Exuberant memories of their just-concluded Carnival are not the first or the only things on the minds of the vast majority of Venezuelans as they begin to observe this Ash Wednesday of 2014. On the contrary, most of them are likely to have begun this morning singing the blues.
The fact that this year they were granted an extended six-day holiday which ends today is only likely to remind them of the political crisis that has been brewing in their country over the past several weeks.
With the death toll now standing at about 18, including, I am very saddened to report, 31-year-old Roberto Redman, son of my cousin, Derek Redman, who was shot in the head and killed by a gunman on a motorbike during one protest demonstration in Caracas.
The socialist government of 51-year-old President Nicolas Maduro has declared the protest movement a right-wing bid by wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans to unseat his government, often alluding to the 2002 bid to remove the popular Hugo Chavez from power, which had to be abandoned when the people demanded Chavez continue in office.
As one commentator noted recently: “Depending on where you’re sitting, people are protesting because they’re wealthy brats who are mad they’re no longer able to get the official exchange rate for their foreign vacations or they’re protesting an extremely unstable economy, a lack of basic goods like staple foods and toilet paper and endemic violence. The truth is, well, both.”
Not unlike neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago, murderous crime is a big issue in Venezuela. There were 23,000 murders in 2013, in a population of 30 million people.
There is no doubt that the late President Chavez was enormously popular, especially among the less well-off in Venezuela.
Under his regime, income inequality in Venezuela, once one of the highest in Latin America, was “reduced to the lowest on the continent” while poverty was cut in half, illiteracy has virtually been eradicated and there have been vast improvements in health, housing and education.
But, obviously, there’s been a price to pay for all this. And President Maduro, a former bus driver who won the 2013 presidential election by a narrow margin following Chavez’s death, simply seems incapable of making the economy of what, after all, is an oil-rich country, turn around.
In the midst of the protest movement’s frequent clashes with riot squads and police, there have been other extraordinarily dramatic moments.
For example, last Sunday retired army general Duval Vivas sported a flak jacket, an assault rifle and a handgun as he defiantly addressed dozens of neighbours from the balcony of his house, declaring that Maduro had sent a team of officers to arrest him but he would not go down without a fight. The team apparently retreated—at least for that moment.
Vivas resigned in 2007 as head of the Defence Ministry’s engineering department after refusing to have his junior officers swear to a new reportedly Cuba-inspired oath: “Fatherland, Socialism or Death”.
There are Venezuelans who are also protesting the left-wing turn their government has taken, with some placards objecting to “communism”.
Also facing charges of terrorism is one opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, whose future and fate remain uncertain.
At the height of the crisis, Maduro expelled three American diplomats, charging that they were involved in supporting the protest movement, something the American government has repeatedly denied, although in a tit-for-tat measure it also expelled three Venezuelan diplomats from the United States.
In fact, US Secretary of State John Kerry has urged the Maduro government to engage in “dialogue” rather than simply using violence against the opposition, a call that has been echoed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis.
In echoing such a call, Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), has stated bluntly that “there are real grounds for protest, including a dire economic situation with inflation (reportedly now running at 56 per cent!), shortages, sharp spikes in the exchange rate or rationing of access to dollars” plus a soaring crime rate.
Unlike a recent Caricom statement which simply declared support for the democratically-elected Maduro, the OAS secretary general asserted that there should be “unconditional defence of human rights, freedom of expression...and the rule of law”.
As he put it: “This is not a struggle by many against a few; it is a struggle of many against many, all equally entitled to live and prosper in their country, regardless of their ideology or social position. Neither victory nor defeat is an option for Venezuela.”
Above all, he added, “What people can expect from us (the OAS) is a persistent, stubborn call for reconciliation, dialogue and agreement which is the only path Venezuela can take today...”
Whether Maduro or his opponents out on the streets can in fact engage in such dialogue and arrive at some kind of “agreement” is left to be seen—especially over the next few days and weeks.
In the interim, those protest demonstrations are likely to continue and grow bigger with every passing day.