THE (SOUTH) AMERICAN DREAM

Well, voting is underway today – in Venezuela. The troubled South American nation hasn’t gone to the polls to vote for a new government, however, but a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. A few months ago, when these proposals were unveiled, an unofficial referendum was held in which seven million Venezuelans voted; 98% of them rejected the proposals, but the proposals are going ahead regardless. And Remoaners think they’ve got it bad here. The move to convene the constituent assembly followed the decision in March when the Supreme Court announced its intentions to take over the National Assembly, which is run by the opposition. Although the protests that greeted this announcement caused it to be reversed, President Nicolas Maduro was accused by the opposition of attempting to stage a coup, and it is Maduro’s determination to carry on regardless that seems to be tearing Venezuela apart, even if problems run much deeper and go back much further.

Venezuela is hardly unique amongst South American countries in experiencing ongoing difficulties when it comes to democracy, but external events have also contributed to its current crisis. With 95% of its export revenues dependent on oil, the diminishing global value of the commodity has hit it hard. Widespread food shortages have been the most devastating manifestation of the economic collapse, with figures estimating almost 75% of the population has lost an average of 8.7 kg in weight in the absence of proper nutrition, whereas only 15% of medicines are readily available. The hyperinflation that has struck the nation as of last year has seen consumer prices rise by a staggering 800% and the annual inflation rate has been estimated at 160%. As if things weren’t bad enough, the country also has an appalling murder rate.

Anyone who happens to be a regular listener of Radio 4’s wonderfully eye-opening institution, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, will be familiar with Venezuela’s decline in recent years, though the powder keg atmosphere has finally erupted into violent protest this year and the country now appears to be at breaking point. The portrait of society in a state of collapse that ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ has documented often seems uncomfortably reminiscent of the chaotic circumstances in Germany after the First World War, the ones that created the conditions for the rise of Nazism.

Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor in the Presidential office, the late Hugo Chavez, had written the Venezuelan constitution in 1999 that his successor now seeks to overturn. Chavez used to carry the constitution around in his pocket, the ‘little blue book’ he was prone to brandishing whenever a camera was on hand. As architect of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, which had ideological allies in other Socialist South American nations such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Chavez embodied the classic anti-imperialist revolutionary leader in a Castro vein that has regularly proven popular amongst those opposing the foreign policies of South America’s northern neighbour. When the great Socialist experiment invariably runs into a brick wall, blaming US intervention in the country’s affairs in remains the default excuse, and Chavez knew how to play that one.

The legacy of Chavez’s populist reforms, which were initiated when the Venezuelan economy was riding high on astronomical oil revenues – and included the nationalisation of major industries, excessive public spending, and the establishment of social programmes to improve the health and education of the population – began to reveal themselves in a less benign light at the point when Chavez lost his battle against cancer in 2013. They may have appeared admirable on paper, but Chavez failed to curb endemic corruption in public office and the police force, not to mention lowering the murder rate; a master of propaganda like Hugo Chavez was able to paper-over these cracks in his Socialist vision, but his successor has not been so fortunate. In many respects, Nicolas Maduro inherited an unenviable economic time-bomb not unlike the poisoned chalice Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown in 2007, though one suspects UK-style austerity would seem like affluence to most Venezuelans today.

Nicolas Maduro’s response to the crisis has been perceived as the President desperately trying to save his own skin rather than putting the interests of the country first. The aborted attempt to silence the opposition by taking over the National Assembly hasn’t deterred his determination to convene a constituent assembly that will have the power to override the democratic institution he failed to seize control of. Over 6,000 candidates are standing for the constituent assembly, none of them from the opposition, which has boycotted it wholesale. But while international condemnation of the election has been summarily ignored, one of Venezuela’s prominent neighbours Colombia – only just emerging from its own turbulence – has also refused to recognise the result when it comes.

The President hasn’t done himself any favours by cracking-down on more physical opposition to his power; since street protests began in April, upwards of 3,000 protestors have been detained and dozens have been killed. The most high-profile presence on these protests has belonged to ‘The Resistance’, a masked group claiming to be the protectors of peaceful protestors; they generally head the marches and are prepared to fight fire with fire when confronted by police and security guards. A ban on demonstrations hasn’t had much of an impact, with the barricades manned again on streets in the capital Caracas as the government continues to insist the constituent assembly will be the only solution to the anarchy of recent months. But Venezuela has so many more problems than that, and genuine solutions are in short supply.

© The Editor

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