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By Global Public Square staff
The protests in Ukraine - and Russia's response to them - have monopolized headlines…but there is one other uprising that could have a big, global fallout. We are talking about Venezuela, where for weeks now, demonstrations against the government have been met with violent and sometimes deadly force. Keep an eye on that country because what happens there could have consequences across the continent - and all the way to Cuba.
We were surprised to read that one of the guiding lights of these protests is actually not on the ground in Caracas, but more than a thousand miles away…in Miami, Florida. Reinaldo dos Santos is a self-proclaimed "prophet" from Brazil…and he claims that Venezuela's president will soon be out of a job. For whatever reason, his prophesies have resonated with his 1.3 million Twitter followers as he emboldened them to fight the good fight. (A fun fact - Venezuela has the 5th highest Twitter penetration in the world, according to ComScore.)
It's a bizarre, kooky sideshow to what is actually a very serious situation - not only for Venezuelans, but for the global economy. Remember, Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, and it is the 4th largest exporter of oil to the United States.
Despite those riches, Venezuela is a basket case. There's hyperinflation, food shortages, an energy crisis, violent crime, and unfettered corruption. Venezuelans have a number of reasons to protest. But the protesters don't really have a clear sense of direction – that’s why they're following tweets from a Brazilian a thousand miles away. And it's unclear whom they represent.
On the one hand you have a moderate wing of protesters, a group whose leader narrowly lost out in the last elections. These protesters are looking for minor concessions from the government, as they bide their time for the next national vote. But a more vocal, even radical, wing of protesters has emerged in recent months, which have been calling for the overthrow of the President Nicholas Maduro. These calls have, of course, been the perfect excuse for a brutal government crackdown.
The background to all of this is Venezuela's silent and suffering majority. In an essay in The New Republic, the Mexican intellectual Enrique Krauze points out that the protesters on the streets are comprised mostly of the middle and upper classes. Krauze points out the far greater threat to the Maduro government could come from the poor, if they rise up. For years, Maduro's predecessor, the populist, America-bashing Hugo Chavez, cultivated lower income voters with a mix of subsidies and handouts. But as the economy has collapsed, even they have suffered greatly. If those silent poor rise up, we could see greater turmoil. You see, Maduro represents the policies of Chavez…but he does so without the late president's charisma and populist touch. If serious cracks in his government develop, perhaps even the army could question its loyalty.
As always with oil economies, if prices fall, all bets are off on the survival of the regime. And if Venezuela implodes, it would trigger a massive regional crisis. Cuba, which is essentially bankrolled by Venezuelan largesse, would probably collapse. Other populist regimes, like those in Ecuador and Bolivia, would also suffer a loss of aid. If, under pressure, Venezuela somehow moves toward real democracy, that too would have ripple effects across the region - and in Cuba.
So while you watch the crisis in Ukraine, think about the protestors in Venezuela, who are demanding the very same things as those brave souls in the Maidan.