Part two of a two-part series
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets in cities across the country on Jan. 23 to protest the controversial presidency of Nicolas Maduro.
“It was not only Caracas. It was as if the whole country came out. And the other thing I saw is, it wasn’t just the opposition. The Chavistas, the ones who have supported Chavez all these years, went out and walked alongside the opposition,” Marian Ichaso de Lefeld, a Venezuelan-American artist and art professor at Richland College, said.
This protest was one of many. According to The Associated Press (AP), and as witnessed by the protests in 2016, 2017 and 2018, many Venezuelans are outraged by Maduro’s violations of the constitution and apparent inability to resolve the current humanitarian crisis.
Maduro has responded by imprisoning, torturing or killing hundreds of protestors, said a Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela. Many of those killed, said Ichaso de Lefeld, were students. And it wasn’t just the police and military involved in the killing. According to Human Rights Watch, colectivos (armed groups supporting Maduro) drove around on motorcycles shooting at protestors and harassing them. More than 100 protestors died at the hands of colectivos, police and the military from April to July, 2017, according to AP.
“The sad reality of Venezuela is this: If you don’t die because of your health, you’re going to die because you don’t have food. If you don’t die because of food, you’re going to die because you don’t have water, because there’s no water. If you’re not killed in that way, then you can be killed by insecurity because there’s literally gangs controlling the nation right now. And if [you don’t die] in that way, then the government kills you. Anyway that you look at it, you can die,” said Hector Castellano, a Venezuelan-American student at Brookhaven College.
All this occurs on top of a widespread humanitarian crisis that, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has caused 3 million people to flee the country.
People are dying from formerly eradicated or easily preventable illnesses such as polio, measles and diabetes because there’s no medicine, said AP. There is also a massive food shortage augmented by government officials who confiscate medicine and food imported to Venezuela and sell it on the black market.
Water and electricity are also in short supply. According to AP, the government is occasionally forced to divert water from villages and city slums. A lack of electricity means no cold storage for meat, milk or other perishables and it inhibits medical procedures.
Venezuelan protestors face tear gas, water cannons and death, among other threats.
The Jan. 23 protests had a different result from preceding demonstrations. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, assumed the office of interim president of Venezuela. According to article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, in the absence of a constitutional president, the president of the National Assembly must assume the responsibilities until new elections can be called.
The United States and Canada immediately recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. The U.S. backed him by redirecting business dealings, sanctioning Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and denouncing Maduro again for what the U.S. State Department termed a “disastrous dictatorship.” Most of Europe and South America followed suit in recognizing Guaidó.
On the other hand, Russia, China, Cuba, Turkey, Iran and North Korea – all governments that critics say are opposed to democracy, human rights and international law – have supported Maduro instead.
“When you see governments [such as Turkey, China or Russia] that are more oppressive and that don’t have the same approach to democracy as we do, lining up, I think it’s very clear what’s happening here,” said newly elected U.S. Representative Colin Allred at a town hall meeting with Richland students Jan. 26.
At press time, the United Nations has refused to take sides in the conflict; the U.S. is attempting to send humanitarian aid via Colombia; European nations have loudly called for fresh, fair elections; and Maduro, supported by the military, has refused to step down, accept humanitarian aid or undergo another election.