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VENEZUELA
Scarcity and violence limit exercise of rights
Valentina Oropeza
5/14/2015
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Falling oil prices and political polarization deepen economic and political crisis.

Lorena González heads out the door at 5:00 a.m. every Wednesday, the only day of the week she can shop at Abastos Bicentenario, one of the grocery stores administered by the Venezuelan state. There, she buys staples at regulated prices under a program started by the late president Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) after the 2003 oil strike.

Since the beginning of the year, the state-owned stores are rationing supplies according to the last number on buyers’ ID cards: 0 or 1 allows Venezuelans to shop on Mondays, 2 and 3 on Tuesdays, 4 and 5 on Wednesdays, and so on.

In March, President Nicolás Maduro’s administration ordered the installation of fingerprint readers in markets and grocery stores to prevent people from buying the same items more than once a week. Faced with a scarcity of food, medicine, and virtually every imported item, the government argues that these measures can mitigate the shortage and combat the smuggling of goods at regulated prices into Colombia. But for the administration’s opponents, these decisions only seek to consolidate state control over citizens’ consumption.

González arms herself with a folding chair, a big water bottle, and a small cart to load up chicken, beef, sugar, milk, shampoo and the two bags of laundry soap allowed to be purchased at these stores. She waited seven hours in multiple lines to get into Bicentenario, fight over merchandize with other shoppers, and pay. She left happy that she got at least part of every item on her shopping list.

“With inflation, my salary isn’t enough to buy from the bachaqueros,” the elementary school teacher told Latinamerica Press, referring to the people who sell regulated products at a markup. According to the Superintendent of Fair Prices, a package of 32 diapers costs about 100 bolívares — just over US$15 at 6.30 bolívares per dollar, the rate at which the government imports food and medicine. In Caracas, they sell for 750 bolivars ($119 at official rate) on the black market, and that price reaches 1,000 bolivars (almost $159) in inland cities. Near the border with Brazil and Colombia, the same package is worth 1,500 bolivars ($238).

Speculation and inflation
The president of polling service Datanalisis Luis Vicente León estimates that the black market has increased the value of the goods 236 percent on average in Venezuela. Last year an accumulated inflation of 63.4 percent was reported, and independent economic and financial consulting firms like Ecoanalítica predict prices will increase 200 percent by the end of the year.

For organized civil society, the main concern is the decrease in quality of life. In a statement, the non-governmental organization Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights (Provea) labeled scarcity a rights violation because it jeopardizes “regular, permanent, and unrestricted access to food at adequate and sufficient levels.”

While authorities attribute the shortage to an economic war undertaken by private sector management against Maduro, business owners request every week the liquidation of foreign currency to pay the debts to international suppliers accumulated for at least three years. Identifying those responsible for the shortage is imperative for all political actors in Venezuela ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the second semester of this year.

“There are no more dollars for you (…) You have millions abroad. Why don’t you bring that money and invest in Venezuela?” Maduro demanded on Apr. 22 to the members of Fedecámaras, the main organization of trade associations in the country, after its president Jorge Roig said the “only person responsible for the economic war is the one who controls the monopoly on dollars.” More than 20 business owners have been jailed this year, accused of speculation, criminal conspiracy, and hoarding.  

The shortage has only worsened after a 40 percent drop in the price of oil since last year, crippling earnings in a country that gets 96 percent of its foreign exchange from the sale of crude oil; that revenue has historically financed the importation of goods consumed internally. Independent economists predict that oil revenues this year could be reduced to $35 billion, $40 billion less than last year.

Criminal and political violence
The Venezuelan government has not published figures on violent deaths since 2012, when the Chavez administration acknowledged 16,072 people were killed that year.

Only the non-governmental Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (OVV) ventures to make estimates. It reports 24,980 people were killed in 2014, more than 223 victims over the previous year, yielding a homicide rate of 82 per 100,000 inhabitants. InSightCrime, a non-profit journalism group dedicated to the analysis and investigation of organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, places Venezuela as the third most violent country in the Americas, after Honduras and El Salvador.

The Venezuelan press tallied the killings of more than 200 police in 2014 at the hands of criminals who stole their service weapons and motorcycles, or in clashes with gangs firing rifles and throwing grenades against the officers who pursue them, on any street and in broad daylight.

In addition to common crime is political violence. The Venezuelan Public Prosecutor attributed 43 deaths to the protests against Maduro’s government between February and June 2014. Organizations defending human rights claim that 157 cases of torture were reported to those arrested in the riots, as well as more than 3,000 arbitrary arrests.

Families of students arrested by the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and human rights activists reported in January that young people are subjected to cruel treatment in “las tumbas” (the graves), referring to the cold basement of SEBIN headquarters in Caracas, where there is no access to natural light. However, the national ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, denied that the state’s security forces committed such abuses as regular practice and endorsed the proposal of the Ministry of Defense, which has not yet been approved by Parliament, authorizing armed forces to not only control public order to contain demonstrations, but also use firearms in cases of violent protests, even though Article 68 of the Constitution prohibits “the use of firearms and substances toxic in controlling peaceful demonstrations.”

The release of opposition leaders has become an undeniable claim for dissidents and a non-negotiable concession to the government. The most emblematic cases are Leopoldo López, founder of People’s Will party who was accused of instigating violence in the February 2014 riots; the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma; and the former mayor of San Cristóbal, capital city of the southwestern state of Táchira, Daniel Ceballos. During the VII Summit of the Americas, held in Panama on Apr. 10-11, about 20 former presidents signed a declaration demanding the release of political prisoners.

Another current debate concerns the political leaders who are free: whether to determine their candidates for parliamentary elections by primary or by consensus. In early March, spokespersons for the Roundtable for Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition announced that 87 candidates for 38 districts would be elected by internal voting. Government leaders as Parliamentary President Diosdado Cabello have questioned the legitimacy of these candidates, while the most radical sectors of the opposition, now led by former National Assembly member María Corina Machado, require that all candidates be elected at the polls.

Faced with the decision of US President Barack Obama to approve the Mar. 9 executive order penalizing seven Venezuelan government officials as promoters of human rights violations in the protests, and identifying Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) issued statements calling for dialogue between the two countries under respect for sovereignty and self-determination, non-interference in the internal affairs of states, and avoidance of unilateral coercive measures that violate international law
.— Latinamerica Press.


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Citizens must stand in long queues for hours to buy staples. (Photo: Manaure Quintero)
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