Venezuela is stricken with civil unrest. At the start of April, thousands of people took to the streets to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s efforts to squash the country’s political opposition. These protests quickly turned violent as demonstrators clashed with security forces.
Competing demonstrations put supporters of Maduro against opponents of his United Socialist Party’s 18-year rule. Maduro succeeded the country’s previous president, Hugo Chavez, after the charismatic leader’s death in 2013. Despite taking the mantle of the left-wing Chavism political ideology, Maduro’s popularity has fallen significantly since then.
In a bid to regain control of the South American country, Maduro decided to dissolve Venezuela’s main legislature — the opposition-controlled National Assembly — and impose in its place a Constituent Assembly with the power to change the Venezuelan constitution.
On July 30, the country held an election to fill this new assembly. But many Venezuelans do not see this election as representing the people’s will. Rather, they call the political move “the death of democracy,” Christian Borys, a Canadian journalist who has been reporting from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, told Hromadske.
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. May 3, 2017. Photo credit: EPA/CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ
Moreover, since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, the country has fallen into a severe economic crisis. The poorest segments of society find themselves without food and with little access to essential medical supplies, a problem that has only grown more severe amid the ongoing protests.
Many people have drawn parallels between the 2017 Venezuelan protests and the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014. Borys, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Ukraine covering the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution, agrees that there are similarities. However, he considers Venezuela to be a in a “much more critical position.”
Hromadske recently interviewed Christian Borys via Skype about the protests and political turmoil in Caracas.
Could you tell us a bit about what is going on in the streets of Caracas? What have you seen?
I was there for a very specific time period, it was July 30 when they were having a vote in the country that would decide the future direction of the country. People were expecting lots of protests, and there were lots of protests leading up to the event, but the opposition in the country is sort of fractured and they couldn’t build enough momentum to stop what was inevitably going to happen, which was what a lot of people have called ‘the death of democracy’ in the country.
Opposition protesters block a road by burning tires during a demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, 18 July 2017. Photo credit: EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
The vote passed, which basically installed something called a ‘constitutional assembly’, which is 545 people chosen from across the country who will be a higher body than the current higher body - the national assembly, which is like the parliament, like the Rada in Ukraine. Basically, the president has created a new institution that is higher than that parliament, which means that the parliament no longer works, essentially. Most countries in Latin America, the United States, Canada, they’ve all said that they don’t recognise this vote. The US has sanctioned the country because of the vote as well, but the day after the vote there weren’t the types of protests that we were expecting, and I think a lot of it is because people just became terrified of what the government’s new powers are because they are now able to rewrite the constitution, and, in fact, they actually started arresting opposition politicians after that vote went through, so it is very unclear what the direction of the country is going to be now, how powerful the government is and what they’re going to do with those powers.
Have you seen signs of the radicalisation of these protests? Because we’ve seen pictures of really violent protests, but we don’t know if both sides are using force and violence. We know that from the side of the police, the Maduro forces, they are using violence and force, they are killing and wounding people, but what about the other side.
Yes, they definitely are. When I was there, we were in the very centre of downtown and something very unique happened. There were protesters who set off and IED - it was a fireworks based IED, so it was basically fireworks and gasoline - and it went of as a convoy of national guardsmen on motorcycles passed by. It was very near the Canadian embassy in downtown Caracas. It exploded and I think two soldiers were burning on fire, and seven national guardsmen were wounded in total. There have been reports across the country that protesters have been firing back, because the government authorities have been using live ammunition as well, that’s documented, they have killed, I believe, over 130 people at this point in the last four months since it started. People are dying on both sides but obviously the bulk of the people who died have been protesters.
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, 20 April 2017. Photo credit: EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
What about those who are supporting Maduro - have you met them? What did they tell you?
His approval rating is very low, it’s about 20%. Part of the interesting thing that happened for the vote is that, in order to get people to vote on that day - we talked to a lot of people, who worked at state-run companies who were forced to vote. They said that if you don’t vote, you will be fired. It wasn’t really an election, it was rigged because there was no opposition to vote for, it was candidates that were picked by the government to run for those positions, so there were 6,000 people running for 545 spots but none of those people were people who could represent the opposition in this new body that’s been formed, so the people that were voting were really just voting for a new form of the existing government, and like I said, they were people from state-run institutions, the oil and gas company PDVSA.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Photo credit: EPA/Cristian Hernandez
People were also actually forced to vote in order to get government-provided assistance in the form of food. When you’re forcing people to vote in order to get food, it’s not really a vote it’s exploiting hunger to get them out to do what you want them to do.
Could you describe what daily life is like in Venezuela right now? Because we’ve heard about the huge lack of medication and food. How do they feel about this? Have you experienced something like this? Have you seen the lack of products and goods?
The number one problem is the lack of medicine, the number two problem is the lack of food. I think the lack of food is a lot further behind than the lack of medicine, meaning the lack of medicine is critical at this point. If you need medication in Venezuela, most people can’t afford it, 45% of the population doesn’t have insurance and they rely on public hospitals. Those public hospitals are staffed by doctors who have no access to resources; they don’t have medication to use, they don’t have proper equipment, the hospitals are in horrible condition. We went to a hospital in one of the slums of Caracas and there was a dog just walking through the hospital, a stray dog just walked in. There were cockroaches, bugs all around. People who go to these hospitals are the poorest of the poor, they are the people supposedly being helped by the government but they don’t have any access to medication.
So if you get shot in Caracas and you go to the hospital, there is very little that they can do for you because, unless you can afford to bring your own medication, which most people absolutely can not, the chances are very good that you are not going to make it, if you get diagnosed with a serious disease. I spoke to many, many doctors about this, it wasn’t just a couple of sources, it was many, many doctors that said the same thing. Unless you can afford to go a private clinic, then there’s basically no hope for you. The lack of food is obviously a problem as well.
The thing that most people would probably be surprised by, based on all the reports that they’re seeing, is that there is daily life that continues in Caracas. People still live relatively normal lives, so they can go to restaurants, they can go to grocery stores if they can afford it, but the vast majority of the population now cannot really afford those things anymore because the currency has been devalued so much - in the time that I was there it dropped 60% - and prices have been going up so much that they just don’t have money to buy food anymore. The government does give out handouts but now those handouts are being highly politicised and you have to wait in line in order to get those handouts, those lines can take hours and hours. The food problem is also at a very bad level but I think the medicine is at a critical point.
Christian, you’ve been in Ukraine for a long time and you’ve seen the Ukrainian protests, can you compare the protests in Venezuela and Ukraine? Maybe there is something similar in these movements?
I wasn’t in Ukraine during Maidan, but obviously I watched all the coverage, I read all the coverage. Being in Venezuela and seeing how many people have actually watched and sort of educated themselves on what was happening in Ukraine and how Maidan was conducted, how protestors used shields and what they were wearing for armour and things like that, it’s really, really interesting because they are very inspired by what happened in Ukraine, they’ve learned a lot from it, especially young kids, paramedics, stuff like that. They’ve watched documentaries like ‘Winter on Fire’.
Photo credit: EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
I think that Venezuela is in a much more critical position than Ukraine was because people don’t have food, people don’t have access to medication, because there’s many other threats like murder - it’s the highest rate of murder in the world - kidnapping, old diseases that disappeared a long time ago are coming back, so I think it’s in a much more critical position. The similarities to Ukraine are outstanding.
/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko
/Text by Sofia Fedeczko, Mathew Kupfer