Venezuela Crises Set to Escalate as General Strike Begins

Written by Alicia Hernandez and Sibylla Brodzinsky.
Read the original article on the Guardian.
Image credit: The Guardian.

Venezuela is bracing for an escalation of the confrontation between the government and the opposition as the country awoke to near paralysis on Thursday at the beginning of a general strike.

Caracas, the capital, was littered with roadblocks of burning rubbish and tyres, and wires stretched from lamppost to lamppost to stop traffic, as opponents of the president, Nicolás Maduro, try to block his plan to consolidate power.

Near Plaza Altamira, in the upscale eastern part of the city, young men manning the barricades turned away any cars that tried to pass, including a bus stamped with the logo of the government tax agency.

“We are seeing empty streets and most shops closed,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles while touring the city on foot.

Maduro has called for a vote on 30 July to elect a constituent assembly charged with rewriting the constitution. Opposition and human rights groups say the move is aimed at bypassing the National Assembly, which has been under opposition control since 2016, further consolidating the ruling Socialist party’s grip on power. Maduro argues a new constitution would promote dialogue in a country deeply polarised and crippled by widespread shortages of food, medicine and basic services, and unbridled violent crime.

The strike holds the threat of increasing repression from government forces and paramilitary militias, which have been blamed for more than 90 deaths during nearly four months of street demonstrations across the country. “There is a grave danger of violence on a scale so far unseen,” the International Crisis Group warned in a report.

The strike comes as the Trump administration in the US weighs up imposing “swift economic actions” if Maduro goes ahead with the election. “The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement. The United States is Venezuela’s largest trading partner, and the country is the third largest crude oil supplier to the US.

Colombia, France, Spain, and the EU have also urged the Venezuelan government to cancel the election.

The last time Venezuela’s opposition attempted a strike of this scale was in 2002. The stoppage lasted two months in an attempt to topple Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, who set the country on a path of “21st century socialism” before his death in 2013.

Mismanagement and plunging oil income under Maduro have left that project in tatters, driving hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to flee the country and leading the political opposition to try to increase pressure on the president to step down or call a general election.

On 16 July the opposition orchestrated an unofficial “consultation” of votersordered by the National Assembly in which more than 7 million Venezuelans voted to reject the constituent assembly, mandate parliament to appoint a new supreme court and electoral authority and to form a government of “national unity”. While symbolic and non-binding, the vote turned up the pressure on the government and emboldened the opposition to call the strike.

The country’s federation of business groups, Fedecamaras, which played a pivotal role in the 2002 strike, has not fully endorsed the action this time around but businesses have said their employees won’t be punished for not turning up for work.

Labour minister Néstor Ovalles said that private companies that close as part of the strike would be punished. “We won’t allow it, and we’ll be watching closely,” he warned.

Carmen Duque, who works at an insurance company, headed to work early on Thursday despite her desire to join the protest strike. “It looks like it’s a success,” she said as she manoeuvred through the blockaded streets of Altamira. “I wanted to join but I’m on call,” she said.

A woman dressed in a red T-shirt most often worn by government supporters, called strikers “puppets and zombies”. “The ones supporting this strike don’t understand anything,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

The art of surviving a Venezuela on the brink

Written by Marcos Gomez, Director of Amnesty International Venezuela.
Read the original article on Al Jazeera.

Image Credit: Al Jazeera

The seemingly endless crisis in Venezuela appears to have entered a new, dark and alarming chapter.

As if coming off the pages of a terrifying thriller, a crisis that seemed to have reached its worst point in recent months, has actually escalated further after weeks of protests sparked by growing anger and frustration around what looks like a never-ending catalogue of problems.

On Monday, President Nicolas Maduro ordered the military onto the streets, two days before planned peaceful protests across the country on 19 April. He said the military would be “marching in defence of morality” and “against those who betray the homeland”.

Amid one of the largest demonstrations in recent months, this “call to arms” by the government was disastrous: at least two people died in suspicious circumstances, hundreds more were injured and detained – adding to the more than sixteen deaths reported during protests over recent weeks. Evidence grew that groups of armed vigilantes are taking the law into their own hands. Further demonstrations have been called for the coming days.

