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Matter of Interest

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY (15:31): I rise today to speak and raise awareness of the current situation in Venezuela. In 1999, Venezuela elected a new president, Hugo Chavez, who drastically reformed the country's economy. Being one of the biggest oil-rich nations in the world, high oil prices meant that Chavez could redistribute wealth and reduce poverty through a number of government funded programs which provided medical care, education, food and housing to the nation's poorest.

Upon his death in 2013, his successor Nicolas Maduro has attempted to continue these nationalised programs. However, long-term government mismanagement of oil facilities has resulted in a dramatic decline of oil production. Combined with the reduced price of oil globally, this has seen Venezuela go from one of the world's richest countries to having the worst economic growth and inflation.

Poverty has spiralled out of control with 80 per cent of the population living in poverty. In the past five years, the national currency has lost 99.8 per cent of its value, with $100 in 2012 now worth a measly 20¢. High demand has seen food become the biggest commodity on the black market. People cannot gain access to even basic medical supplies, and in the past year three quarters of the adult population have lost an average of eight kilograms due to the lack of food.

President Maduro's popularity has fallen, which has resulted in him trying to tighten his grip to retain power. President Maduro has been accused of trying to establish a dictatorship by gaoling opposition leaders and calling for a vote to amend the constitution to establish a Constituent Assembly. Currently, Venezuela's unicameral parliament is controlled by the opposition, and it is feared that a newly formed Constituent Assembly could be stacked with the President's supporters.

Adding to the controversy, on 29 March the country's Supreme Court announced that it would be taking over the National Assembly, which resulted in there being no separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. The justification for this move was that the National Assembly had allegedly ignored previous rulings from the Supreme Court and the Assembly was therefore in contempt.

Although this decision was later revoked, the damage had been done. The decision on 29 March was the final straw for much of the population, and the country has seen daily demonstrations against the government ever since. These protests often result in violence, as the military, which supports the government, have taken a heavy-handed approach to protesters, with the newly deposed head of the National Guard being charged with violating the human rights of protesters. Since March, 120 people have died and thousands more have been injured in the protests.

Hundreds of opposition supporters have been gaoled with no indication of when they will be released. The recent occurrences in Venezuela are really something beyond imagination. On 27 June, a police officer stole a helicopter and fired at several government buildings as part of an anti-government protest. On 6 July, the military stormed parliament, set off fireworks inside the building and beat politicians with weapons. In early July, the country's deputy attorney-general snuck into the Ministry of Justice in search of evidence of opposition corruption by hiding in the boot of a car. These actions really beggar belief.

On 16 July, the opposition organised an unofficial referendum to gauge the opinion of the Venezuelan people on the president's suggestion to establish a constituent assembly. This vote was organised in a few short weeks and attracted 7.5 million votes, including about 4,000 from Venezuelans living in Australia. The result was overwhelming against any change; however the government have ignore the outcome.

On 30 July, the country held a vote to establish a constituent assembly. While the result of this vote was in favour of the government, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and the United States have all rejected the results of this election given the undemocratic manner in which the election was held and that the opposition boycotted the vote in protest. In the wake of the election, opposition leaders have been seized and gaoled and protests continue. The Venezuelan government seem to be ignoring millions of their people and unfortunately a peaceful resolution does not appear to be on the horizon.