In a recent New York Times op-ed, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro argues “the claims that Venezuela has a deficient democracy and that current protests represent mainstream sentiment are belied by the facts” and “the antigovernment protests are being carried out by people in the wealthier segments of society who seek to reverse the gains of the democratic process that have benefited the vast majority of the people.”
Western media has been disingenuous in portraying the protesters as peaceful, Maduro writes. The protesters are to blame for instigating most of the violence and, in the few cases where security forces were guilty, the government has arrested the aberrant personnel.
In Maduro’s mind, the protesters don’t even represent true Venezuelans, but “the 1 percent who wish to drag our country back to when the 99 percent were shut out of political life and only the few — including American companies — benefited from Venezuela’s oil.”
It’s almost audacious of Maduro, leader of a country that has no free press, to publish such a piece in one of the most widely-read media outlets in the Western world. But the piece, which clearly is an attempt to sway the American public to his side, reeks of desperation.
Like his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, Maduro has drawn much of his political capital from positioning his regime as pro-poor and anti-American government. Given the U.S. government’s track record of meddling in Latin American affairs (almost always on the side of big business), this hasn’t exactly been a difficult narrative to maintain.
To be fair, Venezuela has managed to reduce moderate poverty significantly, from 50 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2012, according to The World Bank. Inequality also has decreased, as seen by the Gini Index, which fell from 0.49 in 1998 to 0.39 in 2011 — one of the lowest rates in the region.
All of this has been made possible by Venezuela’s massive oil reserves, which account for over 96 percent of the country’s exports and nearly half of its fiscal revenue. Ironically, much of this oil is shipped directly to the United States. While Venezuela has enjoyed riding the wave of the high price of oil, the country has experienced major fiscal deficits along with a sharp increase in public debt (27% of GDP in 2012).
Even before the recent violence, Venezuela hardly has been a Utopia. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, where a person is murdered every 21 minutes, and there were roughly 24,700 violent deaths last year — quite high for country of just under 30 million.
According to PolicyMic, since taking over from Chavez last year Maduro has led Venezuela to 56 percent inflation rate and a 50 percent increase in the budget deficit, prompting China to cut back on its $20 billion loan, and Moody’s and Standard & Poor to downgrade Venezuelan bonds to “junk” status. The once-strong dollar also has dropped from an 8 to 1 exchange rate relative to the U.S. dollar at Chávez’s death, to a horrifying 87 to 1.
In the election following Chavez’s death, Maduro narrowly defeated his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski. While Maduro portrayed himself as a bona fide extension of chavismo, Capriles represented a coalition of groups from across the political spectrum. Ultimately, this was not enough to defeat Chavez’s hand-picked heir (though it would come as little surprise if the elections had, in fact, been rigged).
When the current protests began in February, the focus was on soaring crime rates, but erupted into all-out anti-government rallies. Since then, some 40 people have been killed. To halt the bloodshed, foreign ministers from several South American nations recently brought together Maduro and Capriles — the de facto leader of the opposition.
At the meeting, Maduro was obstinate and claimed that any sort of formal deal with the opposition would make him a “traitor to chavismo”. Instead, he called on the opposition to renounce violence.
Capriles reassured Maduro that the opposition is not looking for a coup d’etat, or for further bloodshed. In response to Maduro’s claim that the opposition are “fascists”, Maduro said:
“How are you going to ask the country to accept you if you call half the country fascists or you threaten them?” he asked. “I think it is very difficult to govern a country where half the people are against you.”
Like the popular uprisings constituting the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East, social media platforms such as Twitter are empowering protesters to better organize and take collective action. It seems likely that Maduro’s days are numbered, but the real question is; could Capriles do better? Latin America has seen this story played out time and time again — popular figure overthrows current despot, only to become a despot himself.
For the sake of those struggling for a better life in Venezuela, let’s hope this time it’s different.
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