In recent years it is estimated that over 2 million people have fled Venezuela. The only other major event that is comparable to this massive displacement of people is the crisis in Syria. What is causing this crisis and why is social media important to activists and citizens across Venezuela?
Many Venezuelans have gotten used to living with hardship. Food shortages, power cuts, unemployment, lack of basic medications and escalating deliquence and violence are only some of the day-to-day calamities that many have to face.
Corruption, autocracy and poor economic planning has brought the oil rich country (one of the richest in the world in oil resources) to the brink of complete economic collapse with inflation currently the highest in the world (by far, no other country is even in the same league on this metric).
The government of the late Hugo Chavez came to power over twenty years ago promising huge reforms in the unequal but oil rich country. The Chavista reforms were largely funded by oil revenue but as corruption has gone rampant, and oil prices have gone down, his predecessor Nicolas Maduro is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain legitimate power. Add to this a legacy of autocracy and censorship that was already well on its’ way back in the days of Hugo Chavez and you have the prologue to the current chaos. As protests rose across the country in 2014-2015, the government turned increasingly violent and repressive. Also, reforms and laws were introduced that profoundly challenge the traditional republican division of powers. As a result, more and more power is being concentrated to the executive branch of the Presedential power. The democratic and economic foundations of the society are deeply shaken by this development.
Over the the last couple of years the above has caused Venezuelans to flee their country in massive numbers; mainly via the border crossing with Colombia and Brazil, upon which they are dispersed across South America to Peru, Chile, Argentina and beyond.
As the situation in the country has gone from bad to worse the autocratic government of Nicolas Maduro has become more and more agressive towards their political opponents whereever they find them. Reporters without borders considers that Nicolas Maduro’s government “…does its’ outmost to silence independent reporters…”.
Censorship of free press, and control of media has been a objective for the government and increasingly the free press is becoming less and less prominent.
Considering the severe problems that the policy of the government is causing it is perhaps understandable that they wish to take control of how the crisis is portrayed.
With hyperinflation and shortages across the country making it difficult to buy enough food and find basic medications the government feels threatened by potential public outrage over a crisis that is largely caused by their failed economic policies.
As a result Social Media activity is growing in Venezuela as it has become an increasingly important source of information for those who are part of the opposition.
Social media and online press
As the government have largely taken over the printed press in the country most journalists and other activists who are critical of the government have moved online.
Social media, online newspapers and other platforms such as Twitter becomes a means by which information about the political situation of Venezuela can be spread home and abroad. But apart from a direct reaction to the repressive policies of the Maduro government (the press moving online) we are also seeing a tendency towards what is sometimes referred to as cyberactivism 2.0 by Sandoval & Garcia (2014).
Mainly what is happening is that the social media platforms goes beyond being a mere tool for the spread of information and organisation of, for instance, protests but rather becomes an integrated part of the protest itself. Meaning: the activism does not only happen in the street as a result of cyberorganisation but rather is the activism online and offline one and the same. Increasingly, perhaps this make sense as online/offline is becoming increasingly blurred with internet access 24/7 through Smartphone becoming more and more normal across diverse parts of the world.
But in the face of severity of the Venezuelan crisis social media is not just about freedom of press – activism increasingly becomes about huminatarian aid as people desperately seek medicine, food and other basic goods necessary for survival.
the future of the crisis
Social media might end up having a key role to play in the eventual change in Venezuela. But perhaps more because of what Venezuelans outside the country are doing rather than those activists inside. As people spread their stories of having left the country and doing better in neighbouring countries it will become increasingly clear to those still in Venezuela that change is required urgently. In my day-to-day activities in Peru I meet a lot of Venezuelans who have fled. Most of them describe the situation as critical, but they have faith that sometime in the future things will go back to normal. However, most of them look down and add that it is probably going to take many, many years for this to happen. In the meanwhile – social media becomes a life line for them to keep themselves up to date with what is going on back home.