Blackouts, deaths, a state of emergency. Over the course of the past few months, Venezuela’s national crisis has gone from bad to worse, as food shortages and economic distress have pushed citizens into the streets. Protests have been raging for the past two months, resulting in the deaths of at least 37 people, with more than 700 protesters wounded and over 1,000 arrested. The situation hasn’t been getting a tremendous amount of attention in the Western world — but after this week, that could change.
On May 4th, students stormed Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, demanding that the government hold elections and address terrible food shortages. Sprayed with tear gas and confronted by soldiers, the protesters persisted, undaunted.
“The terrorists today are in government, today we are the ones who are fighting for Venezuela, today they are stopping us, today they are killing us, today we are victims of repression, hunger, lack of drugs and here we are,” Rafaela Requesens, student leader of the Federation of University Centers of the UCV (FCU-UCV), told Al Día, before departing to protest.
Another student, Santiago Acosta, read aloud a plea to Pope Francis. “Pope Francis, please listen to the students. We have no fear, we need peace, democracy, justice and freedom,” Acosta asked, according to Al Día.
Venezuela’s descent into chaos has been ongoing for several years. Once an oil-rich nation with considerable sway in the region, Venezuela is now struggling under the weight of a crumbling economy and devastating food shortages. In February Venezuela was suspended from voting in the U.N. General Assembly over millions of dollars of unpaid debt — the second time in two years.
The country’s current crisis can arguably be traced back to price controls instituted by the government of former President Hugo Chávez. But the problem escalated in 2014, after oil prices plummeted and food shortages became an issue. As food became scarce, rising prices and increasing problems with smuggling caused the situation to spiral. Venezuela now has the world’s fastest-contracting economy and an inflation rate of almost 1,000 percent.
Venezuelans have been fleeing to Colombia and Brazil in an effort to find food and an escape from the country’s escalating crisis. Blackouts caused by electricity shortages are also a fact of life these days. Surveys indicate that 80 percent of medicines are scarce (if available at all), while 50 to 80 percent of food supplies are scarce. Contraceptives, water, toiletries, and paper have also been impacted.
Making the situation far worse is its leadership. Venezuela’s government is not doing much to fix the country’s staggering problems. President Nicolás Maduro claims that efforts to unseat him are a bourgeois plot, one that he has often linked to the United States. And while the United States has historically played a role in destabilizing governments in Latin América, Venezuela’s leader has been a deeply unpopular president. Maduro, who came to power in 2013 following the death of Chávez, has spent his time in office slowly consolidating power, cracking down on the opposition, and weakening Venezuela’s democracy. Last September, amid horrifying food shortages, Maduro joked about the benefits of the “Maduro diet” — or, more bluntly, the weight loss Venezuelans are experiencing without access to steady sustenance and nutrition.
E.A. Crunden is a Journalist for ThinkProgress.org.