After witnessing the collapse of the cruel Yanukovych regime in Ukraine, Canadians should worry a bit more about a political nightmare in their own hemisphere. Venezuela has become the next civil-war scenario, unless something is done to encourage dialogue and political mediation.
This is not an over-the-top statement. At least 13 people have already died and many dozens more have been injured in three weeks of massive demonstrations in Venezuela’s main cities. What is less well understood is how the Bolivarian revolution led by late president Hugo Chavez has planted the seeds of violent resistance against any political challenge to its power.
For more than 10 years, Mr. Chavez sponsored parallel military organizations that did not answer to any regular chain of command – just to him. It is assumed that some of them respond to Mr. Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, but others do not. According to the non-partisan International Crisis Group, at least 100,000 militia members were armed and sworn to defend the revolution during that decade.
Besides political militias such as the National Reserve and Territorial Guard – not all of which are active – there are more armed groups in the shadows. Over the past four years, the so-called colectivos have added even more fear to the equation. Most of these urban-guerrilla groups are based in Caracas’s 23 de Enero neighbourhood, the most important political base for the chavist revolution. Colectivos from 23 de Enero have largely been responsible for the wave of political violence against students and protesters. When a government – any government – massively arms sectarian political groups outside of any formal structure, it is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Venezuela’s political disenchantment had to be expressed on the streets – it was the only avenue, literally, after more than 14 years of increasing restrictions against basic rights since Mr. Chavez came to power. The judicial system ceased to be independent a long time ago – it is not surprising that the first high-profile arrest in the political violence was one of Venezuela’s most visible opposition leaders, Leopoldo Lopez, rather than any colectivo member.
Students are protesting against unbearable conditions, increasing shortages of basic goods and unapologetic authoritarianism. Famously, the country’s grocery stores even ran out of toilet paper. Scarcity should be unthinkable in a country sitting on top of the world’s largest oil reserves. But economic mismanagement and plain squandering of oil revenues have engulfed the country in crisis.
Mr. Chavez’s government always blamed U.S. imperialism and the political right for all its failures. But after 14 years, that currency no longer has any value for its citizens. Notwithstanding that, Caracas has been very successful at preventing the Organization of American States and other international bodies in their efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela. Meanwhile, years of unproven accusations against the United States and other foreign powers have finally paid off: Even the Carter Center, once welcome as a useful mediator, is no longer welcome. And UNASUR, South America’s intergovernmental union, has been afraid to step in, fearing accusations of alignment with American interests.
Venezuela has played Latin America’s long-standing resentment against American abuses very well. Recently, Caracas supported Bolivarian allies Ecuador and Bolivia in seeking reform of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization that protects citizens and social groups against human-rights violations. The consequence is now clear: Venezuelans were left alone in their fight for the right to live without violence.
The OAS will be useless to defend democracy if it cannot apply its Democratic Charter to fellow members and demand a peaceful political resolution to this crisis. How many deaths should we count before it is too late?
Grace Jaramillo, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, is a professor at the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences in Ecuador, with expertise in the Andes region.