I thought that living (or surviving) in Venezuela had prepared the population here for anything. The endless strategies to find two kilos of rice, get hold of anticonvulsants or high blood pressure medicine has made us all experts in the art of making do.

Now, people also face the utter terror of going out into the streets. Old and young fear stepping out of their homes, participating in peaceful demonstrations, complaining about what it is like to try and survive here.

READ MORE: Venezuela’s crisis explained from the beginning

If you do go out and exercise your human right to speak your mind, you might be tear gassed (including from helicopters), beaten, locked up in jail for years without due process or even shot by one of the paramilitary groups that, although unacknowledged by the authorities, are now running amok across Venezuela.

Violence by some protesters has been cleverly used by the authorities to justify widespread repression and perpetuate the “us vs them” discourse that has done so much harm to our country. You only need to step outside to breathe this climate of fear.

Repression and violence during protests are not new to Venezuela – in 2014, more than 40 people, including at least six members of the security forces, were killed. More than 650 people were injured and more than 2,000 detained. Impunity has been rife.

Many, perhaps naively, thought these events were a one-off. We thought the country would learn from its recent history. But over the past few weeks, a cloud of uncertainty and violence has cast a new dark shadow over Venezuela. Day after day, we wake up with news of fresh protests followed by the frightening images of violent confrontations between protesters and security forces.

How the crisis began

Since this new wave of demonstrations began on April 4, tensions have escalated daily. People looked like they had nothing to lose. Many of them don’t.

What began as ordinary protests against the political and humanitarian situation in the country and against the – since-overturned – supreme court’s ruling to “ban” the National Assembly, quickly turned into something else, something much more worrying.

By the third day, we found ourselves giving shelter to injured demonstrators in the hall of the building where I live, my family and I giving first aid to bruised and battered men and women, frustrated and exhausted by the realities of daily life in Venezuela.

I watched as tear gas canisters were thrown from helicopters while President Maduro, speaking from Cuba, tried to reassure the population, saying that “Venezuela is at peace, except for a few pockets of violence that are being dealt with.”

This contrasted starkly with the reality on the ground – in just over a fortnight, at least seven people died during the protests and hundreds were injured.

A few days after the initial wave of protests, the Venezuelan Public Ministry announced an investigation to find those responsible for the killings. But this effort towards justice and accountability must not be just for show. Instead, it must be a genuine commitment to the full respect and protection of human rights, one where those who think differently from the government are not portrayed as enemies and where those who violate human rights are brought to justice.

The tragic contrast between the Venezuela portrayed by the authorities and the one we live in is so deep it’s hard to explain. The country President Maduro speaks about is at peace. People are handed food donations from government-sponsored trucks. Children happily study in school, none of them fainting in class because they have nothing to eat at home. Hospitals are fully stocked, providing their patients with the best care available.

But this is mere fiction – following in the celebrated Latin American tradition of magical realism.

In contrast, the Venezuela I – and millions of others – wake up to every day is a real-life labyrinth where buying the most essential items has become a nearly impossible struggle.

“How do people in Venezuela survive?” many ask me. I still have not been able to find an answer.

But one thing is certain. The Venezuelan authorities’ “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude to the crisis does not cut it anymore. Hiding behind a veil of propaganda and playing victim to some shadowy international plan to destabilise the country is not helping anyone in Venezuela to eat and stay healthy.

The time has come for all state institutions to fulfil their duties and work on behalf of all the people in the country.

How much longer we can go on like this is anybody’s guess, but the fact remains that something can, and must, be done to prevent our country from falling into an abyss with no return.

Marcos Gomez is the director of Amnesty International Venezuela.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

IRIN’s Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017

Displaced families gather for another distribution of cash handouts

While 2016 taught us to expect the unexpected, IRIN’s eyes and ears on the ground have given us an idea of what to look out for in the new year. We can’t promise everyone else will be covering these stories, but here are ten we’ll be watching:

The impact of Trump

Since Donald Trump’s election, speculation has been rife about what his presidency will mean for the wider world. His many statements and tweets on the campaign trail suggest that he intends to prioritise domestic and security interests over foreign aid spending and will roll back efforts made during the Obama administration to combat climate change.

