CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela is in the midst of a violent protest movement that has left eight dead this month as the country’s deeply unpopular socialist administration struggles to stay in power and a newly energized opposition calls for immediate presidential elections.
The protests began three weeks ago after the Supreme Court issued a decision stripping the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers. President Nicolas Maduro later asked the court to walk back that move amid a storm of international criticism. But the attempt to take over congress has unleashed long-simmering anger amid an economic crisis that has a majority of Venezuelans skipping meals and even losing weight.
Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets again Thursday, after the government seized a General Motors plant in its first such seizure of the major company in two years.
HOW PROTESTS STARTED
The opposition scored a stunning landslide victory in 2015 legislative elections amid growing frustration with Maduro’s handling of the economy. Opposition leaders vowed to seek his ouster through constitutional means, but the government-stacked Supreme Court has stopped them at every turn.
Then in late March, the Supreme Court issued a ruling nullifying the body altogether. The court quickly reversed that ruling, but opposition leaders say the socialist administration revealed its true dictatorial ambitions. The country has seen near-daily protests ever since.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The big fear is a repeat of the riots and looting that rocked Caracas in 1989, leaving around 300 people dead. Another wave of anti-government unrest in 2014 resulted in more than 40 deaths and dozens of arrests.
Venezuela has one of the world’s highest homicide rates and the huge number of firearms circulating on the streets is a major concern in the event of unrest, as are the activities of armed motorcycle gangs that were once loyal to the government.
STATE OF THE ECONOMY
The economy is forecast to sink 8 percent this year and the International Monetary Fund forecasts inflation will soar to four digits next year. Foreign currency reserves have tumbled.
Oil accounts for 96 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings and the plunge in world oil prices hit the government hard, leaving it owing money across the board, from foreign airlines to oil service companies. Rebounding oil prices, which are up around 60 percent this year after dipping to a 13-year low, could buy Maduro some time to attempt to fix the economy. A new loan from China could also help, but Venezuela’s biggest creditor has stopped issuing new loans.
The Venezuelan government has already seized many assets of foreign corporations. General Motors said Thursday that its plant in the country had been seized, causing it to halt its operations in the South American nation.
Polls say 75 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro gone, but about 20 percent support him. That’s actually a higher percentage of support currently received by leaders in Brazil, Chile and Colombia. More importantly, Maduro maintains a tight grip on almost every branch of government and institution, though support within his ruling socialist party is fraying.
The opposition is divided by some big egos and has had a tough time connecting with poor people who still revere the late Hugo Chavez. Both hardcore and moderate opposition members want to keep up street protests and push for new general elections.
Venezuela’s military historically has been the arbiter of political disputes and some in the opposition are trying to spur its leaders into action to resolve the current impasse. However, Chavez and Maduro have been skillful in winning over the top brass through patronage and powerful government jobs, and there is no outward sign of disgruntlement even at the junior levels.
One unanswered question is whether the military will use heavy force as it did during anti-government unrest in 2014.