Scarcities help fuel riots in Venezuela - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Scarcities help fuel riots in Venezuela

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Protesters and security forces have been battling in the streets for almost two months in major Venezuelan cities. (Source: CNN) Protesters and security forces have been battling in the streets for almost two months in major Venezuelan cities. (Source: CNN)
The late Hugo Chavez, left, used Venezuela's abundant oil revenues to prop up Cuba, run for decades by Fidel Castro, right, experts say. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) The late Hugo Chavez, left, used Venezuela's abundant oil revenues to prop up Cuba, run for decades by Fidel Castro, right, experts say. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A campaign sign links the political fortunes of Chavez and Maduro, on the right. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) A campaign sign links the political fortunes of Chavez and Maduro, on the right. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(RNN) - The severe ongoing toilet paper shortage in Venezuela is the result of people eating too much and using the bathroom too often, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has told his people, according to Brian Fonseca, an expert on the region.

Explanations like that have led to deadly protests in the South American nation since an antigovernment movement took to the streets in early February. Scarcities, rampant inflation and high crime rates are some of the complaints lodged against the national government headed by Maduro, leader of the nation's United Socialist Party.

Fonseca, a former researcher of South America for the U.S. government, says the two main reasons for Venezuela's economic ills, including limited toilet paper, are rooted in the federal government. Fonseca visited the country in early February just before the start of deadly street demonstrations that have left more than two dozen dead.

Maduro, like his predecessor Hugo Chavez, bankrolls Cuba using Venezuela's oil wealth, he said. Second, both Maduro and the late Chavez won elections by buying votes, mainly through social programs, Fonseca said. And there have been two national elections during the past two years, meaning a lot of public money has been spent sealing electoral victories, he added.

"You buy votes and have to invest money in social programs and exchange votes for money," he said. "There is a direct correlation between economic policy and the two major elections, and the resources to keep the governing regime in power."

Both actions sapped the nation's treasury, said Fonseca, who now teaches in the department of politics and international relations at Florida International University in Miami. Again mirroring his mentor Chavez, Maduro wants to be a regional power player, Fonseca said.

"Petro revenues also go to support the geopolitical agenda of Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba," Fonseca said. "Billions in aid go to subsidize a Cuban economy."

The entanglement between Cuba and Venezuela runs deep, says Glenn Cooper, a south Florida lawyer who helps people fleeing Venezuela, and who also steers public policy for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. Cooper regularly hears stories from clients trying to escape political persecution in South America, where he has close ties. 

Venezuela is in the process of overthrowing a corrupt government, unlike Ukraine, which has accomplished that feat, he said.

"The Castro brothers (Raul and Fidel) are basically ruling Venezuela through Maduro, a man who spent years in Cuba growing up, and who is not fit to make decisions on his own," Cooper said. "Venezuelans actually refer to what's going on there as Castro-communism."

Role for the United States

Despite America's distaste for what is happening in Venezuela, gone are the days of Washington orchestrating a coup and bringing in more compatible leadership, said Fonseca, who added that the people are accustomed to voting and Maduro barely won the last election. So America should be patient and wait on democracy to make a change, he says, even though other world powers are seeking more influence in America's backyard.

"The U.S. has to continue to be critical of the government's handling of the protests and stand behind democracy," Fonseca said. "The U.S. should be vocal and promote dialogue. But we don't need to be invasive. The international community should condemn the atrocities – violence against protesters. The United States is competing with Russia and China in Latin America. If atrocities occur on the scale of Syria, then get involved."

The next election isn't until 2018, but there is an opportunity for a recall of Maduro in 2015, Fonseca said. Maduro won by 1 percent of the vote in April of 2013, and Chavez by 8 percent in October of 2012, so the United Socialist Party's hold on power is weakening, he said. But  unfortunately the opposition to Maduro is splintered.

"The opposition is not unified," he said. "All have different views as to how the country could transition. And the opposition has not laid out a good plan. It's largely anti-Maduro, and that's a failure on the part of the opposition. Venezuela is a democracy that has been hijacked and is now an autocracy – concentrated power in one person. It was Chavez, and now Maduro saying I was appointed by Chavez."

Problems not going away soon

Venezuela is one of the most violent societies in the region, Fonseca said. And there are more basic problems that can't be solved quickly.

"There is a lack of governance and institutions don't have the capacity to govern and control effectively," he said. "High inflation is making more poor people. You bring all this together and it manifests itself in violence. Inflation has doubled since 2012. The debt to the Chinese is absurd."

Add to that the shortage of basics like cooking oil, sugar and the toilet paper, which is considered a luxury, and the atmosphere is ripe for civil disobedience.

Venezuelans coming to America

Cooper has seen another result of the unrest. More Venezuelans are trying to make America their new home.

"The unrest has increased the number of people trying to come to the United States from Venezuela," Cooper said. "Venezuelans have no special status to enter the U.S. They would travel under the B-1, B-2 visitor visa. But once they are here, many could likely be eligible for asylum."

But getting to America has become more difficult due to strained relations between America and Maduro, he said.

"The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has apparently stopped issuing B-1, B-2 visas to Venezuelans due to a lack of manpower," Cooper said. "The Venezuelan government kicked out several embassy employees and they are unable to handle the workload."

The B-1 and B-2 visas are temporary entrances for business, pleasure, tourism or vacation purposes.

He said most of the Venezuelans settle in south Florida due to the familiar climate, a lot of Spanish speaking people and some large communities of Venezuelans already established there.

But some do not come to America on their own, or even get a choice, Cooper said.

"The government runs them out," he said. "Or as is the case of Leopoldo Lopez, representative of the political movement Voluntad Popular, and Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos, mayors of San Diego and San Cristobal respectively, they are put in jail."

Lopez is being held in a military prison outside Caracas, the capital. Like Lopez, Scarano and Ceballos are accused of backing protests against Maduro.

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