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The Crisis of 2016

Corporate media outlets throughout the world worked diligently to portray Venezuela as a country in the midst of an economic crisis. These outlets pointed to the shortages of basic goods in stores and the lines that sometimes occur for some products as evidence of this so-called crisis. Yet, these shortages appear to be part of a concerted action by members of the opposition to remove the democratically-elected government from power. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro revealed 13 January 2016 a plot by opposition figures to take advantage of the lines to sow chaos and violence in the country.

For about two years, roughly since former President Hugo Chavez was hospitalized, there had been regular shortages of basic products such as milk, sugar, corn flour, and personal hygiene items. These products would be available on the shelves for a time but then disappear. The events taking place in Venezuela were eerily similar to those in Chile before the 1973 coup.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro announced 24 January 2016 the establishment of a committee to oversee the creation of a revolutionary assembly. The assembly would bring together the country's progressive social movements and socialist politicians to reinvigorate the Bolivarian Revolution, according to the president. Maduro called for renewed debate among Venezuela's progressives in the wake of the National Assembly elections in December 2015.

Maduro appointed new supreme court justices right before the new Congress took office. The court packing included the rush appointment of 13 Supreme Court justices.

Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled 11 February 2016 that President Nicolas Maduro's request for special powers to stave off an economic emergency was legal, despite criticism from the country's legislature. The Caracas-based court ruled that Maduro's decree granting the president expanded authority over the economy for 60 days is legitimate. The court said opposition lawmakers did not follow the correct procedures for opposing the measure. Maduro had asked the court for emergency powers to counteract the country's deep economic crisis by taking over the resources of private companies, imposing currency controls, and using "other social, economic, or political measures deemed fitting."

In a move that may hint at a new approach by the Venezuelan government, on 15 February 2016 President Nicolás Maduro surprisingly replaced his hardline economic czar just five weeks after appointing him, as the country grappled with increasingly bleak economic indicators and fears of default. Maduro announced that Luis Salas, who famously said inflation “does not exist in real life,” had left his post as vice-president for the economy for “family reasons.” Salas had sparked concern among the opposition by blaming Venezuela’s mounting economic problems on “sabotage.” He said the country was suffering from the world’s worst recession and triple-digit inflation because business interests were colluding with the US to sabotage the economy.

Salas was replaced by a more business-friendly figure, Miguel Pérez Abad, who had been serving as the government’s commerce minister. Pérez took over Fedeindustria in 2001 and helped turn it into an alternative to the fiercely anti-government Fedecamaras chamber, which in 2002 helped oust Hugo Chávez and participated in a brief de facto government. By 2007, Fedeindustria’s public statements were using Bolivarian phrases such as “rebellion of the means of production” or “Productive Socialism: A Challenge for Private Enterprise.”

In March 2016 a coalition of more than two dozen parties decided unanimously to activate "all mechanisms for change" in the constitution in search of a "national unity government." But the coalition was notoriously fractious, with a moderate wing led by twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and a more radical side headed by jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Venezuela's opposition alliance pursued a multi-pronged strategy to dislodge President Nicolas Maduro. This strategy involved street protests, a referendum or, alternatively, an amendment to the constitution that would cut short the president's term. Hoping to capitalise on anger over a deep recession, triple-digit inflation and soaring crime, Maduro's critics set themselves a timeframe of six months to achieve their goal. But a constitutional amendment to shorten the presidential term would only be applicable to presidents elected in the future, and Maduro would finish his six-year term anyway.

On 29 March 2016 Venezuela's opposition-controlled legislature passed a measure to grant amnesty to dozens of jailed political activists, setting up a political clash with President Nicolas Maduro. The bill would free more than 70 people who have spoken out against Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. One of those prisoners is right-wing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is serving a 14-year sentence for inciting an anti-government protest in 2014 that left 43 people dead. As lawmakers were debating the bill, Maduro promised to veto it during a nationally televised speech, claiming it would pardon "murderers... terrorists and criminals."

Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly announced in April 2016 that it will move forward with a recall referendum to oust President Nicolas Maduro from office after the National Electoral Council agreed that the right-wing opposition had met the criteria to begin the process.

A total of 4 million signatures are required in order for a referendum to be initiated. A recall referendum then takes three months after the 4 million signatures are gathered and approved by the National Electoral Council. For the president to be removed via referendum, the opposition will need to win the referendum and garner the support of more than 7.5 million people, the number of voters who backed Maduro in the 2013 presidential election, when he won 50.6 percent of the popular vote.

A recall was unsuccessfully pursued against the late former President Hugo Chavez in 2004. The organization that collected signatures presumably found the task difficult, as many of the names belonged to the long-deceased, infants, and foreign citizens. Eventually, enough signatures were verified to call for the referendum, and the motion to recall Chavez was rejected with 58 percent voting no.

The referendum would cut Maduro's term short and force new presidential elections in the country. If the vote takes place after Jan. 10, 2017, marking four years into Maduro’s six-year term, the country’s top office would be automatically handed over to Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz until the next scheduled election in 2019.

When the Maduro administration began rationing electricity, leaving entire cities in the dark for up to 4 hours every day, discontent gave way to social unrest. On 26 April 2016, people took to the streets in three Venezuelan states, looting stores to find food.

The president regularly blames the United States and local business interests for what he and his administration believe is a conspiracy against Venezuela amid low oil prices. Maduro first decreed a 60-day emergency powers order on 14 January 2016, a move he extended again in March. Political opponent Henry Ramos, head of the country's opposition-controlled legislature, said that Maduro "does not have the constitutional authority to extend the decree beyond the first extension," which he claimed was "already unconstitutional."

