Last week, Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for his second six-year term as Venezuela’s president. Maduro won the election off the back of international condemnation of vote buying and electoral fraud. While the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, called Venezuela’s government “illegitimate”, Maduro declared:
Venezuela is at the centre of a world war led by the United States imperialism and its satellite countries.
Such statements have become par for the course by a leader and government determined to frame Venezuela’s political, social and economic woes as a product of a protracted ideological battle with the United States.
While these discursive tactics may hold some traction with small parts of the population, the harsh reality of life in Venezuela and the government’s inability and, at times, unwillingness to address clear policy failings has significantly reduced support for President Maduro and his government.
The scale of Venezuela’s current social, economic and political crisis is so severe it is difficult to comprehend. Hyperinflation has decimated the national currency and crippled the economy. Oil production – which accounts for 95% of the country’s export revenues – has halved since President Maduro took power in 2013 and the industry has been further weakened by the collapse of the price of oil in 2014.
In 2018, the economy contracted by 18% and by the end of the year inflation had soared to 1 million percent. The IMF has predicted inflation will increase to 10 million percent by the latter half of 2019. These are dizzying figures but they only reflect one part of the complex situation Venezuela is facing.
Across the country there are power cuts, food and medicine shortages, increasing internal security problems, rising homicide rates and wide-spread malnutrition. According to the UN, these factors have resulted in three million people fleeing the country since 2015 making it the largest exodus in Venezuelan history.
So, how did it come to this?
The foundations of President Maduro’s current problems date back to the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013. The spectacular rise in popularity of Chavismo, which promoted the cult of Chávez as the liberator of the Venezuelan people, became the vehicle in which Chávez successfully consolidated his legitimacy and the significant political changes made during his time in power from 1999-2013.
Chávez employed a charismatic leadership style that positioned himself as a man of the people rather than a member of the elite. He used transformation and transaction tactics to govern and maintain legitimacy. He was a keen orator and used his weekly TV program to connect with the masses. Chavismo rests on socialist values and calls for an independent Latin America, free from the US.
While Maduro shares the same politics – and was the foreign minister in the Chávez government – his problems centre on his inability to emulate Chávez’s leadership style to generate the type of popular support and perceived legitimacy of his predecessor.
As a result, Maduro has increasingly sought to centralise power in the executive and systematically remove political rivals and members of the Venezuelan opposition from participating in democratic processes. For instance, he led the creation of a constituent assembly as a means to bypass the opposition-controlled national assembly.
His controversial changes to the 2018 presidential election, such as bringing it forward by six months to limit the time the opposition had to organise a strong campaign, as well as allegations of vote tampering, point to the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the regime.
However, Venezuela under President Maduro has gone beyond simply transitioning to a more concentrated authoritarian-style rule. Venezuela has now morphed into what has been termed a “mafia state”.
Venezuela – the mafia state
A mafia state refers to a state that has effectively been criminalised. Here, criminal entities have successfully infiltrated and compromised government institutions at all levels. Currently, more than 100 Venezuelan government officials – ranging from but not limited to individuals in the ministries of the vice president, defence, foreign affairs, intelligence and the national guard – have been implicated in criminal activity.
The clearest example of the complex nexus between criminality and the Venezuelan state has been the emergence of a powerful Venezuelan drug trafficking organisation known as the Cartel of the Suns. The organisation’s name is a reference to the gold stars on epaulettes of military generals but is more generally symbolic of the direct links between serving government officials and the drug trafficking organisation.
Former Vice President Tarek el-Aissami and former President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, are allegedly involved in the Cartel of the Suns and are among a litany of Venezuelan officials who have had sanctions imposed on them by the United States.
Venezuela’s first lady, Celia Flores, is also implicated by association. Her nephews have been convicted of trafficking cocaine in the United States, and according to Insight Crime, Ms Flores’s son is also under investigation in relation to drug trafficking activities.
