Protests that rocked the Venezuelan capital over the weekend are the latest signs of a simmering crisis that’s threatening to boil over in the South American country.
Rival factions of pro- and anti-government activists took to the streets of Caracas, a day after President Nicolas Maduro declared a “constitutional state of emergency.”
Maduro said his emergency declaration aimed “to tend to our country and, more importantly, to prepare to denounce, neutralize and overcome the external and foreign aggressions against our country.”
He has also called for military exercises to take place next weekend to prepare for “any scenario,” including a foreign invasion.
But while some marched in support of the government’s push for a “state of constitutional exception and economic emergency,” which is expected to extend into July, not all are as patient.
Anti-government demonstrators accuse Maduro of clinging to power as his country crumbles.
People throughout the country lack access to food and basic healthcare.
At times, they can’t even turn on the lights — the government says extreme drought has hampered the country’s hydroelectric capabilities.
There are product shortages; there is raging inflation that has annihilated salaries; and there is rampant violent crime.
All of this is leading to widespread anger — culminating in the sort of protests seen over the weekend, as well as the outbursts of looting and violence that are marring this once-stable nation.
Maduro’s last days?
Protests are on the rise and a key poll shows nearly 70% of Venezuelans now say Maduro must go this year.
The opposition, won control of the National Assembly in a December election propelled by voter anger, are now pushing for a recall referendum against him.
Venezuelan Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz dismissed that possibility Sunday, accusing the opposition of committing fraud in its efforts to get signatures for a recall vote.
“Maduro will not leave because of a referendum. Forget it. … There will be no referendum,” he said.
No matter what happens next, the situation is bleak.
Venezuela is currently seeing sky-high inflation brought on by plummeting oil prices, which has resulted in a chronic shortage of goods, medicine and power — all of which is contributing to widespread political unrest.
Maduro threatened Saturday to seize idle Venezuela factories and jail their owners following a decree granting him expanded powers to deal with the country’s acute economic crisis.
Maduro is the heir of the populist president Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013. Riding to power in 1999 on the back of anti-U.S. sentiment and high oil revenues, Chavez implemented a heavily statist economic model.
But the leftist nature of the movement created enmity with many, including the United States, and Chavez was a regular thorn in the side of former U.S. President George Bush.
But Maduro lacks his predecessor’s firebrand populism and, crucially, the high oil prices that funded many of his social programs. This combination has led to widespread dissatisfaction with the former bus driver’s time at the helm.
The mutual U.S.-Venezeulan distrust continues to this day.
In March, U.S. President Barack Obama extended an executive order that imposed sanctions on top Venezuelan officials and declared the South American country a national security threat. Maduro scapegoated the U.S., alongside ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in his Friday night address.
Venezuela recalls top diplomat in U.S. over sanctions
He also cited political instability in Brazil, where his close leftist ally President Dilma Rousseff has been sidelined pending an impeachment investigation. Maduro was quick to liken Brazil’s situation to his own country’s instability — calling it a “coup” which was “made in the U.S.A.”
Venezuela’s economy shrank 5.7% in 2015 and is expected to contract an additional 8% this year, the International Monetary Fund says. Inflation has skyrocketed, suffering annual inflation rates predicted to hit the 700% range while failing to meet its citizens’ most basic needs, according to IMF projections.
Power outages are nothing new for Venezuelans. But with the government’s recent announcement of a formal rolling blackout program set to last at least 40 days, things have only gotten worse, according to ordinary Venezuelans.
Maduro and other government officials blame the El Niño weather pattern and epic drought for the problem. The water level at the Guri hydroelectric dam, which provides 75% of Venezuela’s electricity, is at a record low. Opposition figures blame mismanagement and corruption for the problems.
According to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, the country is lacking roughly 80% of the basic medical supplies needed to treat its population.
And it’s having a huge effect on locals. One, Jose Luis Vasquez, who was shot near his home by someone stealing his bike, has had to foot the bill for syringes, gauze and other necessities, and is even reduced to using a water gallon as a makeshift surgical drain to draw fluid from his lungs as he lies recuperating.
Some hospital workers believe medicines are being swiped from their facilities to be sold on the black market, as government rationing of medications has made even basics, like pain relievers, hard to come by.