom2894

      You are absolutely right. Chavez with his Cuban mentors wanted to install a communist state. IT is as simple and straightforward as that. There as been a steady march toward Cuban style communism ever since Chavez took office. Maduro is even more bent on a full blown communist state than Chavez was. The leaders of their party and PDVSA have systematically looted the country....the regime has untold millions of dollars in overseas and Florida banks.

      March 11, 2014 at 10:34 am | Reply
  6. Willa45

    It's no secret that the Chavez (now Maduro) regime has been boosting the Cuban economy with some $5B worth of free oil per year and that similar 'gifts' have been used to bribe other Latin American leaders. The Castro brothers want to import their own brand of "Socialist" revolution across Latin America and Venezuela is their gateway.

    The question that begs to be answered is how the West can stand idly by and watch CastroCuban soliders boldly setting up camp in the Venezuelan (neighboring) island of La Orchila along with their Russian built military paraphanalia. While Cuba prepares it's final invasion of Venezuela, the media is all but silent, and Western leaders continue to look the other way!

    Maybe people will start paying attention when the Cuban takover of Venezuela is finalized and largest reserve of crude in the world can be leveraged by the Castro brothers to gain control of Latin America... or maybe when Syria, Iran, China and Russia are invited to set up military bases in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Or, how about when China replaces the Panama Canal with a newly proposed "China Zone" transoceanic canal across Nicaragua? When people realize that everyone's 'skin' is in this game too, then maybe Venezuela will get the support it needs to regain it's own sovereignty. It's up to the media to raise awareness (CNN are you listening?) ....and it's still not too late!

    March 8, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  7. divinacarne

    Is in venezuelan oposition hands the fall of dictador Maduro. The ONU, OEA and the world, specially the western most powerfull countries, have demostrated their futility in been capable to help cases much worse such Siria. So, people of Venezuela (and the Alba asociates) don´t count on anybody but yourselfs to restablish a true democracy and put the responsables in jail.

    March 9, 2014 at 10:15 am | Reply
  8. Rick McDaniel

    It was bound to happen, sooner or later.

    March 10, 2014 at 11:06 am | Reply
  9. NORMA

    We can not wait more already 15 years of corruption and Cuban invasion in our schools, hospitals, society and so much more even Cubans are in charge or the state department!! so from now and on We United Stand and say to the world ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!! we want to live in peace and democracy!!!

    March 16, 2014 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  10. The Mayor of Medinah

    Well we should be giving support to these people that want to see a change in government, they clearly are tired of the communist government this would be a way to stick it to the Russians.

    March 19, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  11. smadden

    Between Chavez and Maduro, this country's economy has and is being destroyed...

    March 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Reply

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