Beginning with President Chávez and continuing under President Maduro, Venezuela has evolved into a rampant kleptocracy. The systematic removal of transparency and accountability in the Venezuela political system has allowed tens of billions of dollars to disappear from the treasury over the past two decades.
For example, in November 2018 a former bodyguard of President Chávez, who later went on to become the treasurer of Venezuela, pled guilty to receiving more than US$1 billion in bribes.
Venezuela’s outlook is bleak. The opposition remains fractured but continues to dispute President Maduro’s legitimacy and right to govern, and it appears to be almost impossible for the opposition to pressure President Maduro to negotiate while he continues to enjoy the support of the Venezuelan military.
At this point the parties have reached an impasse and if current trends continue, things will get much worse in Venezuela before they can have a chance of getting better.
January 2018 began with riots and looting of grocery stores across the country, a sign of pervasive hunger. Then, on Jan. 12, a crowd stormed a cattle ranch in rural Mérida and stoned a cow to death for its meat.
For a political scientist like myself, Venezuela today recalls Russia’s Great Famine, with its bread lines, empty shelves, food riots and acts of wild desperation.
Despite overseeing this plunge into poverty and hunger, President Nicolás Maduro has said he’ll run for a second term this year. Election Day has yet to be scheduled but already the prospect of Maduro’s re-election has raised furious debate about the country’s future: Can this president-turned-dictator be toppled?
A country in shambles
In theory, Maduro should go down easily at the polls. His approval rating is a dismal 20 percent, and his regime has proven unable or unwilling to ease Venezuela’s suffering.
The creation of the “petro,” a cryptocurrency introduced by the president in December to “liberate” Venezuela from dependence on the U.S. dollar, has not stemmed hyperinflation. At 2,616 percent and rising, inflation in Venezuela is now the highest in the world.
The worthless currency worsens ongoing food shortages. Last February it was reported that Venezuelans had lost, on average, 19 pounds since the crisis began in 2015.
Poverty is a stunning 82 percent. To be sure, people with connections can still spend millions of bolivares on dinner in five-star restaurants in the Las Mercedes neighborhood. But university professors like myself can no longer even dream of meals out in a Caracas of expensive cars, well-lit streets and teeming nightclubs.
Still, urban professionals are better off than many. By late 2017, the first Venezuelan children had begun to die of malnutrition.
When institutions deteriorate
Despite this humanitarian crisis, Maduro retains a near-total grip on power. That’s because Venezuela is no longer a democracy.
The president’s Socialist Party holds complete control over electoral institutions. Late last year, they used it to sweep two key elections late last year, putting regime-friendly mayors and governors into office nationwide. These wins were essentially rigged, but they still crushed the once-powerful opposition and emboldened President Maduro to seek a second term.
In some ways, hunger has also benefited the regime. Doling out favors like food and health care to shore up loyalty, Socialists continue to dominate in the poor and working-class areas where “El Chavismo” – as the regime founded by Hugo Chávez is known – has for 20 years derived its power. When people depend on government subsidies to survive, bad economics can be good politics.
Meanwhile, the government has also persecuted and prosecuted the opposition. In April 2017, the longtime resistance leader Henrique Capriles was banned for life from politics, though he says he’d still try to run against Maduro if his party asked him to.
More recently, Julio Borges, former National Assembly president, was accused of “conspiracy against the homeland.” He will likely stand trial within the next few months.
And Leopoldo López, once a star of the Venezuelan resistance, is now under house arrest.
The National Assembly, Venezuela’s opposition-led parliament, was also dismantled last year, its duties usurped by a new legislative body, the so-called Constituent Assembly, created by Maduro and stacked with his supporters.
There have also been subtler attacks. Regime-friendly newspapers question Capriles’ sexual preference, damaging his reputation in this Catholic country. Officials dismiss Ramos Allup, former president of the National Assembly and head of the opposition Democratic Action Party, as a “crazy old man.”
