In the spring of 2009, as part of a design studio looking at sustainable tourism in the beach and cocoa producing town of Choroní, I had the opportunity to visit Venezuela and was privileged to meet a number of people who I've stayed in close touch with since. I got a firsthand look at this vibrant and beautiful country, in which major political and social transformations were taking place, under the so-called socialist revolution.
Many folks I spoke with tried to explain the reasons of the incredible social transformations that were happening and how important it was for professionals like us to help bridge the social gap, particularly in this country in which over 90 percent of the population live in cities, and where a high percentage reside in informal settlements, excluded for the most part from the services and amenities of urbanity. With a growing number of students and young people dying in the streets for change I reached out to a good friend to try and learn more about what was happening in Venezuela.
This interview comes from that friend, an academic who has spent his life trying to find solutions to many of the housing issues explained above and whose identity is redacted for his safety.
R-----, what are the roots of the ongoing revolution in Venezuela? Who is revolting and why? Who is right?
First let's clarify, the Revolution usually refers to the political path the country has followed under the leadership of Hugo Chavez till his passing in late 2013, now continued by the Government of Nicolás Maduro. Those that are revolting now are mainly students of very different social strata. Let's keep in mind that the majority of university students attend public universities in which tuition is almost free. The revolts are supported by most of the middle class, a segment of the popular classes and the opposition parties.
Why are they taking the streets of cities in Venezuela? Well, mainly because they are fed up by the level of violence -- Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with close to 25,000 violent deaths per year in a country of less than 30 million. They are also unhappy of the devastated economy, the high inflation rates, the lack of basic goods, the deterioration of institutions, infrastructure, the health and the education systems, in one of the richest developing countries, due to its immense oil production and reserves.
Further anger comes from the disproportionate and violent reaction of government army troops and police, resulting in over 25 deaths and hundreds of students wounded, detained and even tortured. Additionally, they are angry at the lack of access to information. While the killings are taking place the government stations and the only privately owned remaining TV stations blasts propaganda and talk shows. Social media as has occurred in other countries has been the escape valve and best mode of communication.
Finally and perhaps more important they are angry at foreign interventions, the power behind the scene: Cuba. Cuba has been supportive of the so-called Venezuelan revolution from day one, gradually gaining influence, control, and profiting from Venezuela's wealth. Venezuela provides Cuba with oil in exchange for sending physicians allegedly to help the poor (it is estimated that 60,000 Cubans are in Venezuela.) The quantity of oil (estimated in the equivalent of 10 billion dollars per year) that Venezuela sends to Cuba is much larger than what they can consume. Cuba sells the surplus in the international market. It they lose control over Venezuela, the Cuban economy goes down the drain. This makes the situation all more complicated.
As for who is right? As in all situations of conflict each claim that they are right. Those that resort to violence, manipulation, fear can't be right. The unjust social conditions that prevailed in the country for decades despite the thriving economy and modernization during many years of democratic interplay explain why this so-called Revolution of the Twenty first Century had so many supporters, including many from the middle class and intellectuals at its beginning.
The control by the State of almost all spheres of the economy, the media, the unpaid expropriations, the crippled economy, the fact that the military and the judicial system have been placed at the service of the current regime that rules the country, also explains the anger of those that see where the country is clearly heading. The crisis had to occur. While the conditions were gradually deteriorating, Chavez's charisma and money then still flowing from oil revenues helped to keep things under control. After his death, it has become evident how severe the economic and social was.
What would be a positive outcome if the revolution were to end today?
No country can thrive if submerged in conflict, hatred, and violence. There has to be a way out. But as in all conflicts the parts have to give. The latest presidential election demonstrated that this regime had lost its drive and support. Officially it was announced that Maduro won by less than 250,000 votes.
The recent municipal elections gave the opposition the control of all the large metropolitan areas, another sign of the weakening of people's support to this regime. The problem is if their supporters are willing to pursue all means to retain power, even if this means the use of violence and the interruption of the democratic system.
On the other hand, if the opposition gradually regains control of Congress, the Regional Governments, and eventually the presidency, the task will then be to refloat the economy, rebuild the institutions, bring into government and public office the most talented people and still cater, rebuild ethics, reinstall a culture of peace, and still attend to the demands of the segment of the population that placed their trust in the so-called socialist revolution. The support that this people have placed in it is mainly because they felt that it gave them a voice, and a sense of dignity that was previously not offered to them. The task again will be to build bridges.
Why should the United States America care about what is happening in Venezuela?
Venezuela was one of the most progressive and liberal nations during the second half of the twentieth century until mismanagement and corruption fueled discontent. It was and still is a loyal supplier of oil, mainly heating oil for the North East. The Venezuelan (Cuban supported) Revolution also fostered anti U.S. coalitions in Latin-American countries, and in developing countries in other continents and has re-opened a valve towards totalitarian regimes, departing from democratically elected governments. This is one of the reasons why the USA should be concerned. It has also reinforced the influence of China in the continent. The USA has neglected Latin America for decades. This should be an eye opener on how immediate neighbors require true attention, and that democracy as a systems needs way more than the label.
What can we do in the USA to support the people of Venezuela?
Continue to call on the Venezuelan government to stop violence. Repression and death will only fuel more violence. If it does not stop, we can also ask our representatives to pressure to stop buying Venezuelan oil. The U.S. is one of the few countries who is paying regularly and on time for the oil that it buys from Venezuela; therefore, U.S. money is what is fueling the so-called socialist revolution and thus indirectly the killings of students, prosecution, and detentions by the Venezuelan army.