Thursday, February 21, 2019 | ePaper

Oil-rich Venezuela mired in political turmoil

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Rayhan Ahmed Topader :
Venezuela's political crisis appears to be reaching boiling point amid growing efforts by the opposition to unseat the socialist president, Nicolás Maduro.The South American country has been caught in a downward spiral for years with growing political discontent further fuelled by skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine.More than three million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years.But what exactly is behind the crisis rocking Venezuela? Maduro, who assumed power when his mentor Hugo Chávez died in 2013, has long resisted calls to stand down. He sidelined the opposition-led national assembly in 2017, replacing it with a pliant constituent assembly via elections labelled fraudulent. When mass street protests broke out that year, he sent in the national guard, killing at least 120 and injuring hundreds. Though years in the making, the crisis has accelerated since Maduro who won re-election last May in a widely criticised vote began his new term on 11 January, rallying the once-fractured opposition against him.Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition-held national assembly, declared himself ready to assume the presidency until open elections could be held.A foiled military uprising, violent protests across the capital and planned nationwide marches led by an emboldened opposition; Venezuela's embattled president Nicolás Maduro has survived threats to his power before, but this week is could be the most difficult yet.
Maduro, who last August survived an audacious drone assassination attempt, presides over a crippling economic and social crisis, and justifiably sees threats from all sides.Recently 27 national guardsman were arrested after allegedly attempting to mount an uprising, in a sign that he may be losing the backing of the military long regarded as the power broker in Venezuela. violent unrest rocked working-class neighbourhoods in Caracas, once the bedrock of Maduro's support. Angry residents set fire to barricades while security forces launched teargasto disperse demonstrators protesting against rising prices and low wages.This situation is unbearable, Eduardo Solano, a young computer scientist who took to the streets in his Diego Lozada neighbourhood, said. "It doesn't matter if you earn bolivars or dollars, it's not enough. Solano and his fellow protesters dispersed around midnight, when armed gangs loyal to the government known as colectivos arrived and fired shots in the air, he said. A riot policeman on a motorcycle points his gun during clashes with protesters in the Caracas neighbourhood of Los Mecedores recently.the neighbourhood was strewn with rubble, and roads were scorched with burn marks. Though officials made no statement on the protests, local watchdogs reported that the national guard had deployed tanks to quell a disturbance in El Valle, another neighbourhood.
The foiled uprising and street violence came ahead of nationwide opposition marches against Maduro planned..Oil-rich Venezuela is mired in economic and political turmoil, with hyperinflation rendering the bolivar currency practically worthless. Shortages in food staples and basic medicines are rampant, while crime is widespread. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled, causing consternation across the continent.Guaidó expressed support for those protesting. We are all here in the same boat: without electricity, without water, without medicines, without gas and with an uncertain future," he tweeted. We are all submerged in this crisis, except the usurper," he added, in reference to Maduro.The smaller protests that swept through western Caracas on Monday night are likely to give Maduro a particular headache as they broke out in poor neighbourhoods once loyal to his regime.I have never agreed with this government but I could put up with it. Now it is impossible," said Solano, who said that many protesters were former Chávez supporters. Now they were shouting they want Nicolás (Maduro) to leave.
If any kind of democratic solution to the crisis is possible, the opposition will have to make a case for themselves among the base of the ruling party, offering them concrete proposals that reflect their interests.Recently developments have surprised analysts, who had thought the opposition to be too fractured and Venezuela too divided on class lines to bring about change.
These protests are remarkable. The fact that people are coming out to protest across class lines reveals one thing: just how widespread the level of utter disgust with Maduro is in Venezuela today," said Geoff Ramsey, the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America.Maduro has presided over Venezuela's spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis, with hyperinflation forecast to reach 10 million percent this year. As a result, some 3 million Venezuelans have fled abroad over the past five years to escape worsening living conditions. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, speaks during a televised press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.At Guaido's request, one nationwide anti-government protest took place on Wednesday, with another major demonstration scheduled.The timing of the second rally is significant because several European countries, including Spain, Germany, France and Britain have said they would also recognize Guaido as president if elections were not called recently. Autocratic regimes with military backing can sometimes withstand international pressure for a long time. And while Guaido is riding a wave right now, he will have to capitalize on domestic and international support," Tom Long, assistant professor in the department of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, told CNBC via email. Of course, it is not clear where this goes, but the risks of confrontation are as high as they have ever been," Long added.  Demonstrators shout slogans while a barricades seen burning in the background during a demonstration against Nicolas Maduro policies. Rally against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and also to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of Marcos Pérez Jimenez's dictatorship in Caracas. Political analysts told CNBC last week that it is certainly possible escalating pressure from the international community could encourage lower-ranking officials to turn against Maduro's government. But, presently, there have been no high-ranking defections in Venezuela.There is a general sense in markets that Nicolás Maduro will not be removed from power in the near future and that tensions will keep on rising. Also most analysts discard the full "nuclear option", as that would have a devastating impact on the people of Venezuela, instead of just hitting the government.One of the most likely scenarios discussed is a partial restriction of how much oil the US can buy from Venezuela.That would hurt consumers in America and in the rest of the world. Prices would rise as refineries would have to buy their share of oil from more expensive sources. American refineries that buy from Venezuela would also be negatively affected.But US restrictions would benefit Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Iraq countries that also produce the same variety of heavy crude oil (Canada also produces heavy crude but it does not have logistic capability to increase its exports).
These countries have been eating into Venezuela's market share for years. A boom in US shale production has helped slash crude prices over the past four years, although they have recovered slightly.But 2019 is shaping up to be a very challenging year for the commodity, and there is no clear indication on which way prices will move.Oil is never a predictable affair, however, and there are many situations that could cause prices to spike. Production is very volatile in Nigeria and Libya. Iran is under a heavy US embargo. Russia and Saudi Arabia are cutting production.Finally there are fears of a global slowdown in the economy which could see prices fall due to a drop in demand.

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