But many in the humanitarian sector have been adopting a glass half full attitude, publicly at least, by pointing out that foreign aid has bipartisan support and Republicans in Congress will oppose any major cuts to foreign assistance. Others are predicting that even if the Trump administration doesn’t significantly cut overall aid spending, it will favour channelling aid through partnerships with the private sector and results-oriented initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, rather than through traditional recipients like the UN and international NGOs.

A Trump administration seems likely to allocate less aid to reproductive health and family planning programmes, and funding for initiatives relating to climate change will almost certainly be on the chopping block too. Trump has appointed a number of climate change sceptics to his cabinet, including Rick Perry, who will head the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who will lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Venezuela undone

The oil-rich nation has been unravelling in almost every conceivable way in 2016 – from runaway inflation and empty supermarket shelves to the virtual collapse of the public health sector with the resurgence of previously eradicated diseases like malaria and diphtheria. The government closely guards data on what appear to be steep rises in maternal and infant mortality rates, poverty and malnutrition, but doctors and civil society groups have been monitoring the worrying trajectory.

With the government of President Nicolas Maduro still in complete denial about the growing humanitarian crisis (let alone accepting some responsibility for it), the downward spiral will only continue in 2017. Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the opposition that started in October have so far failed to yield an agreement to lift the country’s ban on international aid, a change that could alleviate critical medicine shortages.

Maduro successfully stalled a recall vote that would likely have unseated him in October 2016. Under Venezuela’s constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a referendum in 2017, he will still be able to hand over power to his vice president and keep the United Socialist Party in power. With a political solution virtually off the table, more social unrest seems inevitable in 2017. Increasingly, Venezuelans will be forced to cross borders in search of livelihoods, healthcare and affordable food. Look to Brazil and Colombia, who will likely bear the brunt of this growing forced migration.

Yemen’s downward spiral

A small sliver of the world is finally paying attention to Yemen. That’s in part due to activist campaigns pushing the United States and Britain to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Saudis’ grudging admission they had used British cluster bombs in the war (followed by Britain’s statement of the same).

But the war and humanitarian catastrophe marches on. Despite assurances by the Saudi-led coalition that they take great care to avoid collateral damage – to IRIN no less – there have been attacks on markets and funerals, and now more than 4,300 civilian deaths since the war began last March. And that’s only what the decimated health system can count.

family and tent
Mohammed Yaseen Ahmed Ibrahim/IRIN
3.3 million people are displaced in Yemen

Peace talks don’t offer much hope. The UN-backed peace process – already a set of negotiations between elites that didn’t take into account the reality on the ground – is going nowhere, and Houthi rebels have set up their own government.

And now, Yemen is at serious risk of sliding into famine. Before the war, the country relied on imports for 90 percent of its food. With the economy in tatters, importers are finding it hard to bring in what the country needs, and families simply don’t have the cash to buy food.

The post-Aleppo future of Syria

The final fall of the last pocket of resistance in east Aleppo, with fighters and civilians evacuated outside the city, was major victory for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But it does not signal the end of the war or the suffering. Rebels still control the province of Idlib and much of Deraa, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have Afrin in the north, while Turkey appears to have territorial ambitions. Plus there’s so-called Islamic State, resurgent in Palmyra and still in control of Raqqa.

Aleppo also marks yet another failure for diplomacy. The last round of Geneva talks seems a distant memory, and while a new ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be holding in some parts of the country, the truce doesn’t include all rebel groups. If this deal doesn’t pave the way for planned peace talks in Kazakhstan and full-scale violence begins again, it’s not clear where al-Assad will take the fight next. But it seems likely that the siege tactics that have typified the war will lead to more local truces and evacuations.

Once again, this year looks bleak for Syria’s civilians – those bussed from Aleppo are headed into warzones in the middle of winter, joining the 6.3 million civilians already displaced into their own country.