With its strongest leaders discredited, the Venezuelan resistance has now been all but destroyed. Gone are the days when Venezuelans marched in the streets daily to call for President Maduro’s overthrow. Most people are now too hungry, or too disheartened, to protest.
They’re also just generally afraid to go out into the streets. Venezuela’s murder rate is perhaps the highest in Latin America, though without government data it’s hard to know for sure. The government has tacitly embraced the violence: fear as social control.
Fight or flight
This untenable situation has driven tens of thousands of Venezuelans out of the country in recent years. Last October, I made the difficult decision to join them, leaving my ailing country.
I confess that this self-imposed exile is driven in part by fear. From hunger and scarcity to rampant violence and the constant military presence, Venezuela is basically a war zone right now.
More than danger, though, I fear imprisonment. Until my departure for Germany, I was director of the School of Social Communication at the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas. The school has frequently offended the Maduro regime by criticizing government attacks on the media – as have I, in loudly defending freedom of expression.
Hundreds of dissidents have been jailed for criticizing the regime. In early January, two protesters who shouted “Damn Maduro!” were arrested for “instigating hatred,” according to new “anti-hate” legislation passed by the regime-appointed National Constituent Assembly. They face a sentence of up to 20 years.
As a citizen I cannot stay silent about this dictatorship. So I left, and I took my 10-year-old son with me. Maybe we’ll go back in March as planned, but I doubt it.
Once a place for immigrants, Venezuela has become a place for no one.
The future is now
According to Omar Barboza, the recently inaugurated head of Venezuela’s opposition-dominated National Assembly, the legislature’s top priority this year should be ensuring that this year’s presidential election is free and fair.
But defeating Maduro at the ballot box may be impossible at this point. A single-party monopoly on power, lack of competitive opposition and debilitated political institutions are symptoms of a dangerous illness in a democracy.
Some opposition members are now calling for a military coup, saying it’s the only way out.
I don’t believe that’s a viable option, either. Venezuela’s armed forces have been bought, their generals offered lucrative contracts in mining and oil exploration. Despite some signs of unease last year when soldiers were deployed daily to beat down protesters, there is every indication that the military brass remains squarely behind Maduro.
Maduro, I fear, is not going anywhere. 2018 will go down in history as the year Venezuela became a totalitarian regime.
U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.
NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.
USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”
The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.
Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).
“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”
Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.
Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”
Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.
Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.
He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”
In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.
Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.
CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.
The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.
Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.
“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.
Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.
“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”
He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.
In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.
Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”
“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”
The USCIRF had released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.
“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.
The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.
“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”
Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.
“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.
Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”
Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Backlash erupts against Christian opponents of proposed constitution.
QUITO, Ecuador, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Catholic authorities report death threats and several acts of vandalism of church property in response to church opposition to several articles in Ecuador’s proposed new constitution.
In the port city of Guayaquil, a group of people were reported to have entered a chapel, grabbed the eucharistic host, tore it apart, spat on it and stepped on it.
That vandalism was reportedly the third that has occurred in recent weeks as frustrated supporters of ruling socialist party Alianza PAIS lash out at the Catholic Church for criticizing their newly-proposed constitution. Similar desecrations were reported in recent weeks at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Nobol and the Church of the Holy Supper in Guayaquil.
Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Guayaquil has received numerous death threats, as has pro-life leader Amparo Medina, who recently received a dead rat inside of a shoebox with a note attached that read “death to pro-lifers.” In addition, the president of the Never Impunity Movement (Movimiento Impunidad Jamás) has called for the archbishop’s arrest and “preventative imprisonment” because of the church’s opposition to the constitution.
María Morán Bajaña, the movement’s president, said that the church’s campaign was a step back in time and was an improper role for church leadership.
The Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference said that the church would not officially campaign against the document but would alert the Ecuadorian people to several provisions that it called “non-negotiable.”
In particular, church officials have said that they disagreed with provisions that could allow for abortions and homosexual unions as well as the concentration of power in the president’s hands.
