Venezuela is a powder keg. Once a rich country held together by strong leadership and heavy social spending, it is now in economic disaster and could slide into widespread social disorder, triggering instability throughout Latin America. Drastic shortages of food, medicine, electricity and other necessities are causing small riots. Organized crime and extrajudicial police killings have given Venezuela a frighteningly high rate of murder and violence, with narco-traffickers allegedly in cahoots with corrupt allies in the government and security forces. Runaway inflation means that from March 2015 to 2016 a basket of basic goods for a family of five became 524 percent more expensive. According to a local NGO, Venezuela faced 170 lootings or attempted lootings from January to April 2016.
The highly unpopular socialist government of Nicolas Maduro announced electricity rationing and drastic cutbacks to the state work schedule, in part because of a drought and in part because world oil prices have collapsed, cutting government revenues dramatically. Meanwhile, the National Assembly, which is controlled by Maduro’s opposition, declared the country’s health sector a national emergency. As if this weren’t enough, the government is taking steps toward authoritarian control over its opposition.
Maduro is the handpicked successor of former president Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and leader of the chavista political movement’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Maduro’s PSUV controls the Supreme Court and all national institutions. The lone exception was the National Assembly, where a heterogeneous coalition of opposition parties had a three-fifths majority. Maduro recently declared a 60-day state of emergency, after alleging that his opposition was conspiring to launch a coup. Now Maduro is threatening to effectively close the assembly down.
The emergency decree already grants the president super powers by invalidating congressional authority to review key budgetary issues budget or issue motions of censure against his cabinet. Even more ominously, the decree expands the military’s role in the maintenance of public order. Sectors of the opposition have termed the decree an “auto-golpe” — self-coup — and a “tipping point” in the country’s crisis.