In its sixteen years under the Chavista regime, Venezuela never had it worse than it has had in the last three months. For years, stories have circulated about rigged elections, brutal responses to public demonstrations, disregard for the rule of law, and growing poverty and scarcity. However, since the death of Hugo Chavez and the ascent of Nicolas Maduro to the Miraflores Palace, the situation has worsened month after month.
On February 19th, the opposition mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was arrested in his office by 50 heavily armed agents of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, without a warrant. Hours after the arrest, President Nicolas Maduro offered one of his favourite excuses: Ledezma was part of an American plot to overthrow the government. No formal charges were given, according to Ledezma’s lawyer. Arbitrary detentions were commonplace in Chavista Venezuela, but this was the first time that a major political authority figure has been publicly detained without a warrant.
About a month ago, former president of Colombia Andrés Pastrana denounced the existence of La Tumba (The Grave), an underground prison located five stories below the Bolivarian Intelligence Service headquarters in Caracas. This seven cell, windowless complex is allegedly used by the Maduro regime to unlawfully detain and torture dissidents, most of them young students. One year ago, these dissidents would have been sent to Ramo Verde military prison, but now it seems that the government is looking for a greater show of strength in order to discourage dissenting voices.
While these blatant actions are typically met by big, well-organized protests, as we have seen in the last several years, this will no longer be possible unless protesters take major risks. On January 27, the Ministry of Defense signed Resolution N 008610 into law, authorising the armed forces to use firearms to break up public meetings and protests.
At the same time as these terrible events ravage Venezuela, the nation’s economy is deteriorating faster than ever. Scarcity of basic consumer products, long lines at banks and grocery stores, and the special treatment to members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela are not something Venezuelans are scandalised by anymore; it’s a part of everyday life.
Venezuela is expected to suffer a seven per cent fall in its GDP and 115 per cent inflation in 2015, according to Standard and Poor’s. The government’s usual response to negative economic figures has been to implement a tighter exchange-rate regime and to seek financial aid from foreign countries. In the days of Maduro, however, the government has implemented an “Economical Counter-offensive” which imposes a system of rationing, prison sentences for illegal currency exchangers and black market users, and the constant threat of the expropriation of consumer goods.
Before we can see democracy and rule of law back in Venezuela, the sad truth is we will likely see a lot more bloodshed and disregard for basic institutions. As many protesters say when asked what they think about their nation’s future, it will get much worse before it gets better.