Why Are There Protests in Venezuela?

Why Are There Protests in Venezuela?

Daniela Ruiz rubbed her wet eyes and drank some more of her coffee. She was reading about yesterday’s demonstration on social media and in the international press. There was no point checking Venezuelan media—they had to be favourable to Maduro’s government so would either ignore the protests or make up some false story. But Daniela had been on the street yesterday and seen the blood. Her country had more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia but last year food had been so scarce that 75% of the population had lost weight.

Ruiz grew up in Caracas, the daughter of two teachers. She did well in school and went on to study journalism at the local university. While there, she became involved in radical student politics. Her first job was with the newspaper favoured by Venezuela’s factory workers.

She won awards for investigative reporting that exposed government corruption. In 1989, she had taken part in the street protests against economic reforms that delighted free-market fans of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher but which further impoverished Venezuelan workers.

So when Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, promising a revolution to help the poor, Daniela Ruiz had cheered. She wrote an article saying it was a new dawn for Venezuela. In retrospect, it seemed more like a sunset, with nightmares to follow.

The truth was, Chávez had little idea how to run a country. He filled jobs based on loyalty to him, not competence. He encouraged qualified professionals to emigrate—many of Daniela’s university friends did. His government took over farms, which promptly began to produce less. 96% of murders went unpunished.

He created jobs for the poor and gave them cash but it wasn’t sustainable. The price of oil had gone up in the early 21st century, giving Chávez billions to spend. But too much of it went into the bank accounts of corrupt officials, too little on the schools, hospitals, and infrastructure that Venezuela needed.

Unlike other resource rich countries like Norway and Saudi Arabia, Venezuela did not set anything aside for a rainy day. In fairness, it was harder to save in Venezuela, a democratic country where widespread poverty meant people had always voted for immediate help. What Ruiz could not forgive was that she soon found herself investigating corruption again. The new government never let her print what she found.

Chávez’s supporters loved him. They cheered when he called American president George W. Bush the devil. They loved the handouts. It didn’t bother them too much when he would interrupt their television programmes to tell them what was on his mind. They even watched his multi-hour Sunday shows, which were an unusual mix of chat show and self-promotion. They didn’t understand the bigger economic picture.

In darker moments, Ruiz wondered whether Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore had fared better than Venezuela because their leaders didn’t have to worry about elections. They could do what was right, not what was popular.

Now Chávez was dead. Hostile economic headwinds had been swirling while he suffered from cancer. They hit shortly before he died. Ruiz was mad that he hadn’t lived to see the ugly consequences of his corrupt and incompetent rule.

His successor, Nicolás Maduro, was worse. As the price of oil fell, he printed money to pay wages. It didn’t help. You could exchange a $20 bill for about 600 of the local currency when he came to power. Four years later, you could get almost 200,000. The economy shrank by almost 20% in one year. Deaths of women in childbirth went up 66%. The 75% who had lost weight dropped an average of more than 8 kilos. In one year. The country couldn’t increase oil production because the engineers they needed to do so had left in disgust long ago.

So Daniela Ruiz was out demonstrating again, desperate to see the back of a dictatorship that now ranked as the most corrupt in Latin America. But Maduro still had the support of the army and perhaps a quarter of the population, who still cherished the memory of Chávez, that great squanderer. She hoped against hope for a change in government that wouldn’t involve more blood on the streets.

Note: Daniela Ruiz is a fictional character. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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