Social emergency grows in Venezuela amid persistent political crisis

January 3, 2018

Latin News

On 2 January Cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Sabino, the archbishop of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, urged the Venezuelan government led by President Nicolás Maduro to solve the “social emergency” in the country and to ensure the staging of a “clean” general election due to be held this year.

Significance: Cardinal Urosa’s call came after Venezuela ushered in the New Year with the holding of noisy ‘pots and pans’ anti-government protests staged in various cities around the country in denouncement of the shortage of food, which was painfully highlighted during the holiday season. The shortages are the result of the serious economic crisis which Venezuela has fallen into in large part due to the ongoing political crisis marked by the Maduro government’s refusal to accept the authority of the opposition-controlled national assembly (AN) and its convening of a national constituent assembly (ANC) to supplant the AN as the country’s law-making body. The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) government led by Maduro and the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) main opposition coalition have been taking part in an internationally-sponsored dialogue in the Dominican Republic to try to resolve the political crisis. But this process has been hampered by concerns that the government will not conduct a free and fair general electoral process in which the opposition can compete on a level playing field. The holding of free and fair elections is considered to be critical to resolving Venezuela’s crisis.

The final days of 2017 were marked by spontaneous public protests held in various parts of the country over the shortage of some traditional holiday foods in Venezuela (such as ham), which the Maduro government promised would be widely available for the population. Some of these protests quickly turned violent, with protestors clashing with the security forces that were deployed to food distribution centres to maintain order (with at least one fatality reported).

President Maduro said that the shortages were part of the international ‘economic war’ being waged against his government, after accusing the likes of Portugal of refusing to sell ham to Venezuela as part of a plot to destabilise the Andean country. The president said that the government had tried to source sufficient ham to meet demand in Venezuela but that it been unable to do so as some countries had refused to sell to it. But Maduro said that the government would ensure that the situation would be quickly rectified. In an attempt to appease the discontent, Maduro also decreed a 40% minimum salary increase (effectively immediately) on 31 December – the seventh such salary increase decreed by Maduro in 2017.

But the explanations offered by Maduro have failed to convince and on the night of 31 December 2017-1 January hundreds of Venezuelans took part in pot and pans protests around the country. Protesters expressed anger at the lack of food and basic goods and the rampant inflation (calculated by local economists to have closed 2017 at rate of 2,735%) which has significantly eroded their purchasing power (despite the successive salary increases the minimum salary in Venezuela still remains the lowest in Latin America, equivalent to just US$74 at the floating black market exchange rate). Meanwhile, local business-sector groups have warned that the latest salary increase decreed by Maduro will only further stoke inflation and lead to the loss of jobs as the hard-pressed private economic sector will be unable to sustain such costs.

Cardinal Urosa called on the government to address the growing discontent during a radio interview yesterday. He said that Venezuela was experiencing a “social emergency” deriving not only from the lack of food that was leading many to “starve” but also the lack of medicines, which has resulted in deaths at hospitals. Urosa said that it was the government’s responsibility to address all of these problems, as it was to ensure the holding of “a clean and transparent” electoral process this year that “is accepted by everyone and does not leave any doubt over its legitimacy”.

Looking Ahead: Urosa said that the hoped that the Maduro government and the opposition would be able to make significant progress to resolve Venezuela’s crisis in the next round of the dialogue in the Dominican Republic due from 11-12 January. If such progress does not materialise, the discontent in Venezuela only looks set to increase.

Contributor Biography

Latin American Newsletters (LatinNews) was founded in London in 1967 to provide expert political, economic, and security analysis on Latin America and the Caribbean. For nearly 50 years, it has been acknowledged as the foremost authority on the region.

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