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Venezuela has been in turmoil over the
control of the established government and its repression of the people of
Venezuela from the day it declared its independence in 1810. Today, protests of
every kind from peaceful to fatally violent have been rising up against the
government of President Nicolás Maduro. The protestors fight for their
constitution, the health and wellness of their people, and against the
government’s suppression. Both sides have had their share of injuries and
victories, weapons and defense, but figures such as Wuilly Arteaga, a
violinist, and Neomar Lander have become symbols for the protestors and reason
to continue the fight. As of July 22, 2017, there have been 90 casualties and
3,000 arrests, yet the protestors continue to fight for their constitution,
food, and medicine. i

This is the state of Venezuelan society. The
frustrations of the people are ultimately rising up in protest against their
rights that have been long ignored, despite revision after revision of
government and constitutional law. Though this crisis-ridden country broke away
from colonialism extremely early compared to its neighbors, Venezuela has found
itself unable to throw off oppression and rise into the modern world of civil
rights and liberties. Despite revisions in government, social
progress in Venezuela has been stunted by irresponsible leaders, inefficient
democratic government, lack of trust in the democratic process, and a long history
of destabilized leadership that has led to the riots of Caracas.

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From
the early colonial period, when the region now known as Venezuela was
discovered, to its declaration of independence and the governmental rule that
followed, Venezuela struggled to rise up as a considerable part of the world
due to outside pressure. In the early 1500s, the new world was being explored
and claimed and colonialism and imperialism were reigning over those regions.

Spain’s control of the region known as New Grenada, which would later split
into multiple nations, including Venezuela, was not firm and lead to a lack of
order. In the first several decades of Spanish colonialism in the Venezuelan
region, the Spanish immediately found wealth in the harvesting of pearls along
the coast and adventure in the search for El Dorado.ii When
both these pursuits were exhausted, Spanish interest in the region
disintegrated. In the early colonial period, up until the late 1700s, Venezuela
was viewed as a region without mineral wealth or structured native groups,
flaws that caused Spain to disregard it entirely.iii There
was little intermarrying of the Spanish with the natives and therefore, Spanish
ties to and military presence in the Venezuelan region were not incredibly
strong. The weak ties between the peoples contributed to growing racism and
conflicts of class and social status. iv  Without firm governance by Spain, Venezuela
was generally forgotten and left to its own devices which resulted in flaring
tensions between the two peoples inhabiting the region. Germans soon entered
the country with the desire to mine minerals, by the permission of the Spanish
government, but they did not bring any stability to the area and merely
searched in one portion of the land before moving on to the next.v Without
towns and trading posts to create economic structure and stability, the native
and Spanish regions remained entirely fragmented and tense. The little economic
stability that existed was dependent upon poor crop growth and animal breeding.vi The
farmers and their products were of little interest to a Spanish nation bent on
wealth and riches. These unstable relations with Spain and lack of law and
regulation brought about a gap in governmental understanding that caused
Venezuela to fall to dictatorship soon after declaring its independence. The
lack of economic stability and unity also brought about that same fragmentation
after independence was declared.

In
1810, Venezuela officially declared its independence and in 1812 it drafted the
first of many constitutions. The struggle for Venezuelan independence was a
bloody one and entirely a product of racial and class struggles from the mid 16th
century to the early 18th.vii The
Venezuelan War for Independence was essentially the accumulation of pent up
social and racial rage. Ellner states that many revolutionaries were of
non-white heritage and lower-class status who repeatedly marched to the phrase
of “death to the whites,” a clear indication of the social situation in
Venezuela at the time.viii Such
anarchy brought about an instability in the country during this time, but also
after its independence was achieved, which contributed to an instability and
lack of social reform that many of the revolutionaries appeared to desire. The
constitution of Venezuela became the model for Venezuelan democracy as
envisioned by Simon Bolivar. Its statements hold to an ideal of separation from
Spain and unity of the provinces, while casting off racism and class
separation.ix Despite
the high vision for Venezuelan politics and society, the lack of stability left
behind by Spain and Germany made it a difficult ideal to put into action, and
soon the country fell to dictatorial leadership.  

Immediately
following the freedom declaration from Spain, dictatorships arose to fill the
power vacuum left by Spain and later Simon Bolivar. José Antonio Páez seized power
first and brought about a great deal of corruption without ensuring that a
stable electoral government was built.x The
result of Páez’ leadership was a legacy of corruption that left the government
in shambles for the next power-hungry dictator to take the reins. Guzmán Blanco
was another major leader of the early era of Venezuelan politics and left
behind a similar legacy as Páez. However, he also promoted a new sense of
national pride, accompanied by governmental education and protection of
sovereign borders, all of which promoted unity and stability, though not reformation.xi Both
these regimes paved the way for future unrest and instability brought on by
other national leaders; however, some elements of their dictatorships were
beneficial to the nation and remain a part of Venezuelan society today.

Unfortunately, internal struggle and grasps for power were not the only factors
that contributed to the lack of social reform.

As
the social situation and politics of Venezuela progressed into the 20th
century, similar issues pervaded the nation as new leaders and forms of
government were enforced and then displaced. The grip of dictatorship brought
about an enduring instability and frailty on the part of the Venezuelan government
in the long term and stunted social reform on a massive scale. Gomez, dictator
of Venezuela for 26 years, brought about the vast separation of labor and of
wealth fragmented the country at the time of his rule and ensured a further
division between the citizens of the country. xii This
brought the reform and movement of Venezuelan society and economics to a
grinding halt. His rule entrenched the separation between rich and poor to a
much greater extent which set back the early social reforms of the 19th
century. The Gomez also used his power to allow himself to stay in office for a
greater number of years in order to “protect” the nation from the numerous
militant groups who were rising against him.xiii Political
restraint and lack of freedom also restricted the movement of reform in both
social and political areas. In this way, the division of classes was more
pronounced as the wealthy bought into or were bribed into the power of the
dictatorship. In other areas, terror, rather than bribery was the tool that
kept those of lower status in check.xiv The
use of such forceful and corrupt methods ensured that the Venezuelan people
remained under the thumb of harsh regimes and encouraged them to abandon ideas
of social reform. With social liberties trampled upon it became increasingly
difficult for the people to speak against the oppression they remained under. Only
a major upset of governmental tradition allowed for a trial of democracy.

Despite
the flaws of numerous leaders and struggles brought on by changes in
government, improvements in the lives of the citizens have slowly come to
light. High levels of poverty and low literacy rates pervaded Venezuela until
the 30s and 40s when the grip of Gomez’s dictatorship vanished. xv The reign
of dictatorship in Venezuela was not ultimate, and shifts within government
allowed for the trial of a democratic model.xvi Briefly
afterward, in the light of democracy, literacy increased, acts of free speech
spread and were accepted, and protections for farmers were enacted, as well as
the spreading of the oil wealth throughout the population.xvii Though
these strides appeared small to the world, within Venezuela they were
revolutionary and became a major step in the slow march toward equality and
social liberty.

Unfortunately,
the democratic system was not perfect and its pervading conflict was rampant
corruption, brought on by previous regimes, that entangled its politicians.

With the massive production and exports of oil within the country, politicians
took bribes and made deals that were not only detrimental to the people but
also to the democratic system itself. xviii Little
regulation was set in place to protect the system from misuse and corruption
and thus politicians used the system to their personal advantage which
destroyed the stability it would have brought to the country. Naturally, the
rampant corruption of the democratic system promoted the lack of inherent trust
that this form of government would deliver the social and economic results the
citizens desired. xix
Without the people’s trust in the system, it lost a great deal of its
viability, destabilizing the fragile state of order even further; however, it
gave the populace a taste of some rule by the people that would later influence
Venezuelan politics. The trial of Democracy fell hard against corruption and
mistrust and again caved to dictatorship in 1948, which began the era of
modernization for Venezuela.

As
the world marched steadily into the modern era, Venezuelan leaders attempted to
keep up with the swift progression of modernization using dictatorial means. Beginning
in 1948, dictators became obsessed with the concept of entering the modern age.

Building projects and the renovation of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela,
brought about the image of Venezuela as a modern state and a great deal of
approval from the world and the wealthier citizens of Venezuela.xx Social
and economic reform nationwide were ignored for the image of a modern state,
which elevated the already wealthy and brought the middle and lower classes to
a new level of destitution. The idea of Venezuela’s image to the world became
very important to its leaders and during the 1950s, photography of the new
landscapes was in high demand to represent the new and improved Venezuela to
the world.xxi
The obsession with modern image falsified the state of the Venezuelan populace
and trampled down the rights of the people as the appearance of the country was
a modernized state.

The
21st century was the beginning of a new era for Venezuela, one ruled
by Chavez, a highly debated leader who enacted changes upon Venezuela’s social,
economic, and political situation. This era brought about positive reform but
also negative changes. In the time of Chavez, the Bolivarian Revolution took
place and attempted to bring about social reform in the area of health care and
the status of women. The Bolivarian Revolution focused a great deal on medical
care reform for the entirety of the population which developed wide popularity.

