Photo: Gabriel Méndez
Simón Díaz, one of the main icons of Venezuelan traditional music, died at 85.
Photo: El Impulso
Ipostel suspended shipments abroad because the government failed to pay airlines, and Alitalia, Lufthansa and Iberia, among others, suspended ticket sales while others reduced operations, or simply left the country, like Air Canada. Six newspapers shut down due to lack of newsprint, which the State controlled through the Alfredo Maneiro Editorial Complex, restricting press work. Censorship and self-censorship increased in the use of the internet, cellphones and social networks. During the protests of 2014, episodes of massive detentions across the country spiked and Nicolás even claimed that material losses caused by protests were estimated at $15 billion, bigger than the losses caused by the oil strike in 2002. Although there were talks between the opposition and the government (the only one that was broadcast on TV left chavismo in a bad spot) Nicolás’ refusal to negotiate condemned the exercise.
Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado led La Salida, a political movement that joined the indignation of youth that started expressing itself as university protests in San Cristóbal and, days later, became a movement for social and political vindication, with recurring demonstrations in the country’s main cities.
The events of the Day of Youth were key in escalating the conflict, because the march to the Prosecutor’s Office ended with the murders of Tupamaros’ member Juan Montoya and young carpenter Bassil Da Costa. That night, Robert Redman, one of the men who carried Bassil’s body, was murdered in Altamira. An investigative report showed that SEBIN officers and other unidentified armed men fired against protesters.
The Prosecutor’s Office issued an arrest warrant against Leopoldo López, accusing him of provoking acts of violence and, after a meeting with Diosdado Cabello, López decided to turn himself in to the authorities.
Mayors Daniel Ceballos and Enzo Scarano were also arrested in March.
“Candelita que se prenda, candelita que se apaga”
Nicolás admitted that was his order for colectivos, UbCh, communal councils and communes, because protests were a “nazi-fascist attack.” Conflict escalated and repression reached unprecedented numbers, adding variables that would remain in the official playbook: joint attacks by the GN, the PNB and pro-government paramilitary groups; systematic and disproportionate use of tear gas and rubber pellets; applying cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments against detainees, as well as torture and sexual assault; arbitrary arrests and house raids without a judicial warrant; criminalization of protests; attacks against journalists while covering protests; persecution against opposition, social and student leaders. Public powers supported the excessive and disproportionate use of State security forces. Neither the Prosecutor’s Office nor the Ombudsman’s Office condemned any of these situations.
Everything we know about people killed, wounded, arrested and tried during 2014, we owe to the work of NGOs dedicated to the defense of human rights. Without them, the opacity on this matter would be even greater. What official figures did reveal was that both poverty and extreme poverty increased in the country. Food shortages also intensified and the only idea the regime came up with to reduce queues for food was activating captahuellas to monitor the purchase of regulated products. Medicine shortages sparked protests and severe health issues across the country. The pharmaceutical industry couldn’t produce even at a loss, because they lacked raw materials: the chikungunya epidemic ravished the country, and dengue and malaria cases also spiked. Nicolás claimed that it could be a bacteriological war incited by a foreign power and gave orders to bring Cuban experts on the matter. Venezuela became a member of the UN Security Council, since it was the only country in the region to present a nomination for the post. After almost 10 years in Ramo Verde, commissioner Iván Simonovis was granted temporary house arrest due to his health condition.
The government published in Official Gazette the regulations for the Strategic Center for the Country’s Security and Protection (CESPPA), a body that extended the State’s (military) powers to control information. Diosdado Cabello removed María Corina Machado from her post in the National Assembly, for speaking before OAS while using Panama’s seat. The TSJ endorsed his decision, even though in 2009, Venezuela did the same thing for deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. Machado’s seat passed to her deputy, Ricardo Sánchez. There were important splits within chavismo, with the departures of Jorge Giordani, Héctor Navarro and Ana Elisa Osorio. Nicolás removed Rafael Ramírez from his three most relevant posts, appointing him as foreign minister. Due to the protests of armed colectivos, Nicolás removed Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres from his office, and Vladimir Padrino López entered the scene, while Néstor Reverol became the new chief of the National Guard.
Violence with V for Venezuela
Actress Mónica Spear and her partner were murdered in the first week of 2014 while on the road to Puerto Cabello. Caracas ranked second in the list of the 50 most violent cities in the world and other four Venezuelan cities showed up in the ranking: Barquisimeto, Ciudad Guayana, Maracaibo and Valencia. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence estimated that the year concluded with just about 25,000 murders and a rate of 82 violent deaths for every 100,000 citizens. Between 1998 and 2014, 231,562 homicides were committed in Venezuela, the third cause of death in the country. Crime wasn’t particularly affected by the State’s 21 security plans. On October 1, lawmaker Robert Serra was murdered inside his residence, stabbed nearly 50 times; his assistant María Herrera was also killed. The way the regime handled the whole Serra business was so shady, that it left public opinion with more questions than answers.
Building the default
Chavismo’s economic contraction started long before the drop in oil prices and the default wasn’t caused by foreign debt, but by internal debts with the automotive, pharmaceutical and food industries, with medical suppliers, airlines and telecommunication companies, among others. Chavismo bankrupted the country amidst a oil boom, and the economic issues that were answered with more controls at the time later created other repressed increments, while the BCV multiplied the issuance of Bs. 100 banknotes and refused to issue higher denomination notes.
The financial debt acquired by PDVSA was estimated above $44 billion (it was 15 times smaller in 2006), in addition to the debt it already had with its employees and national suppliers (over $20 billion.) Despite this, PDVSA announced it was issuing new debt bonds for $5 billion which would expire between 2022 and 2024, even though oil output had dropped by 460,000 barrels per day. The company later signed an agreement with Halliburton, Schlumberger and Weatherford to get a $2 billion loan. The government took a bite off international reserves to pay bond debts due in October, leaving them below $20 billion. Ah! Venezuela lost the case against Exxon for Cerro Negro’s expropriation.
The government decreed a 55% nominal wage hike or 64.5% compared to the one in 2013, spread over three announcements: 10% in January, 30% in May and 15% in December. The BCV didn’t publish the rates of key indicators such as inflation, shortages and unemployment. The yearly inflation rate reached 63.4%. The GDP suffered an important contraction and, besides Haiti, Venezuela showed the least economic growth in the last two decades in Latin America and the Caribbean. The BCV’s statement at the end of the year ended with this remark: “Although 2013 and 2014 were years of hardship, 2015 and 2016 will be years of opportunity and development.” Only Aristóbulo Istúriz offered a sincere explanation of FX controls: “Foreign exchange controls are a political measure. If we lift the controls, people will take their dollars abroad and topple us,” although in truth, regime officials had already siphoned those dollars through suitcase companies and preferential rates.