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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
Associated Press/Photo by Rodrigo Abd
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela protest cheat sheet

South America | What’s behind the recent riots and how are they similar to, and yet very different from, protests in Ukraine?

The socialist economy in Venezuela has crumbled since President Hugo Chavez died a year ago in March. Now the government he built appears to be weakening, too. Or is it? As the protests in Venezuela teeter on the brink of revolution, here’s what you need to know to keep up with the unfolding drama:

If Hugo Chavez had a dartboard, it probably had President George W. Bush’s face on it. Chavez became president in 1998 and quickly went to work remaking Venezuela. He pushed through a new constitution that gave him more power. He started spending Venezuela’s sizable oil revenue on social welfare programs. Those programs made him hugely popular with Venezuela’s poor, who kept Chavez in power despite the discontent of many in the middle class. Chavez often took cheap shots at the United States and its capitalist economy, blaming the U.S. for any and all problems that arose in Venezuela. He made friends with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As former ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro put it, “Chávez never met a bad idea he didn’t like.”

There is a serious toilet paper shortage in Venezuela. Last fall, newly elected President Nicolas Maduro sent the army into toilet paper factories to protect the supply. Supermarket shelves are sparse and a hamburger at McDonald’s costs more then $11 because of out-of-control inflation. Because so many goods in Venezuela are imported, U.S. dollars are in high demand. The government responded by printing more Venezuelan money, making inflation even worse. The black market for U.S. dollars flourishes, with official and unofficial exchange rates. Venezuelans can’t afford their everyday needs. Maduro has lost much support from the lower class that kept Chavez in power. Experts on Venezuela predicted its residents would in desperation turn to violence even before protests started Feb. 12. 

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Maduro ain’t no Chavez. Maduro dresses like Chavez and calls himself the “Son of Chavez.” But, as one Venezuelan told The Telegraph, “When he opens his mouth, all you see is a bad copy.” He was elected by a slim majority, despite being hand-selected by Chavez. He makes ridiculous public statements, such as blaming the toilet paper shortages on Venezuelans’ eating too much. And he doesn’t appear to have total control over security forces and the military. He has sent the army to quell protests in the street, but then charged National Intelligence Agency officers with murder for killing protesters. Maduro also ordered the arrest of one of his best-known opponents, retired Gen. Angel Vivas, who successfully resisted the security forces sent to his home and remains free.

Venezuela is like Ukraine, where youth-led protests turned into a violent uprising when the government responded with force. Venezuelan protesters have support from Maduro’s numerous opponents in politics. Also like Ukraine, the existing government has supporters among older citizens who remember how bad things were a generation ago and don’t want to backslide. “We are a government of peace. We are a government that wants the best for poor people. There is crime, but there is crime everywhere. There are shortages but if you go to the store, there is food,” said Gloria Cera, a 40-year-old mother of two taking part in a pro-Maduro march.

Except that it’s different, too. The opposition in Venezuela is a collection of students, mayors, governors, and other politicians from all over the country with no clear leader. In Ukraine, opposition parties rallied behind former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. They also used Kiev’s Independence Square, also called the Maidan, as a type of headquarters for disrupting government activity and making their voices heard. That’s not the case in Venezuela. Another dissimilarity is the regional significance of Venezuela’s internal conflict. Unlike the Ukraine, Venezuela does not have a heavy-handed neighbor trying to assert global dominance (read: Russia). The revolution in Ukraine is at the heart of the geopolitical divide between Europe and Russia, whereas the protests in Venezuela are more limited in scope. That’s not to say they are insignificant. What’s happening in Venezuela could be seen as a test of the viability of socialism in South America. It also might affect the global supply of oil, though Venezuela’s contributions are becoming less significant as the U.S. increases domestic oil production.

Admittedly, there is much more to say about Venezuela. From it’s treatment of diplomats to its embrace of Cuban ideals and practices, the government of Venezuela has shown it is no friend to American-style liberty. What happens next will depend on many factors, including the resilience of the economy, the resolve of protesters, and the will of a hapless leader to either crush or listen to his opponents.

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