Think Politics Are Bad in the U.S.? Welcome to Venezuela

Nov 07, 2016

His economy is in freefall, his citizens are taking to the streets to demand his ouster and his country can't even pull off an international soccer match without things going haywire. So Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro responded last week by hosting a new radio program, called “The Hour of Salsa,” in which he insulted the political opposition—then spun tunes and danced around the studio with his wife. Maduro followed up this bizarre performance with a speech in which he declared that “neither through elections nor bullets” would the opposition ever gain control of the Miraflores presidential palace.

To opposition leaders who recently agreed to Vatican-mediated talks with the government, Maduro’s behavior is a clear sign that he has little intention of seriously negotiating or making concessions to help pull Venezuela out of its political and economic tailspin. Not that the often fractured opposition itself is in much better shape—the decision temporarily suspend massive street protests and negotiate has divided the opposition coalition, which is made up of about two dozen parties. Some leaders claim Maduro is stalling for time and insist that the only way to confront his increasingly authoritarian government is by putting throngs of angry people in the streets, day after day.

Read More: Venezuela Is Dying

“Every time the government feels pressure, at home or from abroad, it calls for talks. And every time they have violated all the agreements they reached,” said Maria Corina Machado, a former congresswoman who heads a right-wing opposition party that’s not taking part in the negotiations.

The streets have been home to scores of raucous demonstrations against Maduro, who since his 2013 election following the death of revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez has led this oil-rich country into its worst economic crisis in decades. There are shortages of basic foods, like flour, pasta, and cooking oil. Outside Caracas bakeries bread lines form as people wait to buy price-controlled baguettes. Venezuela is edging closer to hyper-inflation. Its currency, the bolívar, has collapsed, with the largest-denomination bill now worth about 6 cents. Crime is on the rise.

Polls show that most Venezuelans want Maduro to go, and soon. But electoral authorities loyal to the president on Oct. 20 suspended a recall election that was designed to cut short his term, which is scheduled to end in 2019. That brought tensions to a boiling point, with the opposition threatening to carry out a symbolic political trial of Maduro in Congress and to march on the presidential palace. Maduro called on his supporters to surround the building and defend the revolution.

Read More: ‘The Country Is Sinking’: A Q&A With Venezuelan Opposition Leader Henrique Capriles

Finally, the Vatican convinced both sides to give negotiations a shot. Also urging them to talk was Thomas Shannon, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who spent three days in Caracas last week meeting with Maduro and opposition politicians. He called the dialogue “a good-faith effort to find a peaceful way out of the political impasse.”

Shannon warned that in the absence of negotiations, unpredictable street protests can turn violent. That’s what happened here in 2014 when clashes between demonstrators and security forces killed more than 40 people. But Shannon also acknowledged that it is Maduro who “holds the key” to the success or failure of the dialogue. the Venezuelan president maintains a firm grip over the armed forces, the judicial system and other institutions that would be major players in a political transition. In addition, the government is holding about 100 political prisoners whom the opposition wants released immediately.

For the dialogue continue, the government must agree to major concessions in the coming days, said Henrique Capriles, a former opposition presidential candidate. He and other negotiators have set a Nov. 11 deadline for the government to put forward a plan to release all political prisoners and to either reinstate the recall referendum or move forward with fresh presidential elections. They also want to reorganize the Supreme Court and other government bodies that are supposed to be independent but now answer to the president. “Venezuelans can’t be waiting months for these changes,” says Capriles.

