'People live day to day': Why Venezuela is in crisis

The economic crisis in Venezuela has set off a humanitarian disaster, with most of the population struggling to get access to basics like food and medicine. But the political landscape is also in turmoil following the recent controversial vote for a new assembly that many fear will replace the country's elected legislature.

New constituent assembly has drawn international criticism

Members of Venezuela's new constituent assembly, an all-powerful body voted in last week. Opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro fear he'll use the new assembly to replace the country's elected legislature with a single-party authoritarian system. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

The economic crisis in Venezuela has sent the country spiralling into a humanitarian disaster, as access to food and medicine and other needed supplies has become more and more difficult.

But the political landscape is also in turmoil, with a recent controversial election to establish a constituent assembly that has the power to change the constitution condemned by some outside observers as the most significant step by President Nicolas Maduro to turn the country into an autocratic state.

The origins of the new assembly can be traced to 2015, when the opposition won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, the country's parliament. Amid such political gridlock, critics say Maduro began chipping away at the authority of the National Assembly, using the Supreme Court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, to take away its powers.

Earlier this year, the government, through the top court, tried to take away all powers of the National Assembly. What followed were four months of sometimes violent protests that have left more than 100 people dead. The government has said this new assembly will help restore order.  

It claimed that eight million people, a little over 40 per cent of registered voters, turned out for this election. But the opposition boycotted the vote and observers have questioned the official results.

Why the controversy over the constituent assembly?

While questions swirl around the legitimacy of the election, critics argue this new governing body will usurp or replace the authority of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. They fear it will allow the government to rewrite the constitution and give Maduro more power. The president has admitted he will use this new assembly to grant the government power to jail key opposition leaders, remove the nation's outspoken chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, which he did on Saturday, and strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity.

He has jailed two opposition leaders, already under house arrest, who had urged Venezuelans to boycott the constituent assembly vote.

Maduro shows his ballot after casting a vote for the constituent assembly, July 30 in Caracas. (Miraflores Press Office/Associated Press)

These actions have drawn international scorn. Many countries, including Canada, have denounced the government for taking authoritarian measures. The U.S. said it won't recognize the new assembly and has imposed sanctions, labelling the Maduro regime a "dictatorship."

​How has the Maduro government justified its moves?

When Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, began his first term as president in 1999, he vowed to fight political corruption and launched sweeping economic and social reforms that he dubbed the Bolivar Revolution after famed Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar. Chavez funnelled some of the country's oil wealth to the poor, providing housing, free health care and better education.

The Maduro government claims that to continue that legacy, it needs to remain in power. Those who oppose that view are labelled elitist lackeys of the U.S., who will undermine the revolution.

Maduro has also claimed that his new constituent assembly will help bring peace to the region.

Members of the constituent assembly participate in its first session at Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

"The constituent assembly, they say, that will be a means to deepen the revolution and advance the constitution further along those lines, but also provide a space and a means to bring peace to the country that has been divided," said Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor who specializes in Latin American politics at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

How did an oil-rich country become economically destitute?

The Maduro government says Venezuela has been a victim of economic sabotage and that an economic war is being waged against it by the private sector linked to the U.S.

Certainly, the crash of the price of oil, which accounts for about 95 per cent of the country's export earnings, dealt a significant blow to the economy. But so, too, say some critics, has the nationalization of parts of the private sector, including the oil industry, where output has fallen by 400,000 barrels a day, according to OPEC. 

Meanwhile, observers say lower productivity, mismanagement and massive corruption have led to triple-digit inflation and an overvalued currency. Foreign companies that are not being paid for their products and services are pulling out, while importers can't get access to dollars.

"It's not simply the fact the price of oil has gone down, it's that they have very dysfunctional economic policies that mean a lot of the dollars get taken away in corruption," said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy organization.

"And that's led to a huge problem of scarcity and inflation."

How is the crisis affecting Venezuelans?

Hardly any Venezuelans can afford to buy enough food, and almost three-quarters of the population have lost weight in the last year, according to some studies. The country has also experienced record levels of child malnutrition and a severe spike in child mortality.

"People are really going without; people live day to day," Smilde said.

Where empty shelves and lineups at supermarkets used to be a common sight, now the shelves are stocked, but the stores are empty of shoppers, Smilde said. The difference is that skyrocketing inflation means prices are unaffordable for more people.

But there are still long lineups for the government's subsidized food bags provided through a state distribution system.

Medicine and health care supplies, too, continue to be in short supply (and most can't afford them anyway) while basics like shampoo have become luxuries. Diseases once thought to be under control, such as malaria, diphtheria and AIDS, have made a comeback.

Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard officers detain a demonstrator during clashes at Altamira Square in Caracas. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, crime continues to rise. The U.S. State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, citing the Venezuelan NGO Observatory of Violence, says Caracas was the most violent city in the world in 2016 and that Venezuela has the second-highest murder rate in the world, after El Salvador.

Does the government have support?

Support or opposition for Maduro largely falls along economic lines. Opposition to Maduro has come mostly from the middle class, while his support is drawn from the lower end of the economic scale. But even there, the government has started losing support.

There are some who are supporting [him] because they do believe they have improved their lifestyle, some who believe the ideology and some who accept the rationale the government provides.-Jennifer McCoy, political science professor

Some recent public opinion polls put government support around 20 per cent. Many of those still loyal to the government believe they have benefited since Chavez came to power. 

"I think there are some who are supporting [him] because they do believe they have improved their lifestyle, some who believe the ideology and some who accept the rationale the government provides," said McCoy.

Where is this all heading?

Some have expressed concerns the country is on the brink of a civil war.

There are also fears, said McCoy, that contagious diseases could spread across the border into neighbouring countries.

Thousands of Venezuelans have already left the country as the economic and political crisis has deepened in the last two years, and observers fear the recent escalation of unrest could spark a massive refugee crisis.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters