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Opponents of Maduro claimed they brought together as many as a million demonstrators in the biggest rally in the capital of Caracas in decades.
They blame the government for the country’s economic meltdown, and accuse Maduro of deliberately delaying administrative procedures for organising a popular vote on his ouster.
If the referendum is held this year and Maduro loses, it would trigger new presidential elections. But if the referendum is held after January – the halfway point in Maduro’s mandate – his vice-president would simply serve out the remaining time in office.
Paula Vasquez is a Venezuelan researcher working for France’s prestigious National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and a professor of social anthropology and ethnology at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.
FRANCE 24 asked Vasquez to explain the current political crisis in her home country.
FRANCE 24: Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez was massively popular. How did Maduro, his hand-picked successor become so unpopular?
Paula Vasquez: The erosion of the “Chavista” [Chavez loyalists] constituency is not new. It started slowly, even before his death [from cancer in 2013], but it accelerated sharply afterwards and triggered a deep crisis. Today, Venezuela is financially bankrupt.
There are a few reasons for this. The country’s main export is oil, but it depends on imports for basically everything else. Over the years the state has progressively destroyed its business culture as a result of its economic policies and the nationalisation of companies. The state has essentially become the country’s sole importer, but it has lost much of its capital as a result of falling oil prices and falling oil production. Under Chavez, the Venezuelan oil industry produced three-and-a-half million barrels of oil per day. Under Maduro, this has slowed to two million.
In addition, a lot of its oil wealth has been siphoned off. We don’t talk about this enough, but corruption is a serious problem in Venezuela. It was the most widely cited Latin American country in the Panama Papers leak.
The country now finds itself in an unprecedented situation. People are starving, with families short of income and the country lacking in food supplies. Over the past three years, when I have gone to Venezuela to do field research, I have witnessed food shortages: milk, meat, fish are almost impossible to find. As a result of its policy of expropriation, the Chavista government has destroyed all domestic production.
Inflation is so bad [an estimated 700%] that the government can only buy imports with US dollars, but these are not easy to find.
FRANCE 24: We have seen anti-Maduro protests before. What was different about Thursday’s protest.
Paula Vasquez: Thursday’s turnout far exceeded the opposition’s expectations. The demonstration was bolstered by several parallel initiatives such as a march by 600 indigenous people who walked 1,000 kms from Amazon to Caracas. Some doctors and a priest were also on the march.
A group of disabled people also joined the demonstration in their wheelchairs. They came all the way from Barquisimeto, which is around 300 kms from Caracas. They had to get past 22 police roadblocks, which were placed there to stop them. That was caught on video, and the images caused a lot of indignation, but people responded peacefully.
People have figured out that it’s impossible to change public policy without changing the government. The situation is untenable, and calls for Maduro to go are now coming from Chavistas. For them Maduro is a perfect scapegoat — he failed to live up to the great man they remember.
Maduro is faced with some tough maths: The government needs $15 billion to make it until the end of the year, and he doesn’t have the cash. The IMF will not agree to lend them that amount, and even if it did the structural reforms it would demand in return would be crippling.
FRANCE 24: Caracas expelled several foreign journalists, including the correspondent of [French daily] Le Monde, and Maduro has threatened to revoke parliamentary immunity. Do you think the government will continue to toughen its response?
Paula Vasquez: What is happening is that Maduro controls the executive and judiciary branch, so therefore the police and the courts. This leads to a paradoxical situation. Even if the opposition won control of the National Assembly [in December 2015], it has little power to enforce its decisions. Clearly we are slipping towards a dictatorship.
Opposition leaders have become victims of a witch-hunt. For example, Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristobal, was imprisoned when he was already serving a sentence under house arrest. He was accused of plotting a coup, which is a little hard to believe since he was under house arrest. Leopoldo Lopez, who founded the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, has also been jailed. I do not know how far the government will go, but new arrests among other opposition leaders on the eve of Thursday’s demonstration is worrying.
I myself have not gone to Venezuela this year because it is virtually impossible to do any research right now. How can I conduct interviews with people who have to queue for hours for food? Venezuelan intellectuals living abroad, like myself, are a little scared to go home. We don’t know when we will be designated as a threat to the regime.