Venezuela by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala

A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the country to the brink of total collapse, June 2016. Over the 17 years that Venezuela has been ruled by the socialist alliance of the late President Hugo Chavez, the country has been plagued by hyperinflation, a health crisis due to lack of medicines and deteriorating conditions in hospitals, food shortages, lack of electricity, explosive violent crime, and the rise of both left wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups.
A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the country to the brink of total collapse, June 2016. Over the 17 years that Venezuela has been ruled by the socialist alliance of the late President Hugo Chavez, the country has been plagued by hyperinflation, a health crisis due to lack of medicines and deteriorating conditions in hospitals, food shortages, lack of electricity, explosive violent crime, and the rise of both left wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups.Alvaro Ybarra Zavala—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the country to the brink of total collapse, June 2016. Over the 17 years that Venezuela has been ruled by the socialist alliance of the late President Hugo Chavez, the country has been plagued by hyperinflation, a health crisis due to lack of medicines and deteriorating conditions in hospitals, food shortages, lack of electricity, explosive violent crime, and the rise of both left wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups.
Protesters opposed to the revolutionary government of Nicolas Maduro, run from police during a march that became violent. Demonstrations by the Venezuelan opposition are constant throughout the country, June 2016.
Prisoners inside a crowded cell at the Chacao municipal police station in eastern Caracas. There is no room to sit and prisoners take turns resting on sheets tied to bars like hammocks. Jails in Venezuela are seriously overcrowded with shortages of food and medicine. Because of the economic and political crisis, the number of prisoners grows daily as more Venezuelans are arrested for crimes, including mugging, kidnapping and murder, June 2016.
A protestor sits in front of police during a demonstration in Caracas. The Venezuelan opposition is calling for a referendum to recall the current government of President Nicolás Maduro. Amid spiraling triple-digit inflation, recession and shortages, Venezuela is on the brink of political and economic collapse, June 2016.
A woman, upset about the fate of her incarcerated brother, cries at a police barricade. He was one of 600 people detained after riots at the National Police Station, June 2016.
The mother of Fredy Guerrero, who was killed after he was arrested by Venezuelan police, is consoled at his funeral. It took seven days before the 25-year old's tortured body was returned to his family, June, 2016.
The wife of 25-year old Fredy Guerrero, who was tortured and died while under police detention, cries at the grave of her husband, June 2016.
The young niece of 25 year-old Fredy Guerrero, who was killed after he was arrested by police, prepares to attend his funeral with other family members, June 2016.
Children play at an amusement park in Caracas, June 2016. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, and once enjoyed the highest living standard in Latin America.
An alleged thief is arrested by police in Caracas, Venezuela. The economic and political crisis in Venezuela has led to increased crime and abuses by police, May 2016.
Police arrest an alleged prostitute on the street in Caracas, Venezuela, June, 2016.
Members of an elite anti-kidnapping unit of the police during an operation in Caracas, Venezuela. The economic crisis had led to a steep increase in crime, May 2016.
The crisis in Caracas, Venezuela has gotten even more severe since May, with increased shortages of medicine, food and electricity, June 2016.
A bricklayer and his son look for food in a garbage dumpster in Caracas to take home to their family. Because of the crisis in Venezuela, he has neither a job nor enough money to feed his family, June 2016.
Some rural communities of Venezuela, like Las Veras in Barquisimeto, have been hard hit by the economic crisis, with shortages even worse than in the capital. Families make do with one meal a day, June 2016.
People line up for gas, which is needed for cooking and hot water. Because of severe shortages in the country, tension and discontent among the civilian population has grown resulting in outbreaks of violence and looting throughout the country, Barquisimeto, Venezuela, June 2016. BARQUISIMETO, VENEZUELA - JUNE 2016: A group of civilians queuing to get gas. Shortages in Venezuela is total. The government controls access to commodities. The tension and discontent among the civilian population is increasing and outbreaks of violence and looting are repeated throughout the country. ( Photo by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala / Getty Images Reportage for Time.)
A main hallway in the Vargas Hospital in Caracas. Patients in Venezuela hospitals are needlessly dying because of major shortages of important medicines, June 2016.
Two patients in the Vargas Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. Because of food and shortages of medical supplies, patients are not receiving necessary care, June 2016.
Bendiré looks out the window of her apartment in Caracas, which she shares with six other families. After five p.m., they do no go outside fearing crime in the neighborhood, June 2016.
Images of former President Hugo Chavez are still pervasive around Venezuela, along with anti-imperialist and revolutionary propaganda graffiti. For the Venezuelan government, the personality cult surrounding the Bolivarian leader, helps keep the spirit of the revolution alive, Caracas, Venezuela, July 2015.
Posters of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez hang on a wall in Caracas. The Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro has been widely condemned for its treatment of the political opposition, including most notably Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the opposition, who is serving a 14-year sentence, June, 2016.
Severe food shortages often result in bare refrigerators, like this one in the home of Don Jose Luis, Barquisimeto, Venezuela, June 2016.
A woman stands before empty shelves in one of the major supermarkets in Caracas, Venezuela. The severe political crisis has pushed the country a deep economic decline. Sept. 2015.
A picture of late President and leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, hangs on a wall inside a shopping complex in Caracas, Venezuela. Anti-imperialist and revolutionary propaganda is commonplace throughout the country, July 2015.
The Tower of David in Caracas was the worlds largest vertical slum, until its inhabitants were evicted. Insecurity and violence plagues the neighboring district around the tower, July 2015
Catia, is one of the many slums in Caracas, Venezuela and a traditional stronghold of criminal gangs, known as colectivos. Supported by the government of President Hugo Chavez, the colectivos became ideologically left wing groups that helped serve the Bolivarian revolution, 2009.
Members of a colectivos with their weapons stand in front of the Venezuelan flag. Colectivos are criminal gangs that were introduced to political ideology by the administration of President Hugo Chavez. They see themselves as the guardians of the Bolivarian revolution, and have been accused of carrying out politically motivated killings, Oct. 2009.
Police during an operation in the neighborhood of Petare, which is is one of the most troubled and violent areas of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Venezuela, March 2013.
The body of a civilian killed by a colectivo, a paramilitary group supported by the government. According to the man's family, he was killed for being politically opposed to President Hugo Chavez. Colectivos control the neighborhoods in their territory, Caracas, Venezuela, 2009.
Members of a criminal gang lookout over their neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela. Their faces are covered to avoid being identified by police, Caracas, Venezuela, Sept. 2015
A stenciled picture showing the eyes of former President Hugo Chavez, leader of the Bolivarian revolution, is seen from the inside of a taxi, Caracas, Venezuela, June 2016
A street performer in Caracas, where the economic and political crisis has escalated over recent months, bringing the co
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Alvaro Ybarra Zavala—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
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Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that if Maduro takes the talks seriously, they could help stave off a popular uprising and open the door to a peaceful transition of power. For example, an agreement to reschedule the presidential elections next year might give Maduro and his inner circle—which includes some officials who could face corruption, drug trafficking or human rights accusations under a new government—time to negotiate legal benefits or even exile.

But in an interview on state TV Sunday, Diosdado Cabello, a former vice president and a hard-liner within the ruling Socialist Party, said early elections were not on the bargaining table. “Now they talk about general elections," he said, speaking of opposition negotiators. "I do not know where they get that from, what illusion they're under. That is not true. It has not been raised.”

If the government refuses to budge, opposition leaders say they will paralyze Venezuela with more protests.

“Throughout world history you see that people power can work when you have the right leadership and national unity,” says Machado, the former lawmaker. “We are facing off against a dictatorship so we need to have people in the streets.”

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