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Venezuela’s democratic institutions have deteriorated since 1999, but conditions have grown sharply worse in recent years due to harsher crackdowns on the opposition and the ruling party relying on widely condemned elections to control all government branches. The authorities have closed off virtually all channels for political dissent, restricting civil liberties and prosecuting perceived opponents without regard for due process. The country’s severe humanitarian crisis has left millions struggling to meet basic needs, and driven mass emigration.
Key Developments in 2020
In January, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) attempted to undercut the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó, the interim president backed by the democratic opposition, by engineering the election of Luis Parra as National Assembly president. Military forces barred opposition members from entering the chamber to participate in the vote, and the Constitutional Chamber of the Nicolás Maduro-aligned Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) ratified Parra’s election in May.
Tightly controlled National Assembly elections went forward in December despite an opposition boycott, leading to a new body with a ruling-party majority. The old opposition-led legislature in response extended its own term, in an attempt to keep control of the legislative branch. At the end of the year, Venezuela had rival presidents and legislatures, with Maduro firmly in control and the democratic opposition severely weakened.
Opposition figures, journalists, activists, protesters, and others perceived as dissidents faced relentless repression, including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions.
A state of emergency was enacted in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, upending everyday life. Authorities and armed groups enforced movement restrictions with violence, while alongside the pandemic, Venezuelans suffered from an acute shortage of gasoline that exacerbated widespread misery. Venezuelans continued to flee the country in massive numbers due to the country’s worsening crises; in August, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a report estimating that 10 million people could emigrate by the end of 2023.
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Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) is a Venezuelan opposition leader and democracy activist. He founded the Venezuelan opposition party, Voluntad Popular, and served as mayor of the Chacao municipality in Caracas. In 2014, Leopoldo was arrested on trumped-up charges for leading peaceful, nationwide protests denouncing Nicolás Maduro’s regime. After a 19-month show trial, he was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison. He spent the first three years in prison and was subsequently released to house arrest.
Leopoldo escaped house arrest and sought asylum at the Spanish embassy in Caracas after his military guards defected from Maduro’s regime and threw their support behind acting president Juan Guaidó. After a daring escape from Venezuela in October 2020, Leopoldo was reunited with his family in Spain where he now lives in exile. Today, he continues to be a leading voice in calling for democracy in Venezuela.
Venezuelan journalist Marcel Granier posits that “freedom of speech is the oxygen of a free society,” while he outlines Hugo Chávez’s war against the independent media and the internet. By aggressively attacking critical media outlets and branding them as “fascists” and “coup-plotters,” Chávez has effectively neutralized the free press in Venezuela, Granier explains. He warns that the current attacks against the media will intensify if democratic governments around the world remain passive in the face of Chávez’s actions.
David Smolansky is the former mayor of El Hatillo municipality in Caracas, Venezuela. He is currently living in exile and is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University. Smolansky was removed from office by the Maduro administration, disqualified from any public administration role, and has a warrant out for his arrest. He was forced to flee from Venezuela after 35 days in hiding, in which he faced more than 35 checkpoints until he finally reached Brazil. Smolansky is one of the best-known young Venezuelan politicians, and was a vital member of the student movement that defeated Hugo Chávez’s constitutional reform proposal in 2007. Elected as the youngest mayor in Venezuela, his administration decreased kidnapping rates in El Hatillo, making the municipality one of the most secure and transparent in the country. Smolansky is also a founding member and deputy secretary general of Voluntad Popular, one of the main opposition political parties led by Leopoldo López. In 2015, he was recognized by Junior Chamber International as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World. Smolansky also received the Global Impact Award from Georgetown University in 2018. A journalism graduate from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, he holds a master’s degree in political science from the Universidad Simón Bolívar and participated in the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program at Georgetown University.
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Guaidó, a politician with a degree in engineering, is from Vargas, a coastal state. Leopoldo Lopez, Voluntad Popular’s founder and a well-known political prisoner, has been Guaidó’s political mentor. Earlier in his political career, Guaidó was part of a student-led political movement that protested former president Hugo Chavez’s unsuccessful attempt to change the country’s constitution in 2007. Now known as the “2007 generation,” Guaidó is part of a group that is eager for change, as they have not seen a free country in almost two decades. Learn more
Rayma Suprani is a Venezuelan cartoonist. She graduated in journalism at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and she has worked for various newspapers based in Caracas. From 1995 to 2014 she daily published her cartoons in one of Venezuela’s most important newspaper, El Universal, when she was fired over the political content of one of her cartoons. Also, she was threatened many times for her cartoons, so she had to leave Venezuela and now lives in the United States. Since then, she has continued to create cartoons on daily basis, which she publishes on her website and social media.
Melanio Escobar is a Venezuelan activist, journalist, and technologist working on secure communications and freedom of expression online in Latin America. He is the founder of the NGO RedesAyuda that operates in Latin America and is the director of Humano Derecho Radio Estación. He is a fan of punk ideology, which is why he has used years of experience in the media and the art scene in favor of activism and creative protest, using music as the main driver of his projects.
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Venezuelan Social Movements
Voluntad Popular is a movement of young, creative, combative, efficient, and deeply democratic leaderships, coming from decentralization, different movements of civil society, neighborhood movements, Popular Networks, and the student movement since their ideal is organizing the present from the future generations of their country.