25th April 2017
Protests, a common occurrence in Venezuela, have grown in size and intensity since the country’s Supreme Court decision to strip the opposition-dominated congress of the little power which it still held. While this decision was later reversed by President Maduro, it did provide a rallying point for those opposed to Maduro’s rule. Opponents to Maduro’s rule accused the Supreme Court, packed with pro-government judges, of legitimising one-man rule in the country. The regime’s opponents have also been angered by the official decision to ban Henrique Capriles from holding office for 15 years, a politically-motivated arrest in their minds. He stood against Maduro in 2013 and is one of his more visible and high-profile opponents.
The recent unrest has seen police use tear gas and rubber bullets to control the crowds. Protestors have been accused of throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks. The opposition Justice First Party has claimed that their protests have been targeted by pro-government “paramilitaries”.
At least 24 people, including pro- and anti-government protestors, as well as onlookers have been killed in this latest round of protests. Three people died in the most recent protests on 24 April 2017. Both pro- and anti-government protestors have accused each other of attempting a coup. Maduro has accused the opposition of conspiring with the US.
This is not the first example of unrest in Venezuela, even this year. President Maduro remains widely unpopular. Recent protests have not even been the most well-attended but may be the most significant since Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan left swept to power in 1999. Historically, many protests against the Maduro-Chavez premiership have come about due to a believed democratic deficit in the country. Corruption is widespread in Venezuela with Transparency International ranking the country 166/176 in its most recent Global Corruption Perception Index. However, in the past few years, the case against Maduro has increasingly taken on economic and security angles.
Venezuela is suffering from a multiyear recession with hyperinflation rife. The economy shows little sign of response under Maduro. Both he and Chavez placed a strong economic focus on oil to pay for generous social programmes. By some estimates, Venezuela possess the world’s largest oil reserves. However, Venezuela is heavily dependent on oil revenues. Oil accounts for about 95 per cent of Venezuela’s export earnings and 25 per cent of its GDP. The recent fall in the price of oil from its highs of $111 a barrel in 2017 has hit the country hard. It currently owes $140 billion to foreign creditors and has only $10 billion reserves; a default is a real possibility. This is thanks in part to China stepping back its involvement in the country, with obvious fears that they may not receive any returns on their investments. Venezuela’s heavy dependence on imported goods has led to widespread shortages on everyday items such as toilet paper to medical supplies. The head of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation has estimated that as much as 85 per cent of basic medicines were unavailable or difficult to obtain. Despite this, Maduro, perhaps embarrassed, has refused to allow foreign medical aid into the country as the country descends into poverty.
The rise in poverty has also been a vital contributing factor in the dramatic rise in violent crime in the country. Violent crime has reached epidemic proportions in the country, making it the primary threat to travellers. By some estimates there are 79 murders per 100,000 people. This rate increases to around 122 per 100,000 residents in Caracas, making it the most dangerous city in the world outside of an active warzone. Criminal gangs, guerrillas, and heavily-armed militia defend their turfs, with traditional authority structures either inept, involved in criminal activity, or reluctant to combat it.
Further unrest, potentially violent, is likely in Caracas and other major Venezuelan cities. The opposition has already vowed to stay on the streets until presidential elections, due to be held in 2018, are brought forward. Given President Maduro’s stubbornness on this issue for the past few years, this eventuality is not probable. On 23 April 2017, President Maduro called for talks with the regime’s opponents. The relationship has soured to such an extent that these discussions, if they do occur, are not likely to be productive. The regime is likely to continue its aggressive crackdown on protesters. Human rights groups have estimated that 1,000 people were detained during recent unrest, 700 of whom remain in detention. Security services are commonly criticised for the arbitrary detention of regime opponents. Indeed, one of the demonstrators’ demands is the release of political prisoners. Recent reports have also suggested that armed bandits/paramilitaries have been employed to violently prop up Maduro’s premiership and crush opposition to his administration. These groups, called collectives or ‘colectivos’ in Spanish, began as pro-Chavez community organisations and they have long been a mainstay of the radical left in Venezuelan politics. Colectivo members are civilians with police training and are armed by the government according to some reports.
These protests may act to finally push Maduro out of office. The tide of political opinion has long been against him. He has needed to rely on becoming increasingly autocratic and political appointees to maintain his tentative grip power. He lost the support of large swathes of the electorate, even many of those who formally supported his rule. Indeed, recent protests, while not the largest, were incredibly significant because protesters were able to venture into western Caracas without the widespread opposition of the locals, many of who have traditionally been loyal to Maduro. It is unclear if Maduro can cling onto power until the planned presidential elections in 2018.
More concerning to other states in the region is the potential refugee crisis looming in Venezuela. Due to the fall in oil prices, many social programmes have been left underfunded in the country and inflation has skyrocketed. Venezuela hospitals are lacking in even some of the most basic medical resources. Venezuelans are already fleeing to neighbouring Colombia and there are fears in the US that many will arrive on their shores. Washington and Caracas have historically had a difficult, rocky relationship. Further sanctions should not be dismissed as a possibility, neither should limited military intervention.
What may see Maduro cling onto power is the influence of the ALBA bloc (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) which still supports the embattled President. Indeed, after a summit in Havana, Cuba on 10 April 2017, ALBA released a statement in support of Maduro. The leftist organisation is formed of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Venezuela. Recent elections have shown how the influence of the left in South American politics is dwindling. It is unclear if the ALBA bloc can provide Venezuela with the necessary support.
Travel to Venezuela is particularly dangerous at the best of times and there is considered to be a heightened risk during this period as the situation remains tense. As previously noted, protests in the country routinely turn violent with the police using some extreme tactics to break up crowds, including arbitrary arrests. Rival political groups have also clashed during the recent unrest and the opposition has accused the government of employing violent paramilitaries. Further marches and demonstrations are expected from both pro- and anti-Maduro groups, with similar levels of violence likely. Travellers are strongly advised to avoid large crowds. Foreigners involved in protests are liable to be treated worse by authorities if they become involved in unrest. Also, protests are a potential target for criminals either working alone or in groups.
It is vital for travellers to Venezuela to stay abreast of the latest political developments as the situation is fluid and likely to change with little notice.
The primary security threat to travellers in Venezuela remains crime. A variety of criminal activity is evident throughout the country, from petty thievery to violent carjackings, kidnapping, and murder.
It is vital that an enhanced level of security is employed when visiting Venezuela. It is recommended for travellers to pre-arrange a security driver and vehicle prior to their arrival in country, as well as armed close protection, dependent on the area of travel. A security driver and armed protection will help mitigate the potential threat of transiting high risk suburbs for crime and civil unrest. Local transport infrastructure is weak and prone to robbers or scams. For all travel to Venezuela, Solace Global would advise that clients seek pre-travel security advice, employ travel-tracking technology, and undertake extensive journey management planning.