Why Is Venezuela so Violent?

Mónica Spear seemed to have it all. A former Miss Venezuela, she was beautiful and talented, and her career as a soap-opera actress was on the rise. A few years ago, she left Venezuela looking for broader horizons, and fleeing the crime wave sweeping the nation. She returned home for the holidays and spent the first days of 2014 crisscrossing the country with her British husband and five-year-old daughter, all while faithfully uploading pictures of her trip on Twitter.

On Monday, Jan. 6, Spear's car broke down on the highway near the central city of Puerto Cabello. As they waited to be towed, they were approached by thugs. The details are sketchy, but in the end, she and her husband were gunned down, senselessly murdered. Their daughter was wounded, but survived.

Spear's horrific story is part of a broader trend. Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. The reputable Venezuelan NGO Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia reports that in 2013, there were 24,763 murders in Venezuela, up from 21,600 a year earlier. The murder rate was 79 per 100,000 inhabitants. As a comparison, the rate in Mexico last year was 22 per 100,000 people. (Tellingly, the government does not publish reliable murder statistics.)

The worst part about this problem is that it is only getting worse. In 1998, before Hugo Chávez first took office, there were 19 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Back then, Venezuela was dangerous, but only slightly more so than the average Latin America country, and certainly less dangerous than places like neighboring Colombia. Last year, Colombia's murder rate was 50 percent lower than Venezuela's. (In the photo above, a policeman guards a building shortly after a fatal shootout in Caracas.)

There are numerous explanations for why Venezuela has gotten so dangerous.

Venezuela is awash with guns. The problem, though, is with who owns the guns. No matter where you stand on the gun control issue, even the most conservative, gun-loving person in the world would have to agree that irresponsible gun ownership and complete lawlessness is a dangerous combination.  Many Venezuelans who own guns are engaged in drug smuggling, gasoline smuggling, and other sorts of black market activities -- a fact that only highlights the complete breakdown of law and order. The police force, if at all present, is simply there to be bribed.

The problem is compounded in the justice system. According to the Organization of American States, Venezuela has far fewer prosecutors -- 2.47 per every 100,000 inhabitants -- than a country of its size requires. It also has only 6.86 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, far fewer than it should have, a way below the norm on the continent. In comparison, Chile, a less violent country, has 50.41 judges per 100,000 inhabitants.

And the few judges Venezuela has face enormous pressures to keep people out of jail. Venezuela has one of the most overcrowded, and hence violent, prison systems in the world.

The result is that the justice system has simply stopped working. That is why roughly six out of every ten crimes goes unreported. It is also why few of the crimes that are prosecuted end in a conviction.

In spite of this tragedy, not all Venezuelans accuse the government of being soft on crime. A recent opinion poll showed that while roughly 60 percent of Venezuelans blame the government for the country's electricity crisis, only half blame it for the crime wave.

Venezuela has recently renewed efforts to promote tourism in the country. In one of the saddest ironies of the Spear saga, Ms. Spear's late husband was involved in promoting sustainable tourism in the country through his ownership of a local travel agency. My country indeed offers amazing sights. But when popular celebrities are gunned down for no reason, one has to conclude Venezuela has become completely unsafe for tourists -- or anyone else for that matter.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.



Are Libyans Losing Their Taste for Democracy?

Libya's election commission has announced that the elections for the 60-member strong Constituent Assembly, the body in charge of drafting the country's constitution, will take place in the second half of February 2014 --  months later than planned for in the country's transitional roadmap. By the time the voter registration period ended on Dec. 31, only 1 million voters had registered, accounting for around 37 percentage of the voting population. That marks a significant drop from the 2.7 million registered for the General National Congress (GNC) election in 2012.

The announcement comes as the country faces a fragile security situation, deepening political polarization, and public disillusionment with the democratic process and government institutions. The government is struggling to establish control over its own premises, and its primary source of income, the oil industry, is out of its control, resulting in a looming financial crisis. Meanwhile, just last week the GNC faced a public outcry triggered by its decision to extend its mandate by one more year.

The public's frustration could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly and the constitution-drafting process if voter turnout isn't enough. Furthermore, the Amazigh (Libya's indigenous inhabitants), who represent less than 10 percent of the Libyan population, have decided to boycott the elections due to the lack of sufficient representation and safeguards of their people's rights. The Amazigh have been allocated only two seats out of 60. The Amazigh say that they won't take part in the elections until the GNC gives its members veto power in the pending constitution over issues relating to Amazigh culture and heritage. The Amazigh played an important role during the uprising against the Qaddafi regime, and failure to ensure effective representation of this ethnic minority could do considerable damage to the democratic transition.

According to current figures provided by the election commission, the public's participation in the upcoming elections is going to be alarmingly low. In the 2012 GNC elections, around 35 percent of the registered voters actually cast their vote on Election Day. Groups such as the Amazigh and the federalists are likely to use low turnout rates to dispute the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly and the constitution it would subsequently draft. In order to mitigate the prospects of low turnout, the elections commission has said that it is exploring options to allow citizens to register and vote on the day of the election, instead of restricting voting to registered voters only.

The security situation is another huge concern as armed militias fight for influence and control over the country is fledging institutions. Different competing armed groups will use their power to impose their views on the Constituent Assembly. Islamists militias have already pressured the GNC into holding a vote to declare Sharia law as the source of legislation, an issue that will not be put up for a referendum. This vote came after repeated intimidation by Ansar al Sharia militants in Benghazi and Derna where they declared the government, the GNC, and their forces to be and infidels. Regional militias from Misrata and Zintan, the federalists, and Islamist militias like Ansar al-Sharia will do their best to disrupt the constitution-drafting process as they seek to safeguard their interests and impose their views and agendas on the Constituent Assembly. Quite simply, they have the power and the weapons that enable them to do so. In such an environment, Libya will end up with a constitution written by those who have guns and power.

Libya has entered its third year of its democratic transition. 2013 was a year of stalemate and stasis on all fronts. Instead of working toward reconciliation and fostering a national dialogue, Libya's politicians spent months debating the controversial and polarizing Political Isolation Law, which disbars Qaddafi era officials and employees from holding public and political office. This law has divided the country into winners and losers. As long as it exists, the law will prevent Libyans from working together or achieving any progress towards a democratic and prosperous country.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the politicians in the GNC have set Libya on the wrong path. The constitution-building process will offer Libyans the chance to correct the vector of transition, the chance to choose reconciliation and justice over revenge and retribution. The constitution will offer Libyans the chance to be equal citizens of their country instead of dividing them into winners and losers.

GNC members and active civil society groups and activists must work together to reengage the public with the political process and restore faith in the country's democratic transition. The GNC should reconsider its decision to extend its mandate and adopt many of the initiatives produced by different civil society groups and leading activists, including the replacement of the GNC with a smaller presidential council, which would mean less political polarization and a better decision-making mechanism, or the adoption of the 1951 pre-Qaddafi constitution. Both options respond to the popular demand for change.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.