Myanmar’s Rohingya – a long-running crisis and a new insurgency

There are few groups as persecuted as the Rohingya. During decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals gradually stripped away most of their rights, including citizenship, and imposed the apartheid system they live under today.

About half a million Rohingya have fled across the border during attacks on their communities over the past decades, but Bangladesh doesn’t want them either and refuses to even register them as refugees. The last few months of 2016 saw a new wave of migration over the border as Myanmar’s military allegedly carried out widespread abuses of civilians in the wake of attacks by a new insurgent group.

Myanmar’s heavy-handed approach is unlikely to crush the group, known as Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic]. In fact, there is a good chance that by targeting the civilian population, the military will drive more youth to join the insurgency. So far, the insurgents have targeted only Myanmar security forces and their motivation seems purely local – to push the government to grant the Rohingya citizenship. But there is a danger that international Islamist groups, including IS, could capitalise on the movement, which could threaten regional stability.

Genocide and famine warnings in South Sudan

South Sudan’s descent continues, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2017. The civil war drove 400,000 people across the border into Uganda since a peace deal broke down in July, and there are now more than 1.8 million people internally displaced.

Ongoing fighting has disrupted farming and made it impossible to provide humanitarian relief in many areas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns: “All available indicators point to an unprecedented deterioration of the food security situation across South Sudan in 2017. The risk of famine is real for thousands of people.”

The war and competition for scarce resources have also led to the “extreme polarization of some ethnic groups,” warned Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, in November. If that process continues, he said, “there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.”

Unfortunately, efforts to pressure the government and rebels to return to peace talks have failed. South Sudan enters 2017 under the shadow of looming famine and possible genocide, and the international community seems unable or unwilling to force leaders to stop fighting before they drive their country into an even deeper crisis.

Iraq’s displacement crisis

All eyes are on Mosul – the battle that could finally finish off IS in Iraq. Aid groups warn that as many as one million civilians are trapped inside, and more than 110,000 people have already fled the surrounding areas. But there’s another, related problem, brewing in Iraq. Overall 3 million people are displaced across the country, many from areas controlled or already liberated from IS.

For Sunnis from Anbar province – from cities like Fallujah and Ramadi – going home is far from a sure thing. Those thought to have ties to IS can’t go home, and are stuck in camps, makeshift shelters, or elsewhere. Ignoring this problem risks radicalisation of a population that has already feels scapegoated and has in the past been controlled by both al-Qaeda and IS.

It’s not just Sunnis at risk here. Some Christians say they are too afraid to go home to liberated villages near Mosul. The Iraqi government can hardly keep the lights on and has focused its limited resources on the fighting. But this shortsightedness comes at the country’s future peril.

In Afghanistan, more than a million people “on the move”

It’s been a while since Afghanistan had a good year, but the last one has been especially tough – and it’s set the scene for a disastrous 2017.

After a decade and a half of “boots on the ground” style warfare, the United States withdrew almost all of its troops. This triggered a surprisingly unexpected economic collapse that the country is still struggling to bounce back from. The past year also saw the emergence a migration crisis that will further complicate any economic recovery.

Two of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, have been Afghan refugees back over the border in massive numbers, while the European Union signed a deal that made aid contingent upon the Afghan government’s agreement to accept rejected asylum seekers. The first plane carrying Afghans deported from Germany arrived in mid-December. In addition, record numbers of people were internally displaced by conflict in 2016.

Going into the new year, Afghanistan is struggling to support 583,174 people displaced by conflict over the past year, as well as 616,620 people who returned from other countries.

Andrew Quilty/IRIN
Outside the UN’s intake centre between the Pakistan border and the city of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province

There’s no sign that the Taliban insurgency will ease up, and efforts at convincing them to talk peace with the government have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. Afghanistan’s military is also battling other insurgent groups, notably IS, which has emerged as a brutal force to be reckoned with in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Meanwhile, Iran continues to push Afghans back home, Europe is likely to return more, and Pakistan says it will begin forced deportations of all Afghans who have not left the country by March.

