While the world has been fixated on the Ukrainian protests in Kiev against the corrupt Ukrainian leadership and burgeoning Russian hegemonic aspirations, there has been less focus on the growing clashes much closer to home in Venezuela, in the capital city of Caracas. What initially started as a protest against the attempted rape of a college student in the western city of San Cristobal has now turned into a remarkably strong protest movement of the middle class, which is taking aim at the country’s rampant violence, political polarization and economic mismanagement and stagnation. Radical left-wing authoritarianism has been the distinguishing feature of Venezuela since the Bolivarian Revolution, personified last by Hugo Chavez, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. This form of oligarchic state-controlled capitalism dressed up as egalitarian populism must take the main share of blame for these developments.
In early February of this year, a female college student in San Cristobal reported an attempted rape. Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world and such crimes have been increasing since 1999, despite the banning of private firearms by the Chavez regime. According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, there were 24,763 murders in 2013 with a murder rate of 79 per 100,000 people, which is the fifth highest in the world.
The political polarization in Venezuela has been a growing trend, another inheritance of the populist political campaigning by the regime. Although many of the poor have benefited from increased social and public services, the regime takes a very authoritarian attitude towards political dissent, which includes the employment of pro-government activists, called Colectivos, or “The Collective”, whose members are some of the only people allowed to possess guns. President Maduro continually denies the legitimacy of the protests, claiming that the people on the streets are U.S.-backed conspirators, and he has even called them “fascists”. When the United States urged that Venezuela’s leadership listen to the protestors’ demands, Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats from the country.
It is rather ironic that Maduro denounced the protestors as “fascists” when his party, The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, follows an economic policy that would make Mussolini proud. Actually, the regime combines the worst parts of both fascism and communism. The heavy intervention and mismanagement of government in the economy has resulted in some of the worst inflation in the world, which officials claim is 56.2%, but foreign organizations believe is several times that number.
In addition to a crippling devaluation of the currency, Venezuela has been suffering a widespread shortage of consumer goods such as milk and even toilet paper, despite the fact the government has displayed its willingness to use military force to occupy factories and coerce production. Venezuela’s inability to satisfy its own toilet paper demands is reminiscent of Eastern Europe’s economic malaise under communism, for many of the same reasons. Price controls and limitation on capital investment, all for the sake of what is called social justice, hamper a functioning market economy, so that factories are unable to respond to growing demands in the consumer market. When a modern industrial economy cannot even supply its population with enough toilet paper, you know something has gone terribly wrong.
So far fourteen protesters have been killed in the uproar, with 200 political prisoners detained. The violence erupting on the streets of Venezuela, a country that is geographically closer to us than Ukraine, and more important economically and diplomatically, may cause a foreign policy crisis which the United States will be forced to address sooner rather than later. The United States has been a major consumer of Venezuelan oil to a scale that is not shared with any economic engagement with Ukraine. And with chaos reigning in the Middle East, European economic quagmires and an increasingly ascendant China, the instability that can ensue out of Venezuela may ignite a regional dilemma, one where the United States is not buffered by the Atlantic or the Pacific.