President Nicolas Maduro threatened 14 May 2016 to take over idle factories and jail their owners following a decree granting him expanded powers to act in the face of a deep economic crisis. The decree extended for 60 days Maduro's exceptional powers to address the crisis. Venezuela is suffering from multiple financial woes including rampant inflation and low prices for oil, the cornerstone of its economy. The president ordered "all actions to recover the production apparatus, which is being paralyzed by the bourgeoisie." Businesspeople who "sabotage the country" by halting production at their plants risk being "put in handcuffs," Maduro warned.

Maduro said his opponents were "orchestrating foreign military intervention in Venezuela." The president added that undefined exercises by the army and militia groups would "prepare for any scenario.” Maduro said "We're going to tell imperialism and the international right that the people are present, with their farm instruments in one hand and a gun in the other... to defend this sacred land... "

Maduro's comments came as the US newspaper The Washington Post cited senior US intelligence officials saying Maduro's government could be overthrown in a popular uprising this year: "You can hear the ice cracking, a crisis is coming," the official was quoted as saying.

Maduro's moves came as Venezuela's opposition warned the embattled leader that if he tried to block an attempt to hold a recall referendum, society could "explode." Maduro opponents demanded that the National Electoral Council rule on the validity of some 1.8 million signatures collected in favor of the referendum and allow it to move forward. So far Maduro's government is blocking the initiative. Maduro's ally, Jorge Rodriguez, told government supporters there would be no recall referendum. "They got signatures from dead people, minors and undocumented foreigners," Rodriguez said. The opposition insists that all of the signatures are legitimate.

Right-wing leader Henrique Capriles gave a press conference on 17 May 2016 in which he invoked violence and called for the Armed Forces to pick a side. “Prepare the tanks and warplanes,” Capriles said. “The hour of truth is coming to decide whether you are with the constitution or with Maduro,” he added, making an appeal directly to the Armed Forces.

According to polls, 7 in 10 Venezuelans want Maduro to leave office. Maduro’s opponents are racing to call a referendum before January 10, as a successful recall vote before that deadline would trigger new elections rather than transfer power to the vice president. Opposition members have said that they want the vote to be held in October or November 2016. But the president insisted that they missed their chance. “If they had wanted to seek a referendum this year, they would have to have requested it by January 11 of this year, for them to have had enough time, if all legal requirements were met,” Maduro said 11 June 2016.

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, CNE, announced on 09 August 2016 that a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro won’t be possible until 2017 according to the roadmap of steps required to trigger the vote. The next step will grant a three-day window to the Venezuelan opposition, Democratic Unity or MUD coalition, to collect signatures from 20 percent of the electorate necessary to trigger the referendum. Electoral authorities said that the signature drive for the 4 million signatures needed to lock in the referendum will “probably” take place at the end of October 2016 The CNE announcement that the vote will happen in January 2017 at the earliest meant that if Maduro was removed in a recall vote, he would be replaced by his vice president and strong Chavista, Aristobulo Isturiz, who would serve out the last two years of Maduro’s term.

Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters flooded the streets of Venezuela’s capital on 01 September 2016 to mark their protest against the embattled President Nicolas Maduro, demanding his ouster. In what was described as the biggest mass demonstration against the ruling socialists in more than a decade, protesters streamed into Caracas from the Amazon jungle to the western Andes. The opposition Democratic Unity coalition estimated at least 1 million people took part in the rallies to press for a recall referendum against Maduro.

The National Electoral Council, or CNE, said on 21 September 2016 that recall petition signatures will be collected between Oct. 26 through Oct. 28. However, that would almost certainly rule out the possibility of a referendum held before Jan. 10, 2017, which meant that even if the opposition was successful in recalling Maduro, his vice president would serve for the remainder of his term. The opposition, or Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), wanted an earlier vote to put its own candidate in office. But within days Venezuela’s electoral officials suspended the referendum effort, citing an order from the country's Supreme Court regarding allegations of fraud on the part of the right-wing opposition during the initial signature drive. The action 20 October 2016 followed nearly a year of opposition campaigning for the referendum. Officials alleged fraud had taken place in the signature-gathering process that was part of an attempt to stop the opposition effort to remove the socialist leader at the ballot box.

For over a decade, Venezuelan opposition supporters would clang pots and pans on balconies of middle-class apartments to protest late leader Hugo Chavez's self-styled "21st century socialism" which mobilized poor people. The 'cacerolazo,' as such protests are known around South America, returned with a bang in September 2016 when a pot-wielding crowd ran after Chavez's unpopular successor Nicolas Maduro in a previously pro-government working class neighborhood of Margarita Island. The incident in Margarita sparked a frenzy of jokes and cartoons. One showed him overtaking Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt to avoid pots being thrown his way. Amazed and amused by the sight of the normally hyper-protected Maduro humiliated in public, opposition supporters began flaunting their kitchenware nationwide. In Venezuela, 'cacerolazos' have been a defining symbol of anti-socialist opponents, many of whom come from the middle and upper classes. Hugo Chavez used to mock them as a "parasitic bourgeoisie" intent on getting its hands back on the OPEC country's oil reserves.

Suffering a third year of recession and triple-digit inflation, many poor Venezuelans say they are skipping meals and forgoing protein-rich meats and beans as they often emerge empty-handed from shops despite hours in line. Maduro has failed to replicate his charismatic predecessor's popular appeal, and his ratings in opinion polls have halved to just over 20 percent.




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