When the Venezuelan soccer team made it to the finals of the under-20 world cup last month, it was the best news in years. In soccer crazy Latin America, the historic feat should have brought the country together. Instead, coach Rafael Dudamel took to his suddenly large political soapbox, asking Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, “President, it’s time to put down the weapons.” The Venezuelan soccer team lost in the finals and President Maduro lost any momentum that could have come from their success. News for this struggling Latin American nation is much more likely to be comprised of street protests, financial collapse and foreign relations polemics.
Earlier this week, more than 7 million Venezuelans voted in a national referendum. Six and one- half million voters inside the country and another 700,000 Venezuelans living abroad voted on three questions, with 98 percent deciding that new elections should be held prior to the end of Maduro’s term (2013-2019), that a new constitution should not be written, and that the army should uphold the current constitution. Venezuelan President of Parliament, Julio Andrés Borges, announced the results as the Maduro regime staged a competing vote, touting citizen support to rewrite the constitution.
Though non-binding, the vote favoring the opposition party emphasizes distrust for the Maduro government and their effort to remold the 1999 constitution to their benefit.
Venezuelans Take to the Streets
When Nicolas Maduro ceded authority to military leader, General Vladimir Padrino last year, the President tipped his hand toward authoritarian rule enforced by the military. Not only was Padrino put in charge of increasingly scarce food and medicine distribution, the General was given control of the five most important shipping ports on the northern coast. Loyalists help with distribution, ensuring their own supply while politicizing access to food and medicine by stressing availability to those residents opposing the government.
Though Nicolas Maduro holds the presidency, the opposition “Primero Justicia” or “Justice First” party controls parliament, which Maduro attempted to dissolve in March, adding fuel to the fiery calls for his resignation. Since his election, the opposition took control of parliament in 2015 but have been under attack, including physical assault, by Maduro supporters.
Opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, narrowly lost the presidency to Maduro in 2013 and has since been banned from political activity. Other opposition leaders, including Leopoldo López, have been jailed. Dozens of protesting Venezuelans have been killed by Maduro controlled military.
Even the much respected Vatican could not successfully mediate divisions between Maduro and the growing opposition. The Catholic-dominant country accepted the help from church emissaries but progress quickly stalled, solidifying differences. Protesters have pledged to remain on the streets until Maduro steps down and rallies have become the principal activity for many of the country’s young people who suffer from more than a one-third unemployment rate.
It is hard to imagine the holder of the world’s largest oil reserves in economic collapse, yet plunging oil prices have caused massive trade deficits and ensuing shortages of food, home supplies, and medicine. The country is wholly reliant on the global price of oil for its well-being, considering the commodity makes up over 90 percent of the country’s exports. Residents cross the border to neighboring Colombia or Brazil for a myriad of purchases, others leave the country altogether, in hopes of better economic opportunities. Relations with other countries in the Mercosur trading bloc allows Venezuelans to travel to partner nations without a visa. Many outstay their legal visits, working in the informal economy. While Colombia and Brazil are the most common destinations as neighboring countries with porous borders, partner country Uruguay is also a choice location because of ease of residency process and work permits.
According to Pew Research Center, Venezuelan asylum applications to the United States have soared 168 percent between 2015 and 2016, becoming the third most popular country of origin to apply after China and Mexico.
As a result of what is seen as anti-democratic government action, the Venezuelan government has been suspended from the Mercosur trading bloc which includes giant export partners Brazil and Argentina along with smaller markets, Uruguay and Paraguay. Associate members include Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Suriname. The human rights violations and lack of free press led to the suspension, affecting import and export benefits from partner nations but also currency and travel benefits.
The largest Venezuelan communities in the United States are in southern Florida, much like other American nations like Cuba and Colombia. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, has recognized both the plight of the Venezuelan people and the voting power of Venezuelan expats living in Florida by calling for economic sanctions against the Maduro regime and the release of jailed Leopoldo López, earlier this year.
Relations with the United States took a bitter turn since Maduro’s state-owned oil company, Citgo Petroleum Company, donated $500,000 to President Donald Trump’s inauguration festivities, according to documents filed by the organizing committee in December of 2016. Only one month after his January inauguration, Trump met with Lilian Tintori, wife of Leopoldo López, sending out a Tweet pictured with Tintori, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Vice President, Mike Pence, saying, “Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/ @marcorubio) out of prison immediately.”
Trump later called Venezuela a “mess” and extended financial sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, calling him a “narcotics trafficker”. The U.S. State Department has since sanctioned members of the Venezuelan judiciary accusing them of supporting Maduro’s anti-democratic policies. In a speech to supporters, Maduro shot back, calling opposition leaders “borregos” or “sheep” beholden to the U.S. government and telling Trump to, “Saca tus manos cochinas de aquí!” or “Get your pig hands out of here.”
Ironically, both leaders share a hostile relationship with the media trying to hold their governments accountable. Maduro shut down CNN after reports were critical of his policies and Trump continues to call CNN “fake news.” They also share a nemesis in former Mexican President Vicente Fox who has been highly vocal against Trump’s efforts to build a wall on the southern border and who has been banned from Venezuela for “inciting violence.”