The government of Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro claims to have released 40 political activists on Saturday in a gesture of apparent political good will, the New York Times reports. The Saturday releases follow the alleged release of 39 activists on Friday. The regime originally jailed the activists for participating in political protests in 2014 and 2017 against the government, which had turned violent, resulting in 170 deaths.
Human rights groups allege that the number of activists the government claims to have released are inflated, and put the true number closer to a total of 40 over the two days. Among those released are Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristobal, and Angel Vivas, a retired general. Both men are vocal critics of the Maduro regime. Maduro’s most prominent critic, Leopoldo Lopez, however, was not among the released.
Oil-rich Venezuela had once been one of the most prosperous countries in South America. Up until the early 1980s, Venezuela was designated by the World Bank as an upper-middle income country – one of only four countries in Latin America to achieve that designation. It also boasted a stable, center-left democracy. Venezuela’s prosperity at the time was largely buoyed by high oil prices – the country has the largest known petroleum reserves in the world.
The Venezuelan economy contracted dramatically in the early 1980s, when global oil prices dipped. As a result, the country experienced massive inflation and shortages. Oil prices soared again in 2000, months after Hugo Chavez took office. Chavez’s far-left socialist economic policies consolidated and extended the government’s control over oil wealth. The Chavez government weakened private businesses and institutions on one hand, while simultaneously managing the distribution of the country’s oil wealth among the Venezuelan people. This strategy further increased the Venezuelan people’s dependence on the government, and made the economy even more vulnerable to external shock from fluctuating global oil prices.
Now, petroleum revenue accounts for roughly 95% of the country’s exports and 50% of its GDP. The effects of the country’s heavy reliance on and mismanagement of oil revenue have proven devastating. Between 2015 and 2016, a startling two thirds of Venezuelans now report involuntary weight loss due to hunger.
The current crisis began in 2014 with a series of protests against the government of Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor and former vice president. Maduro has continued many of the economic policies of his predecessor, but lacks Chavez’s political charisma and savvy. The rupture in this political cult of personality, coupled with some economic bad fortune — oil prices tanked just as Maduro took office – have rendered the current Venezuelan president a widely unpopular leader. Maduro has responded to his critics by employing increasingly authoritarian tactics, including arbitrarily arresting and killing political dissenters.
Response of the International Community
The international community has taken some steps to pressure the Maduro regime to step down, but has stopped short of a unified response. The Trump administration has wisely avoided widespread economic sanctions that would punish the poor, instead opting for more narrow sanctions targeting Maduro administration officials and elites. The United States also recommended today that Venezuela be removed from the Organization of American States (OAS).
In February of this year, International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that her office would be opening a preliminary examination into widespread human rights violations committed by the Maduro regime. The ICC’s preliminary examination period tends to be arduous, however, and may take several years.
Perhaps the most effective strategy would be for the U.S. to partner with regional allies, such as Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, to politically isolate Maduro and force his hand. The Trump administration’s bellicose posture toward many of the Central and South American governments, however, makes significant regional diplomatic cooperation less likely.