For the past two weeks the people of Venezuela have been protesting against the presidency of Nicolás Maduro. A failing economy, rampant corruption, and political power abuses have pushed the population into action. Much like the protests in South Korea and Russia, the opposition is gathering support by energizing people into displays of dissidence. Unlike those protests, however, the marches in Venezuela have turned violent after government forces tried to intervene. With no signs of Maduro backing down, the clashes look like they will continue to escalate.
Venezuela’s economy had been thriving off the back of high oil prices. 96% of the country’s exports were in oil and when the price of a barrel dropped so too did the economy. In conjunction with collapsing oil prices billions of dollars disappeared through negligence and fraud. The government gathered vast amounts of debt during the economic boom and now owe almost as much money as they have on reserve. This situation has resulted in soaring inflation and a dramatic shortage of the necessities of civilized life. Flour, milk, and medicine have all but vanished from store shelves and hospitals, leaving the people of Venezuela desperate for their next meal or the most basic of medical services. Poverty and crime rates have skyrocketed and thousands of citizens are attempting to leave the country, many of whom apply for refugee status in the United State of America.
While the working class has slipped into despair the ruling class has benefited from illegal trade, black market scalping, and theft. Government officials routinely skim incomes from exports and steal incoming supplies to sell on the black market. Police stand guard over long lines at grocery stores and bakeries in exchange for bread and flour. Pro-government militants patrol hospital corridors to intercept any medicine that might be smuggled in from neighboring countries. Both domestic and foreign journalists are rounded up and imprisoned indefinitely and their cameras impounded. All the while the administration claims that there is no humanitarian crisis. Maduro blames shoddy businessmen for inflated prices and shortages instead of taking any responsibility for the state of his country. To the bafflement of voters, the administration outright denies the claims of its citizenry and journalists. The push to silence the media and discredit reports on the state of corruption signals a familiar tactic of authoritarian regimes around the world. While President Maduro might hope to quash communications of his failures, the thousands of demonstrators lining the streets day after day attempt to make that an impossibility.
The Supreme Court of Venezuela stripped the Parliament of it’s powers in a blatant power grab by Maduro’s administration. The President had stacked the Supreme Court with friendly allies and sought to rid what remained of his opposition from governmental authority. Henrique Capriles, a Governor and opposition leader who was narrowly defeated by Maduro in the previous presidential election, received a 15 year ban from running for office for supposed “administration irregularities”. These actions were too unsettling for the people of Venezuela and they took to the streets in protest. Thousands have marched down city highways and streets calling for liberty and to stop the incipient dictatorship. Police have been clashing with protesters to violent results. The demonstrations turned deadly last week when a college student was shot and killed by police while protesting. Despite resistance from law enforcement the demonstrations show no sign of easing.
The takeover of Venezuela’s judicial branch by the executive to punish the legislative is a stark reminder of why checks and balances are important. Back in the United States the Republican Senate recently voted to demolish the long standing filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. This “nuclear option” will make it more difficult for future opposition parties to hold sway over appointments to the country’s highest court and retain one of the most powerful checks to presidential power. Republicans have stated that they have no interest in doing away with the current legislative filibuster but it is not a stretch of the imagination to think that it is not long for this world. While the oligarchy of Venezuela continues to dismantle its own democracy, other countries should recognize the warning signs within their own governments of overreaching power. The checks and balances instituted on constitutional nations exist in part to defend from authoritarian reaches. With a Supreme Court that is increasingly partisan the recent removal of the filibuster is a small but sure step towards giving the political party in power more control over the future of the country. In Venezuela this unchecked power is leading to disastrous results, and forcing its people to take a stand in order to retain their democracy. The shift of power away from voters and in favor of the leadership makes it increasingly difficult to conserve the political influence of the people.