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Raynell Andreychuk: Venezuela on the brink

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has taken pains in recent months to paint his country as the victim of economic warfare, and himself as the target of several assassination plots.

Sanctions imposed on Venezuelan officials by U.S. President Barack Obama last month prompted at least one member of President Maduro’s government to venture that the White House was preparing a military assault on the South American nation.

Most observers dismiss such statements as part of a longstanding narrative aimed at distracting popular attention from Venezuela’s real problems. Those closest to the worsening state of Venezuelans’ daily wellbeing, however, warn of severe consequences if distraction continues to trump action aimed at easing the country’s compounding crises.

Inflation in Venezuela, at 68.5 per cent, is the highest in the world, prompting hoarding and a growing black-market economy. Shortages of food, life-saving drugs, and basic goods have become facts of life. Newspapers have been forced to suspend or reduce their print editions for lack of paper. Transportation has been disrupted due to the absence of spare parts. Unpaid bills have forced airline companies to cut their services.


Meanwhile, in a country that depends on oil for 95 percent of its foreign income, government revenues have plunged. The Venezuelan central bank stopped publishing statistics last May, but all indications are of a country in severe economic distress. According to a recent assessment by Barclays, “The figures that we expect for 2014-16 would be devastating: a contraction of the economy of 11.7 percent, accumulated inflation of 600 percent, a currency that will lose 89 percent of its value and real wages that will lose an accumulated 47 percent”.

According to Venezuelan economist Angel Garcia Banchs, “what’s coming to Venezuela is chaos that will probably lead to barbarity and people looting.” The International Crisis Group, for its part, has warned of an impending humanitarian crisis.

“Venezuelans are starting to prioritise self-reliance over solidarity and individual survival over collective projects,” noted Javier Ciurlizza, the organization’s Program Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “The greatest threat appears to be a prolonged agony that brings Venezuela to the verge of social implosion,” he adds.

Already, analysts attribute an increasing number of violent incidents to a growing lack of faith in the government’s ability to fix the country’s problems. Recent weeks have brought signs that violent protests that left some 43 people dead last spring could begin anew. On Feb. 24, 14 year-old Kluivert Roa became the latest victim of Venezuela’s social tensions, after being shot by police amid a protest San Cristobal — the university town where last year’s protests began.

The prospect for future bloodshed has only grown since the Defense Ministry adopted a resolution empowering Venezuela’s armed forces to “avoid disorder,” and “reject all aggression it faces immediately and with necessary means.” Certainly, the message this resolution sent to those daring to take to the streets to express their opinions was clear.

Meanwhile, formal channels for the lawful expression of dissenting opinion in Venezuela have all but disappeared. On Feb. 19, Caracas metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma became the latest high-level critic of the government to be imprisoned for his alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow the government.

He joins the ranks of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, who remain incarcerated in Ramo Verde military prison for inciting violence during last year’s protests; Parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado, who was stripped of her seat in parliament and stands accused of conspiring to murder the president; and numerous student leaders charged with various acts of sedition.

Evidence substantiating the charges against Venezuela’s incarcerated opinion leaders is scarce or non-existent, however, and groups such as the UN Human Rights Commission, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have expressed growing concern.

The Association of Foreign News Correspondents in Venezuela and Reporters Without Borders have added to the criticism, denouncing ‘‘assault, abuse, harassment, threats and theft’’ against media workers.

In November 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture called on Venezuela to immediately release, “everyone who has been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to express themselves and protest peacefully.”

Venezuela must urgently chart a new course towards better governance, social cohesion and political dialogue.

Yet, as a group of United Nations human rights experts put at the height of the protests last March, “the reconciliatory dialogue that is so deeply needed in Venezuela is not going to take place if political leaders, students, media groups and journalists are harassed and intimidated by the authorities.”

That is why I was proud to sponsor a resolution on the situation in Venezuela, adopted by the Senate of Canada on March 12.

The resolution calls upon Venezuelan authorities and opposition forces alike to engage in meaningful and inclusive dialogue; to uphold international human rights obligations; to restore the rule of law, constitutionalism and judicial independence; to curb inflation, corruption and lawlessness; and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Venezuelans.

These principles are not only critical to any attempt to foster reconciliation, peace and stability in Venezuelan society, they will also allow Venezuela to again function as a member of the international community.

With Parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in Venezuela later this year, there is no time to lose.

Raynell Andreychuk is a Conservative senator from Saskatchewan.