The previous constitution of the Caldera regime created the idea of free and
available health care in Venezuela, but Chavez’s government enhanced the
infrastructure, availability, and range of open medicinal care in the country.xxii Social
change for women also became more prominent during the early 21st
century. The new constitution of 1999 integrated some concerns of the women of
Venezuela including suffrage, equal opportunity, pensions, and political
participation.xxiii
These few changes to the constitution did not guarantee they would be enforced
but it gave the people the hope that their situation was changing. With the
written changes, the people now had a document to reference and an ideal to
strive for in their struggle for social change. Though this reform was
beneficial to Venezuela, Chavez’s rule was highly controversial.

Chavez
was a populist authoritarian dictator who held a firm grip on the nation and
halted democracy, which did not contribute to ongoing and future stability of
the nation. His wild popularity among the poor of Venezuela was a factor in his
success, but despite the reform, he did not ensure that it would continue after
his regime ended.xxiv
Chavez’s rule over Venezuela may have brought about some much-needed social
reform for women and the country’s health care system, but it did not provide
enough political structure for the people of Venezuela to take charge of their
country and maintain those important changes. The void left by previous failed
governments was filled by Chavez who used some of his influence for change but
also for his own ends. His hold on the country did not allow for a
representative democracy to take root, and thus, the few reforms he
accomplished disintegrated as his rule abruptly ended with his death.

The
ongoing struggle and absence of sustained social reform in Venezuela today is
the accumulation of centuries of instability in government and absence of firm
social progress. Though some regimes and experimental forms of government were
successful at certain points in time, they did not lay a firm groundwork for a
continuation of that stability. The lack of freedom and basic human rights is a
result of that ongoing failure to maintain basic political stability based on
democracy that acts on the will of the people. From Spain, to Chavez, to Maduro, stability and democracy have been absent
from the infrastructure of Venezuelan politics and have therefore hindered
progression of the rights and social reform the constitution of Venezuela was
based on in 1812. Substantial social change and the establishment of liberties
can only be accomplished by dedicated rulers who put aside corruption and greed
to institute those improvements that will benefit the people. And ongoing
change is the product of the fervent desire of the people to fight for it, hold
on to it, and declare that it will not be taken from them.

i Meridith Kohut, “The Battle for Venezuela, Through a
Lens, Helmet and Gas Mask,” New York
Times, July 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/22/world/americas/venezuela-protests-maduro.html?partner=bloomberg (September 5, 2017).

ii
Daniel Hellinger, Venezuela: Tarnished
Democracy (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc, 1991), 15-6.

iii Steve Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon (Boulder,
CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008), 20-1.

iv Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics, 20-4.

v Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics, 21-3.

vi Hellinger, Venezuela:
Tarnished Democracy, 16.

vii Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics, 28-9.

viii Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics, 24-30.

ix Venezuela, Interesting
official documents relating to the United Provinces of Venezuela. In Spanish
and English, London: Longman and co, 1812, http://find.galegroup.com/mome/infomark.do?=gale=MOME=pull21986=T001=U3608790635=multipage=MOMEArticles=1.0=FASCIMILE (accessed October 30, 2017).

x Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics, 30.

xi Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics, 30-2.

xii Hailey Foster, “Venezuela Rising
from Static Rule,” New York Times, July 16, 1944, https://search.proquest.com/docview/107018986?accountid=14902.

xiii Brian S. McBeth, Dictatorship
and Politics: Intrigue, Betrayal, and Survival in Venezuela. (Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame, 2008), 56-7.

xiv Foster, “Venezuela.”

xv Foster, “Venezuela.”

xvi Ellner, Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics, 51-64.

xvii Foster, “Venezuela.”

xviii Daniel H. Levine, “The Decline and
Fall of Democracy in Venezuela: Ten Theses.” Bulletin of Latin
American Research 21, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 248-69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3339455.

xix Jennifer L. McCoy and William C. Smith.

“Democratic Disequilibrium in Venezuela.” Journal of
Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 37, no. 2 (Summer 1995):
113-79, doi:10.2307/166273.

xx Blackmore, Spectacular
Modernity, 3-9.

xxi Blackmore, Spectacular
Modernity, 118-20.

xxii Thomas Ponniah and Jonathan Eastwood, ed., The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and
Political Change Under Chavez (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011),
231-2.

xxiii Ponniah and Eastwood, ed., The Revolution in Venezuela, 165-85.

xxiv Ronald D. Sylvia, and Constantine P. Danopoulos, “The
Chávez Phenomenon: Political Change in Venezuela,” Third World
Quarterly 24, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 63-76,
http://www.jstor.org/stable/3993630.

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