The national assembly that debated the new document’s 444 articles had wrestled with those topics for weeks, weighing possible outcomes if the church decided to openly oppose it and call for a “no” vote in the referendum. Pro-life groups had demonstrated in front of the assembly hall as the issue was debated.
The church chose, however, not to officially campaign against the constitution but to raise its concern about some of the articles, as well as call for education in churches about the controversial issues. Nearly 90 percent of Ecuadorians consider themselves Roman Catholic.
In “themes such as abortion, the family, education and religious liberty, the bishops of Ecuador decided to discuss those points in the light of pronouncements by Pope Benedict XVI,” said Archbishop Arregui, president of the Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference.
Arregui criticized the draft document, saying the language on abortion is ambiguous. He said that the new constitution did not clearly define life as beginning at conception nor denote family as consisting of a man and a woman, but rather allowed for non-traditional family types.
“A union between homosexuals is not a family,” Arregui argued.
Protestant leaders have also lined up in opposition to some of the document’s provisions.
Pastors Francisco Loor and Nelson Zavala have charged that at least 200 of the constitution’s articles are “immoral.” They also challenged President Rafael Correa’s description of church opposition as antiquated.
Government officials, including Correa, have sharply criticized church leaders for their position and accused unnamed priests of disseminating erroneous information in sermons about the documents.
“This is a constitution that defends life,” Correa said. “The text is clear. The rest is simply ignorance or bad faith to keep on playing the games of those groups who want power.”
Augusto Barrera, coordinator between the Executive and the Constituent Assembly, said, “It is not true that the constitution favors abortion. It undoubtedly and clearly protects life and establishes protection and care from the very beginning, that is, conception.”
He also accused the church of being linked to opposition organizations that opposed Correa and his friendship with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Correa also has questioned the church’s position concerning religious liberty in the document.
“The new constitution recognizes a person’s right to practice, keep, change or profess his religion in public or in private and to share it with others,” he said.
Arregui said the church is concerned about freedom of religion and the right of the church to operate freely.
“We will not enter into a discussion with the president nor limit our right of free expression, including the expression of our religious beliefs,” he said. “We will work to influence the Christian conscience about these issues. Each citizen is free to make his own conclusions about how they ought to vote.”
In addition, the mention of an indigenous deity, Paccha Mama, in the proposed constitution has contributed to the rift between Ecuador’s president and Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders.
“We are worried that this invocation of an Incan deity, the Paccha Mama [Mother Earth], a divine being, among the indigenous groups is a worship of Paccha Mama,” said Pastor Loor, who leads an Assemblies of God church in the port city of Guayaquil.
“To include it in the constitution is to return to a time hundreds of years ago when fire and air were worshipped.”
In addition, Pastor Loor charged that the inclusion of Paccha Mama contradicted the new document’s reported secular nature.
The new constitution, which was approved by an elected assembly in late July and will be voted on in a national referendum on September 28, notes in its preface, “We, the sovereign people of Ecuador, celebrate nature, the Paccha Mama, that we are a part of and that is a vital part of our existence.” The document’s chapter on the rights of nature says, “The existence of nature, or Paccha Mama, where we reproduce life, has the right to be respected.”
Carlos Pilaminga, one of the representatives to the constitutional assembly of the indigenous political party Pachakutik, charged that Protestants and Roman Catholics do not understand the “indigenous vision of the cosmos.” Paccha Mama, he said, is not a deity but “is an eternal space where we live and of which we are a part. Pachakamak is our creator, what the Catholics call God and the evangelicals [Protestants] call Jehovah.”
“Our evangelical brothers do not comprehend our religiosity and spirituality,” Pilaminga added.
The constitution has been controversial in Ecuador and internationally because it is seen as consolidating the president’s power over various branches of government, including the banking system and the courts. The document also allows Correa to run for additional terms.
Recent polls have indicated that the constitution is growing in favor but still has not gained enough support to be approved. Ratification would need 50 percent-plus-one vote of those participating in the referendum.
Report from Compass Direct News