Q&A: The crisis in Venezuela

Women chant against the government of President Nicolas Maduro during a march in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo / AP
Women chant against the government of President Nicolas Maduro during a march in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo / AP

What has happened?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday extended the economic state of emergency in the South American country by 60 days. Yesterday he warned that authorities will seize any factories which stop production, and throw their owners in jail. The move came after pro and anti-government demonstrators took to the streets.

What is the conflict with factories?

Maduro said a complaint by factory managers that they were lacking the hard currency for raw materials was "whingeing" and their threat to close was a declaration of "economic war". Any factories which stopped working would be "occupied by the people", Maduro said in a televised speech. "We will do it. We will take over all the plants paralysed by the bourgeoisie," he said. "Any who does not wish to work, let him leave."

Is the problem mainly economic?

An economic crisis is gripping the country, and food, fuel and medical supplies have been rationed since January. Clashes erupted last week between security forces and demonstrators protesting against food shortages, power blackouts and political gridlock.

What is happening on the political front?

The opposition has gathered 1.8 million signatures on a petition to force a recall referendum. But election authorities have declined to verify the petition, the next required step in the process.

Could Maduro be ousted?

Senior US intelligence officials said Venezuela may be headed towards an all-out popular uprising that could lead to the overthrow of its Government this year. "You can hear the ice cracking," an intelligence official said. "You know there's a crisis coming."

How would the US react to that?

US policymakers think there is little they can now do to change the fast-deteriorating situation. The main US concern is that a major Latin American country does not collapse.
The days of America rooting for the ouster of former leader Hugo Chavez and his revolutionary movement "are over," an intelligence official said. Now, "it's not really the case that the US is rooting for any outcome, other than that it's not an outbreak of political violence. You'd have to be insane not to worry."

Has that always been the case?

The Obama Administration believes that it has vastly improved US standing in Latin America, compared with the days when political and economic turmoil in the hemisphere was blamed, sometimes with reason, on either interference or disregard by Washington.

There have been many times over the past two decades when the United States has wished for the demise of the left-wing Bolivarian revolution begun by Chavez and carried on since 2013 by his successor, Maduro. The Obama Administration and its predecessor have charged the Government in Caracas with corruption, human rights abuses and drug smuggling, among other things, and have supported the political opposition.

Didn't the opposition win parliamentary elections last December?

Yes but Maduro's Government still controls the levers of power and is delaying verification of signatures supporting the recall referendum. If Maduro was to lose a referendum held before January 10, new elections could be called. If it was after that, the vice-president would replace Maduro and hold office until the end of the current presidential term in 2019.

How bad are the economic problems?

Mismanagement and a 69 per cent drop in the price of Venezuelan oil - the source of virtually all state income - have left the Government unable to cover imports and its substantial foreign debt. Inflation, at around 700 per cent, is the highest in the world. The worst drought in half a century has led to water and electricity shortages, with rolling blackouts and government-imposed furloughs for state workers. Severe shortages of food, medicine and consumer goods, with hours-long lines to purchase basic commodities, led last week to widespread looting that was met with tear gas fired by security forces.

How could the Government change?

The US intelligence officials outlined three possible change-of-government scenarios. First, the failure of this year's recall referendum could lead to another petition next year. But the opposition - itself divided and ill-disciplined - has been a disappointment to the Obama Administration.

Second, there could be a "palace coup" in which some members of Maduro's Government move to oust him with the help of some segment of the military.

The third possible scenario is a military move, possibly led by lower-ranking officers and enlisted members who also are feeling the economic pinch, to remove the government altogether.

- Washington Post, DPA

A structure at a railroad factory that was abandoned by its Chinese managers in Zaraza, Guarico state. Photo / AP
A structure at a railroad factory that was abandoned by its Chinese managers in Zaraza, Guarico state. Photo / AP

- Washington Post

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