Clashes erupted once again this week in Venezuela when anti-government demonstrators took to the streets to protest economic shortages. And this in the wake of the arrest of the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who was dragged out of his office and accused by President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party of “orchestrating a coup.”
A security camera video released by Ledezma’s own opposition party shows the 59-year-old mayor being hustled down a corridor by intelligence officers.
As tensions soared in the capital, with tear gas being used to disperse protestors and shots fired, similar demonstrations were carried out across the country. The picture turned bleaker still when 14-year-old Kluiverth Roa was shot in the head by a police officer during a confrontation in the Andean city of San Cristóbal on Wednesday.
The horrific picture of the boy lying in a pool of blood with his black backpack still on his shoulders went viral on social media. A popular outcry soon followed and memes filled the Web. One memorable one: “Venezuela, number one exporter of angels to heaven.”
Roa was buried Thursday while President Maduro, pumping up the flames. railed against the United States for supposedly supporting attempts to oust him.
“Whoever tries to overthrow me in a coup and is outside of the constitution will be jailed, even if the Wall Street Journal calls me a dictator, a tyrant,” Maduro proclaimed during a speech at the Teresa Carreño Theater.
But given that the country has been teetering on the brink of economic collapse and massive social unrest for well over a year, this is probably a good moment to recap what’s happened and who the players are, and what’s at stake for this country that was once a staunch United States ally, then Cuba’s best friend, and now appears lost in a morass of spent cash and bankrupt ideology.
The latest waves of protest broke out in February 2014, led primarily by students at public universities. What began as peaceful marches escalated to open confrontations between pro- and anti-government factions as well as members of the police security forces known as SEBIN and the National Guard.
Some of the key figures:
Leopoldo López: National Coordinator of the Voluntad Popular party and former mayor of Chacao. He was arrested in February 2014 on charges of terrorism, homicide and arson during the outbreak of protests. His trial is ongoing and has been condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
María Corina Machado: Former member of the Venezuelan National Assembly and the leader within the Venezuelan opposition who organized protests in 2014. She was charged with conspiracy for receiving funds from the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States.
Mayor Antonio Ledezma: Long-time critic of the country’s socialist government, now under arrest.
Julio Borges: Legislator currently facing proceedings that would remove him from the Venezuelan congress. The ruling party also ha accused him of conspiring in coup attempts.
Diosdado Cabello: Speaker of the National Assembly of Venezuela, member of the armed forces and former vice president. He was instrumental securing President Hugo Chávez’s grip on power after what was a genuine coup attempt that failed in 2002. Many see him as the man at the helm of various parallel structures responsible for rampant corruption within government ranks.
The initial protests left 43 dead and dozens injured. The hashtag #SOSVenezuela emerged. Everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Oscar winner Jared Leto condemned the wave of repression last year.
Many demanded Maduro, the faithful understudy who succeeded to the presidency after Chávez died in 2013, should resign. Given that his Chavista coalition won nationwide elections that year by a clear 10-point lead, that wasn’t going to happen. Others looked to open talks with the government. Within a few weeks, the demonstrations dwindled as the opposition leaders were unable to agree on concrete steps to move beyond the political impasse.
The economic frustrations continued to mount. Toilet paper, coffee and rice went missing from Venezuelan stores. The country earns 96 percent of its export revenue from oil, which has plummeted in value. The inflation rate is 63.6 percent—the highest in the world, far surpassing, for instance, Ukraine—and the economy went into recession even before petroleum prices started plummeting.
Venezuela’s central bank, which has been publishing a scarcity index since 2009, put its most recent figure at 20 percent. That is comparable to countries in the midst of civil wars. Maduro blames this on a CIA plot to undermine the socialist revolution.
Economists like Asdrubal Oliveros from Ecoanalitica, a national consulting firm, argue that a wave of expropriations in the last decade, an overvalued exchange rate and ravaged agriculture made for a toxic mix with declining oil production, dropping oil prices, and dependence on imports. “That’s a perverse model that kills off any productivity,” Oliveros told The Guardian.
Foreign creditors are on the lookout in 2015 to see if the Venezuelan government defaults on bond payments.
So, who really is in power?
Venezuela is a dangerous place under any circumstances. Over 25,000 people were killed in 2014, mostly in criminal violence, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory. El Nacional reported 90 violent deaths in Caracas the first week of 2015.
It’s also the most corrupt country in Latin America. Worldwide, Venezuela placed 161 out of a total of 175 according to a Transparency International report.
Dozens of accusations have surfaced against authorities, namely members of the National Guard, chargind that they take part in the criminal activities they are supposed to be combating, including drug trafficking. Despite many public speeches about ending corruption, Maduro’s government has not looked into these allegations.
And it seems the end of a rotting economy, political upheaval and social corruption are nowhere in sight. David Gagne of the investigative website InSight Crime writes that “criminal groups may well seize this opportunity to become ever more powerful—and wreak even greater havoc on the Venezuelan population.”
In fact, separating the criminals from the politicians from the military commanders is no easy task, and not one made easier when law enforcements spends its time arresting mayors and killing 14-year-olds.