By Patrick Barrios
For over a month, there have been protests against the government of Venezuela. What began on February 11th, 2014 as a small, peaceful student demonstration quickly evolved into nation-wide protests. Thousands upon thousands of men and women have been filling the streets of various Venezuelan cities, with more citizens joining each passing day.
Why are the Venezuelan citizens protesting against their government?
They are protesting because they feel that their government has failed them. Venezuela has been a strongly divided country since Hugo Chavez first became president. The rift widened after the late president’s passing and the election of his chosen successor: Nicolas Maduro.
Mr. Maduro won the recent election by a margin of less than two percent, and it is widely suspected that the election process was rigged. Many citizens reported being threatened or forced to vote for the Chavista government. However, Mr. Maduro seems to be losing popularity among former Chavistas as the deteriorating state of their country continues to become more apparent.
Despite the seemingly boundless natural resources and riches Venezuela possesses, its economy is failing. Official estimates, as of March 15, 2014, claim the inflation rate is 57.3%, indicating that Venezuela is the country with the third highest inflation rate. However, economist Steve J. Hankin of the New York Times has suggested that the official inflation rate, provided by the Venezuelan government, is vastly understated, and that the actual inflation rate might be up to six times the given value. Venezuela’s staggering inflation rate has led to the shortage of basic goods, such as milk, oil, and toilet paper. The lack of goods has pushed the citizens past their breaking point. Restaurants have been forced to close down because the government can no longer afford imported goods. Newspapers have had to halt printing due to lack of paper. The Hospital of Caracas has had to halt its services because the medicine and equipment they need is no longer available, despite over 3000 patients currently waiting for surgery.
Venezuela’s ever-increasing rate of violent crime is also a cause of the protests. According to Quartz, violent crime has increased by 500% since Hugo Chavez first took office. In fact, it is estimated that in Venezuela, someone is murdered every 21 minutes. The government is a chief cause of the increasing crime rate because it allows a very high rate of gun ownership and does not implement an appropriate degree of enforcement against crime. As stated by the Institute of Research on Coexistence and Citizen Security, 91% of the country’s murders go unpunished.
How has the Venezuelan Government responded?
The peaceful protests were met with a violent response from the National Guard. It is believed that Mr. Maduro dispatched a huge number of men, with what appears to have been unwarranted force, in an effort to dissuade further protests and dissent. Instead, the president’s display of power and inhibition of peaceful protest infuriated many citizens. More protests broke out across the country, some of which have been violent. The government often sends armed forces to disperse assembled citizens. Tactics the government has regularly employed to halt protests include firing plastic bullets, using water cannons, and throwing tear gas grenades into the crowd. Reportedly, many of the tear gas grenades used were expired. The government has been sending fighter jets on routine fly-bys above well known opposition-supporting areas since the protests began, and have deployed tanks to assist in dissolving crowds, although as of yet no shots have been fired from the tanks. The violence has resulted in the death of 39 protesters and bystanders.
On March 15th, 2014, Mr. Maduro acknowledged that he has detained 1529 protesters, including 558 students. This also includes the arrest of Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader who encouraged and participated in the protests. Furthermore, the government has censored media, shutting down every non government-affiliated TV station in the country, as well as many non-government affiliated radio stations. They have also threatened and removed international journalists, and removed three United States diplomats from Venezuela, as the government claims that Obama is funding the protesters.
How have the Venezuelan protestors reacted?
The protests are meant to be peaceful. The most common style of protest is what the locals call “Cacerolazos”. These are “pots and pan” protests wherein citizens walk the city streets while loudly hitting pots and pans. However, due to frustration and anger at the government’s forceful response to the protests, some protests have become violent. Tactics employed by protesters include throwing tear gas grenades back at policemen, stretching wires across buildings to disembark motorcycle-riding policemen, and defending themselves with miguelitos: hoses riddled with nails and used as whips. Two National Guardsmen have died during the protests. Many protesters have made guarimbas, which are rows of garbage and household objects set aflame to serve as barricades, blocking off roads and sometimes preventing the arrival of armed forces during protests.
What is my opinion?
Although the situation in Venezuela might seem like a distant, trivial issue, the protests raging across the country are very real. They impact every Venezuelan citizen, regardless of whether they are active participants in the protests. One man was killed by National Guardsmen while he was painting his house. My grandfather, an 88-year old, working cardiologist, could barely breathe in his own apartment because of the tear gas being used in nearby streets. My cousins, despite being told not to because it is “too dangerous”, have been attending the protests day after day. The people of Venezuela are protesting because they have a voice, and they want their voice to be heard. The government should listen to the people, not just the people to the government.
The people of my country are tired of living in a country void of essential goods, a country brimming with corruption, a country where they cannot walk the streets without fear. Yet they love Venezuela, the land of whisping waterfalls and stoic mountains, the land of their friends and family. Long have they dreamt of waking one golden, sun-soaked morning, and finding peace and prosperity in the land they love. But they have realized that they must act, that they must reach and call out for all to hear. They are doing their part, and we must do ours, lest their efforts be in vain. Take a moment to listen to their voice. Carry it with you, and let their dreams be heard.