Kabila stays on in Congo

The political false dawn of 2016, Hillary Clinton apart, was the electoral concession that wasn’t by the autocrat running Gambia. The announcement turned out to be just a ploy by President Yahya Jammeh to buy himself more time to work out how he might extend his 22-and-a-half years in power. But we’re also shifting our attention from Africa’s smallest mainland country to its second largest – the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila appears to be engaged in similar manoeuvring that has already cost dozens of lives and led to hundreds of arrests.

Although violent unrest in the Gambia shouldn’t be discounted, the consequences of Kabila clinging to power could be even more disastrous. At the moment, an uneasy truce of sorts seems to be holding. Opposition parties have agreed, in principle at least, to allow Kabila to remain as president until the end of next year, but discussions ahead on a transitional government and delayed elections could quickly unravel. Kabila might also try to amend the constitution again to delay elections into 2018 and beyond. With neighbouring Burundi already in extended turmoil over term limits and memories still fresh of the 1998-2003 Second Congo War that dragged in nine African nations and led to an estimated six million deaths, events in Kinshasa are worth keeping a close eye on in 2017.

The opposition is weak and, in Kinshasa at least, unarmed, so with little international pressure being brought to bear and the media spotlight elsewhere, the received wisdom is that Kabila will quietly cement his hold on power. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to be ready for the unexpected.

Famine in the Lake Chad Basin region

In terms of sheer numbers and need, one humanitarian crisis that could overshadow all of the above next year lies in the vast Lake Chad Basin. It has had little coverage by journalists; perhaps more under-reported than any other humanitarian emergency of a similar scale. Despite military progress against Boko Haram extremists, 2016 saw conditions deteriorate fast in this troubled region, where Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria meet.

Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IRIN that such appalling scenes, including the faces of thousands of starving children, haven’t been seen here since the 1967-70 war with secessionist Biafra. Early warning network FEWS NET says 4.7 million people need emergency food assistance in northeastern Nigeria alone and warned on 13 December that a famine is already likely to have occurred and to be ongoing in remote pockets of the region. Across the border in Chad, conditions are little better – more than 130,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram conflict are scattered around camps, competing for slender resources with vulnerable host communities.

And it’s not just Boko Haram that is the problem: a combination of human water use and climate change has shrunk the lake itself to a 20th of its original size since the 1960s. The crisis is already enormous and only likely to deepen in 2017.

People at a food distribution site on Lake Chad
Ashley Hamer/IRIN
The majority of people at this food distribution site on Lake Chad hail from the Buduma ethnic group

(TOP PHOTO: Approaching the militarised “red zone” towards the border with Niger, displaced families in the Lake Chad Basin gather for another distribution of cash handouts. Ashley Hamer/IRIN)

Venezuela: Latin America’s Next Coup

Kenneth Rapoza


New York’s biggest Venezuela ‘death watch’ specialist, Siobhan Morden of Nomura Securities, says that the crisis-wracked country is at a cross roads. Here’s where it can go, in the simplest of terms: towards a Cuban style autocracy led by Socialist Party leader and current president Nicolas Maduro, or a military coup of ‘moderates’ who team up with the opposition to kick Maduro to the curb. For now, the Cuban-road is looking like the road Maduro will travel.

Barron’s and others reported on the military take over of certain sectors of the economy on Friday.  Bond prices for Venezuela’s one year debt fell 1.3% to 48.24. The country is being held together by polygrip, but the government continues to bite off more than it can chew.

Wall Street has been banking on cooler heads to prevail. As the economic crisis worsens, the camp that suggests Venezuela’s biggest problem is that it’s not Socialist enough is being vacated by the day. The opposition, meanwhile, remains mired in bureaucratic red tape to get a recall vote on Maduro.  It’s definitely not happening this year.

For the market, if cooler heads do ultimately prevail, an unlikely scenario, Venezuela’s bonds will be the best buy in Latin America. Similar trades were made in Argentina last year, and in Russia in 2014.

