▲ The colors of the Venezuelan flag. Provided by nydailynews.com
Tear gas blanketing the streets. People with ghastly wounds fleeing from the police. Protesters draped in the national flag fighting back against the military. These scenes are nothing new to the average Venezuelan, who is a witness to fierce anti-government protests that have been taking place for the past four years. As these protests gradually turn into a war of attrition with no sign of concluding anytime soon, it is time to ask whether lasting peace and democracy can be secured if the protesters prevail, or if the Venezuelans’ struggles will end up being a segue into yet another autocratic regime.
In a shocking turn of events, the Venezuelan Supreme Court, often seen as an extension of President Nicolás Maduro’s administration, dissolved the opposition-led parliament back in March, much to the dismay of the nation’s citizens. This event, dubbed the 2017 Venezuelan Constitutional Crisis, reignited the flame of anti-government protests that had remained largely dormant since the macabre altercations between government and opposition forces, which spanned from 2014 to 2016, ended in a stalemate. Both sides suffered heavy losses and numerous casualties during this initial clash, which essentially acted as a conduit for Venezuelans to release their pent-up rage regarding the corruption of the government and the stagnating economy.
The incumbent socialist government was established in 1998 by Hugo Chávez, who led an attempted coup to oust the right-wing administration that held power at the time. While in office, Chávez and his successor Maduro were bedeviled by rumors of government corruption and economic collapse due to falling oil prices. Resentment toward the incompetent and dysfunctional government culminated in the student protest of 2014, where protesters rallied against the ruthless crackdown methods employed by the police. The protests continued until their intensity peaked in October 2016, which saw over one million Venezuelans condemn the Maduro administration for refusing the opposition’s demand for a referendum.
A New Spring?
The protests sweeping across Venezuela have a striking resemblance to the Arab Spring, a movement that that blazed across the Middle East seven years ago. Although the Arab Spring protestors railed against a militant government while Venezuelan protestors are opposing a leftist autocracy, the violence and revolutionary spirit of both incidents lend themselves to comparison. The revolutions of the Arab Spring, while initially successful in removing autocrats such as Qaddafi from power, have recently seen the resurgence of autocratic regimes that rule with an iron fist; President al-Assad of Syria is just one example. The question is whether the protests of Venezuela, like the Arab Spring, will end up being a temporary remedy for what ails the nation.
Most experts have reached a consensus that apathetic western powers, the lack of checks and balances against the administration, and weak institutions crumbling under the weight of democracy are all factors that contributed to the relapse of the Arab Spring nations. In Tunisia, the one exception to this rule, conflicts of interest between parties were mitigated thanks to the intervention of the National Dialogue Quartet, which allowed different factions to slowly rebuild the nation’s political system from the ground up. To this day, many agree that Tunisia remains the only country that made it out of the Arab Spring as something other than a failed state or a dictatorship.
Likewise, Venezuela must establish strong and reliable institutions that can bear the brunt of the burden once the current socialist system gives way. An institution that can ensure that power is properly distributed between parliament and the administration, a department that regulates the economy independent from the whims of the government, and a new constitution with contingencies in place to prevent another dictator from seizing power are all imperative. This is especially important since, according to Professor Lee Jaehak (Spanish Language and Literature), “other Latin American nations such as Brazil or Chile are only undergoing growing pains, with their leaders ousted through democratic elections.” Venezuelan protestors, meanwhile, are seeking to dismantle their governments’ autocratic system.
The malady that afflicts Venezuela’s economy shares the same source as the economic problems facing the nations that underwent the Arab Spring. “A sharp decline in oil prices, an unintended consequence of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, sent these economies spiraling,” Lee said. “Venezuela, being one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, was affected particularly severely,” he noted. Add to that unbridled welfare spending on Maduro’s part and one can readily see the Venezuelan government has concocted the worst economic disaster in recent memory. Encouraging privatization, investment in industries other than oil, and enacting austerity measures to rebuild Venezuela’s international credibility are some of the ways the new administration could counter the wave of nationalization and price control that caused this calamity in the first place.
World powers also have a role to play in Venezuela’s convalescence. Many point to Western nations’ indifference to the internecine conflicts and economic maladies in Middle Eastern countries as the reason autocrats were able to take power in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Fortunately, in contrast to the Arab Spring nations, Venezuela can look to China for help. “China has long since crowded the United States (U.S.) out of Latin America in terms of political and economic influence,” Lee revealed. “In particular, Venezuela and other oil producers serve as supply lines that are essential to China’s economy,” he emphasized. By supporting Venezuela’s languishing oil industry, China can facilitate Venezuela’s economic recuperation while also reaping the benefits of a booming oil supply.
Stepping into the Light
“Politics in Latin America is like a pendulum; it constantly sways between two extremes,” Lee observed. “The military governments that reigned over the region until the 1980s were overthrown by economic neo-liberalists, but they too were removed from power due to a combination of economic crises and leftist autocracies in what is now known as the pink wave,” he elaborated. Likewise, he predicts that the new administration that replaces Maduro’s will lean to the right, embracing capitalism and democracy while eschewing government control over the economy. The road to this upheaval of Venezuela’s economic and political systems, however, will be uneven.
Even if protesters succeed in overthrowing Maduro’s administration, their victory will be hard won. In the aftermath of the protests, Venezuela’s infrastructure will be crippled, their institutions rusty, and their reputation ruined. Despair in the face of such devastation plunged the Arab Spring nations into disarray, and it is only through an optimistic outlook that Venezuela can pull itself back from the brink and abstain from repeating the mistakes of the Arab Spring. With the implementation of well-oiled institutions that are conducive to democracy and the introduction of independent, autonomous markets to offset the corrosive effects of a mismanaged socialist system, Venezuela can and will be born anew.