Oil prices' relentless drop deepens political turmoil in Venezuela, stirs social unrest

Beatriz Silva, 74, with a sign that reads "In Venezuela there's nothing" during a protest on Aug. 8, 2015, in Caracas.

Beatriz Silva, 74, with a sign that reads "In Venezuela there's nothing" during a protest on Aug. 8, 2015, in Caracas.

Most supermarkets in Venezuela are guarded these days by military personnel and police officers, who keep an eye on the snaky lines and make sure customers enter the stores according to their ID numbers, as required by the government.

The sight of uniforms guarding food supply centers seemed to multiply after the first week of August, when acts of looting were registered in at least seven points across the country.

This ironclad control is part of the strategy with which the government is trying to preserve order in the midst of the worsening crisis now affecting all of Venezuela. According to the latest poll by local firm IVAD, 92.8 percent of those questioned said they encounter problems finding basic goods such as food or personal hygiene products.

And the news coming from the other side of the globe only makes it worse — these acute shortages are directly linked to the drop of oil prices worldwide.

Local firm Ecoanalitica estimates that Venezuela will lose $753 million for each dollar the average oil price falls in 2015. (In the first nine months of 2014, 94.7 percent of Venezuela’s income in dollars came from oil sales.)

This explains why the government simply doesn’t have the cash to import food, medicines and other basic products that citizens demand. As the oil prices keep plumbing, the economic situation hits harder and harder across the country.

Venezuela’s barrel price is now $39.6, down from $54 at the end of 2014 and $96.1 in the first trimester of last year.

“The prices already are low enough to trigger political turmoil in countries with economies that depend heavily on oil exports, like Venezuela and Ecuador in Latin America,” said Félix Gerardo Arellano, internationalist and professor in Venezuela’s Central University, UCV.

In the rest of the world, Nigeria and Iran are among the most vulnerable.

The expert told Fox News Latino that Venezuela’s situation is worse because the crisis is deepened by corruption and the socialist controls the government started implementing in the last decade.

“The government right now needs over $100 for each barrel to work properly. The prices might rebound in the near future, but they will not get close to that level,” Arellano warned FNL.

As the crisis worsens and confidence in President Nicolás Maduro keeps dropping, one of the main concerns is the threat of social unrest and deadly violence.

Inti Rodríguez, a member of local NGO Provea, that monitors protests daily, is worried about the possibility of a serious social unrest.

“The biggest problem right now is uncertainty. Every time people find it harder to find products [they need], and they don’t know when they will find it again,” said Inti Rodríguez, a member of Provea, an NGO that monitors protests daily.

“That triggers chaos and fights over the goods,” he said.

In the first semester of 2015, Provea counted 56 acts of looting and 76 attempts of looting countrywide. “This are not planned actions, they occur spontaneously in [the supermarket] lines,” added Rodríguez.

Two people have been killed in lootings so far this year, one in Margarita, in the east of the country, and one in Bolívar, in the south. In social media there have also been numerous reports of food trucks looted right on the highway, typically after a crash or a mechanical failure.

According to IVAD numbers, 10 percent of Venezuelans now fear the possibility of significant social unrest in the near future.

To prevent this from happening, Rodriguez said, the government is doing three things: occupying critical areas with military forces, criminalizing dissent through different laws, and spreading fear through arrests.

“Last weekend, five people were detained for booing the Tourism minister and the governor of Falcón,” he told FNL.

Professor Arellano doesn’t rule out the possibility of social unrest and/or an important loss for the government in December’s legislative elections. But also says the government could very well succeed if it keeps controlling unrest with the use of force.

“In Cuba people have been controlled for over 50 years,” Arellano said.

“What we can expect for sure is an increase in the authoritarian ways of the government. Every day the country is farther away from being a democracy,” he added, echoing what a majority of Venezuelans already think — according to the IVAD August poll, 68.3 percent said the government is becoming a dictatorship.

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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