Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Protests in Venezuela

The protests in Venezuela in the last three weeks have escalated to violence and face off between security forces and protestors causing the death of six protestors including a beauty queen. The protesters have demanded the resignation of President Maduro on the issues of uncontrolled crime and violence, shortage of essential items in supermarkets and the repression of opposition parties. The government accuses the opposition of conspiracy to foment instability through the riots and has detained a number of protestors including a politician Leopoldo Lopez.
The protests have now assumed external dimensions. The Venezuelan government expelled three US diplomats accusing them of conspiracy with the opposition. They have revoked the press credentials of CNN journalists and have removed a Colombian Channel NTN 24 from Venezuelan cable system for biased coverage. While right wing US legislators and leaders from Latin America have made statements expressing sympathy with the protestors, the leftist governments of Latin America including Brazil and Argentina have reiterated their solidarity with the Venezuelan government.

The protests by themselves are just a minor political headache for the government and are controllable at the moment. What the government has not been able to control are the deterioarating economic situation and the spiralling of every day crime and violence.  Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world with fifty eight percent in 2013. The Leftist government has crippled the productive capacity of the private sector ruining the industry and business. The inefficient state control of distribution and imports have converted Venezuela into a Cuba with long queues in front of super markets with empty shelves and acute shortage of essential items. Despite the very large annual oil export earnings of over 80 billion dollars, there is a severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves. The government has imposed draconian restrictions on foreign exchange, imports and foreign travel and these have given rise to a rampant black market and corruption. Caracas has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world where criminal gangs kidnap even diplomats for ransom. 

It seems that the Chavistas do not have the the capacity to solve the current problems, some of which were created by themselves over the years. They survive by handing out freebies to the poor people who are their captive voters. The only hope for Venezuela is a change from the Chavista regime. But that change has to come constitutionally and democratically and the opposition needs to be patient. They need to seek support from the poor masses, who are obliged to the Chavistas for their hand- outs. The last opposition Presidential candidate Capriles took this approach and came close to beating Maduro in the 2013 elections. If the opposition continues this strategy systematically, they have a definite hope to come to power and give hope to the country which is simply hopeless at the moment. 

The opposition is accused of having  a hidden agenda behind the protests. The opposition lead a similar series of protests in 2002 which resulted in a military coup in which Chavez was overthrown. But the military which colluded with the opposition, changed sides and brought back Chavez in 48 hours when they got left out in the distribution of spoils by the greedy opposition which grabbed the power too quickly. Chavez took his revenge on the middle class and the business which supported the coup by making their life systematically miserable since then. 

The Opposition should remember the 2002 lesson and avoid any recourse to unconstitutional regime change. The Chavistas are battle-hardened veterans in the fight with the opposition both democratically and otherwise in the last fifteen years. Armed Chavista militants pose danger to the anti-government protestors. The Venezuelan military too is enjoying undue share of power and corruption with the Chavista government and they might not side with the opposition for any coup as  they did in 2002.

Venezuela is the largest trading partner of India in Latin America with 14.4 billion dollars of trade in 2012. Of this 14.1 billion dollars were India's imports of crude oil. Venezuela has emerged as one of the top five sources of India's crude oil imports. Indian oil companies have invested over a billion dollars in the Venezuelan oil sector. Understandably, India follows the political developments in Venezuela closely, although there is no need for any worry at this stage.