By Tim Marshall.
It’s difficult to see what will halt Venezuela’s descent into chaos, or stop its government’s increasingly repressive measures as it seeks to silence dissent.
Food and medicine shortages, hyper inflation, power blackouts, rampant corruption, and currency controls are contributing to the gathering sense of crisis in the South American country whose government reacts to criticism by arresting and sometimes torturing those who speak out.
An increasingly nervous government frequently plays the patriot card, accusing opponents of being against the Venezuelan people, and of being a part of a ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ to harm the nation. To further cow opposition the government has co opted its partners in the judiciary.
A new Human Rights report says the ‘The government of President Nicolás Maduro and its political supporters in parliament are misusing the criminal justice system to punish people for criticizing its policies.”
As well as the arbitrary arrest of well-known figures, which get publicity, HRW says the government is going after ordinary people in a bid to maintain its grip on power.
A recent example of a high profile arrest came on July 24th when the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) agents came for businessman Fray Roa Contreras. The previous day he had been on CNN and criticized the government’s economic policies. Mr Contreras is being prosecuted for allegedly disseminating false information that “causes panic in the people or maintains them in a state of anxiety.”
HRW Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco said:
“The government of Venezuela uses the justice system as a facade, but the reality is that Venezuelan judges and prosecutors have become obedient soldiers…… Venezuelan authorities have routinely abused their powers to limit free expression, undermining open, democratic debate that is especially critical with legislative elections coming up in December.”
At least 22 media workers have been arrested in a country where the government has a strong grip on the dissemination of information.
Medical workers are not safe either. HRW documented a case in which a doctor was detained by intelligence agents and threatened with prosecution for criticizing shortages of medicines on TV.
The government is using draconian laws introduced in 2005 by President Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. A citizen can be sentenced to five years in prison for causing “anxiety” by disseminating “false information.”
The opposition leader Leopold López has been in military prison since February 2014. He is charged with inciting violence. Detractors also accuse him of supporting the attempted coup against the late Hugo Chavez in 2002 in which he allegedly ‘arrested’ a government minister.
Last month Fray Roa Contreras of the Federation of Liquor Sellers was picked up by the secret police after his organization had criticized government policies. He was duly charged with causing “panic in the people”.
Behind some of this is the low price of oil. With crude hovering around $50 a barrel the government is running out of the money it requires to subsidize its loss making industries. With many senior government and military officials involved with the mafia in money making criminal enterprises there appears little appetite to crack down on corruption which exacerbates the dire economic situation.
The government has nationalized the food industry in a bid to halt the free fall of its currency – the Bolivar. Farmers and other food producers are now required to sell between 30 and 100% of their staple produce such as rice, milk, and flour, directly to state owned stores.
There are now huge queues outside government supermarkets with frequent scuffles with the authorities and occasional riots.
Speculators, known as bachaqueros – giant ants – are trying to buy up as much foodstuff as they can, and resell them at much higher prices in the private stores. Prices continue to rise, the official inflation rate last year was 64% but many economists believe it was way over 100% and rising. The government response has been to print money and stop publishing official inflation figures.
Professor Steve Hanke at the Cato Institute told El Nuevo Herald, “The economy is in a death spiral….the underlying inflation, which I’m figuring daily, is 615 percent. That’s the real inflation of Venezuela.”
At the moment the government can rely on the National Guard to put down street violence, and has in reserve the brutal ‘colectivos’ gangs on its payroll should they be required.
So far the opposition is not organizing mass demonstrations. It fears that would trigger a state of emergency and wants to hold on until the December elections. However, discontent is simmering, the opposition risks being in the position of saying -“There goes the mob – I must follow them for I am their leader”.
Maduro photo courtesy of Agency Brazil