Current yield on Venezuela’s debt is over 22% on average. Fitch says a sovereign default is imminent. Venezuela, an economy dependent on oil revenue, is now one that requires its government to work as a grocery store, handing out rations. It’s practically war time.

As a result of this disarray, Friday’s 50-50 chance that Venezuela heads towards autocracy, with Maduro in role as dictator, seems more like a 60-40 chance today.

“The superpowers for the military heighten the debate about autocracy and democracy with significant implications on bond prices,” Morden wrote in a note to clients on Friday.

That superpower ministry position for Defense Minister Padrino Lopez raises concerns as to what type of political transition will occur. There are risks of either a Maduro orchestrated coup, whereas allies in the military take control and install him as defacto dictator, or opposition within the Socialist Party out-maneuver him and throw him out of office. This would require Chavistas to work with the opposition. The opposition represents the private sector, the sworn enemies of Chavez and therefore strange bedfellows.

It is unclear just how strong popular support is for Maduro and whether, given the economic crisis, he could summons popular support to back him up in the event of an anti-Maduro coup détat.

One poll from May that was reported on this month by the Christian Science Monitor suggests 25% support for Maduro’s government, a dismal rating.  One of the only reasons it is that high is thanks to the residual goodwill of voters who benefited from the Hugo Chavez years, when high oil prices and income distribution made Venezuela one of the three richest in Latin America.  As of 2013, Venezuela’s per capita GDP was higher than Chile’s, Brazil’s and Mexico’s, and trailed Argentina with around $14,400 per capita, based on World Bank figures. 

A truck loaded with groceries from the government sits in the Catia neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday, July 2, 2016. In an attempt to regain control, President Nicolas Maduro tapped party loyalists called the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAPs), and put them in charge of distributing as much as 70% of the nation’s food. Now, that distribution is in the hands of the military. (Photo by Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg)

If Chavista moderates even exist, they will have to fight among themselves if they are to do anything about Maduro’s tilt to a closed economy. Some Chavista lawmakers have even suggested the legislative branch should be abandoned. Democracy in Venezuela is on the wane.

Maduro’s claim that the country’s economic woes are due to an “economic war” waged by the opposition and the private sector can rally his base. This is especially true if he brings up Washington involvement. Chavez loyalists hate the U.S. for its role in backing a failed coup against Chavez in 2002. 

Nomura’s strategist Morden thinks the main thing to watch now is Lopez. How does the military manage to control food distribution and what will it do with trade at the ports, which is now under its command. The market has no faith this will succeed.

“The centralization or maybe efficient control of bad policies will not resolve the economic crisis,” Morden wrote.

Venezuela’s opposition leader Henri Falcon supposedly endorsed Lopez,saying he represents more of the institutional faction of the military and this may allow him more power over the repressive military leaders backing Maduro.

Lopez could be a straw man. There has been no mainstream reports of dissent from the military and the ‘Chavistas’ that have criticized the Maduro Administration’s handling of the crisis. There are regional elections this fall. That will tell a lot about the future of the Socialist Party, and the grip it has, if any, on the collective imagination.

“It is still our base case scenario that the intensity of economic stress forces a political transition,” says Morden. “However, we cannot ignore the recent autocratic trend.”

Meanwhile, the recall referendum faces impossible administrative hurdles thanks to a biased election authority that is likely to derail the process. Last month, Maduro said there would be no recall vote until next year. That’s like Bill Clinton saying the House of Representatives cannot vote on his impeachment until he says so.

Political risk could pull the rug out from under junk bond traders hoping for a repeat of Argentina.

Venezuela’s 10 year bond traded at 11.73% yield on Thursday July 14, rising 16.2% in just four days and is now up over 11% in four weeks as the market prices in the ‘Cubanization’ of the country.

Investors are hoping to double their money like they did in Argentina, but to do that, Venezuela will have to take the road less traveled — one that gives the private sector more say over the country. Despite the economic crisis in Argentina, the exit of Cristina Kirchner now has three year Argentina bonds at negative yieldBond prices are up 100.24% in the last 12 months.