On June 27th, Oscar Pérez, a former captain in the Venezuelan intelligence services, hijacked a police helicopter and assaulted the country’s Supreme Court and Interior Ministry with grenades and gunfire. No-one was killed or injured, however the incident marked another dramatic chapter in the anti-government protests in Venezuela which began this March following the decision by President Maduro’s Supreme Court to dissolve the National Assembly and transfer legislative power to the Supreme Court.
Almost 100 people have already died during these protests, and numerous human rights violations have been documented, however there is currently little prospect of an end to the civil unrest. In fact, the Pérez attack suggest that the situation will deteriorate further as Maduro’s enemies in the military attempt to forcibly prevent his consolidation of power.
Civil unrest has been widespread in Venezuela since 2014 in response to a combination of violent crime, economic problems, and growing government authoritarianism.
The initial protests in 2014 began in response to the attempted rape of an student in the border city of San Cristóbal. The heavy-handed response of the police to these small initial protests caused them to quickly spread around the country, eventually claiming 43 lives, including both police officers and protestors.
The protests were also reported to be motivated by anger at the lawlessness in much of the country. In 2015, the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (OVV) calculated that the murder rate had soared to 90 murders per 100,000 residents, a higher rate than even Colombia. As the protests grew, they began to serve as a vehicle for Venezuelans to express other grievances, most importantly with regards to the collapsing economy.
The economy of Venezuela is almost solely reliant on oil production, with 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings coming from oil. In 2014, the price of oil halved, immediately sending Venezuela into a deep recession. In 2016, GDP contracted by 10%, and inflation exploded to 720%, leading to shortages in food and medicine. The government has been unable to continue it’s high level of spending on welfare and public services, the result of this has been that 82% of Venezuelans now live in poverty. This economic disaster has been perhaps the primary cause of the protests, and in 2015 Maduro’s socialist party lost their majority in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s parliament.
It was in response to the increasing tenuousness of his grip on power that Maduro introduced the constitutional changes that precipitated the 2017 protests. Since the 2015 elections, opposition leaders have been arrested or banned from political activity, and power has been channelled from the opposition majority National Assembly into the Supreme Court, which is sympathetic to Maduro. Consequently, almost every piece of legislation passed by the National Assembly since the election has been blocked by the Supreme Court.
On the 29th March, the Supreme Court officially removed the legislative powers of the National Assembly. They reversed this decision on the 1st April in the face of international condemnation and popular protest, however Maduro is now pressing ahead with plans to introduce a new constituent assembly that will introduce constitutional changes. Opposition parties have condemned this move as an indirect way of removing political opposition prior to the 2018 presidential election, an election the Maduro would likely lose.
Huge anti-government protests began almost immediately after the Supreme Court decision, culminating in the “Mother of all Marches” on April 19th, which involved several hundred thousand protestors. Almost every day since has featured protests somewhere in the country, with many featuring violence by protestors and police.
Human rights abuses against protestors
Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Court of Human Right in 2013, leaving citizens without recourse to international human rights law during a period in which human rights violations have increased dramatically. Over 11,000 reports of human rights violations were presented to the Public Prosecutor’s office in 2015, with only 77 trials actually being initiated during the year. No concerted effort was made after the 2014 protests by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz to prosecute security forces accused of widespread abuses; including arbitrary arrests, torture, and murder of peaceful protestors.
During 2017, the situation has worsened as the protests have intensified. It is estimated that in 2017 alone, 95 people have been killed during protests and 2000 injured. Whilst security forces have been charged for some of these incidents, many have not been investigated, and senior officers have not been held responsible for their brutal tactics. 355 protestors have been tried at military tribunals, journalists have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned, and confessions have been obtained from protestors under torture.
The extent of government’s responsibility for these abuses is debateable. The collapse in popular support for Maduro has made him increasingly reliant on the police and military to maintain his rule. Accordingly, Human Rights Watch have suggested that Maduro offers tacit support for the abuses as he has repeatedly praised the response of the security forces to the protests, and has never condemned the rights abuses taking place. Instead he has repeatedly condemned the protests, describing them as an attempted “fascist coup” orchestrated by the United States in order to “provoke an imperialist intervention”.
Maduro’s defence of the police and military was undermined this month when Attorney General Ortega Diaz broke ranks and charged both the former national guard chief, and the current head of the intelligence services, with human rights violations against anti-government protestors. Maduro responded by describing both the accused as “brave patriots” who “have defended the peace of the republic and have all my support”. The government’s refusal to investigate human rights violations, and their collusion in the defence of suspected human rights abusers, has therefore been exposed for all to see.
A former Maduro Loyalist, Ortega Diaz has emerged as an unexpected source of official opposition to his presidency, after strongly contesting the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the opposition controlled parliament in March. However the prospects of Ortega Diaz providing effective long-term opposition to Maduro’s authoritarianism are dim as she is an isolated figure. The Supreme Court recently froze her bank accounts and banned her from leaving the country, whilst also removing various powers traditionally held by the Chief Prosecutor’s office.
The future for Venezuela looks increasingly bleak as sectarian violence increases. Maduro’s decision to change the constitution in his favour is likely to mobilise opposition to his rule, with some fearing that an escalation into civil war is possible.
Freddie Lloyd is a research assistant at Bright Blue