Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela crisis: What is behind the turmoil?

A Venezuelan opposition activist, holds a sign reading "No more dictatorship" and chants slogans against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, during a march along a street of Caracas on March 31, 2017. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Anti-government protesters have accused President Maduro of moving towards a dictatorship

Tension in Venezuela is on the rise again as the opposition and the government accuse each other of trying to stage a coup.

There has been a wave of anti-government protests and dozens of people have been killed in protest-related violence since April

Here, we look more in depth at the problems facing Venezuela and its president, Nicolas Maduro.

Why is Venezuela so divided?

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Militia members continue to be fervent supporters of President Maduro

Venezuela is split into Chavistas, the name given to the followers of the socialist policies of the late President Hugo Chavez, and those who cannot wait to see an end to the 18 years in power of his United Socialist Party (PSUV).

After the socialist leader died in 2013, Nicolas Maduro, also of the PSUV, was elected president on a promise to continue Mr Chavez's policies.

Chavistas praise the two men for using Venezuela's oil riches to markedly reduce inequality and for lifting many Venezuelans out of poverty.

But the opposition says that since the PSUV came to power in 1999, the socialist party has eroded Venezuela's democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy.

Chavistas in turn accuse the opposition of being elitist and of exploiting poor Venezuelans to increase their own riches.

They also allege that opposition leaders are in the pay of the United States, a country with which Venezuela has had fraught relations in recent years.

Why has Mr Maduro's popularity plummeted?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Maduro has proven less popular than his predecessor

Mr Maduro has not been able to inspire Chavistas in the same way his predecessor did. His government has furthermore been hampered by falling oil prices.

Oil accounts for about 95% of Venezuela's export revenues and was used to finance some of the government's generous social programmes which, according to official figures, have provided more than one million poor Venezuelans with homes.

The lack of oil revenue has forced the government to curtail its social programmes, leading to an erosion of support among its core backers.

Watch: Maduro pelted by protesters

If the divisions are old, what has triggered this latest flare-up?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A Supreme Court ruling stripped the National Assembly of its powers

A series of events has further heightened tensions between the government and the opposition and led to renewed street protests.

Key was the surprise announcement by the Supreme Court on 29 March that it was taking over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The opposition said that the ruling undermined the country's separation of powers and took Venezuela a step closer to one-man rule under President Nicolas Maduro.

The court argued that the National Assembly had disregarded previous Supreme Court rulings and was therefore in contempt.

While the Supreme Court reversed its ruling just three days later, distrust of the court did not subside.

What does the opposition want?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Anti-government protesters have been calling for fresh general elections

They have four key demands:

  • Removal from office of the Supreme Court justices who issued the 29 March ruling
  • General elections in 2017
  • Creation of a "humanitarian channel" to allow medication to be imported to counter the severe shortages in Venezuela
  • Release of all the "political prisoners"

Why is there talk of a constituent assembly?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Maduro announced on May Day that he would convene a constituent assembly

Faced with almost daily protests, President Maduro probably felt he needed to make a move.

Not willing to give in to the opposition's demand for early presidential elections, he chose to announce the creation of a constituent assembly.

President Maduro says the opposition is trying to illegally overthrow his elected government and blames the country's problems on an "economic war" being waged against him.

He argues that a new constitution will "neutralise" the opposition and defeat "coup-plotters" and thereby promote peace in Venezuela.

Opposition leaders have denounced the move as an attempt by President Maduro to maximise his power and cling on to it for longer.

They argue that the process of setting up a constituent assembly and drawing up a new constitution would almost certainly mean that regional elections due to be held this year and presidential polls scheduled for December 2018 would be delayed.

They also fear that the constituent assembly would further weaken the National Assembly, Venezuela's opposition-controlled legislative body.

National Assembly leader Julio Borges called it "a scam to deceive the Venezuelan people with a mechanism that is nothing more than a tightening of the coup in Venezuela".

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