MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
On this weekend when this nation celebrates its independence, we'll look at another nation living through upheaval. We're talking about Venezuela, where last Tuesday, a police helicopter was used to attack Venezuela's Supreme Court and Interior Ministry with grenades and gunfire. That was the latest and perhaps most bizarre development after months of protests against the government of Nicolas Maduro. This all comes as Venezuelans have been living through triple-digit inflation, chronic shortages of food and medicine. All this in a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia.
To find out more about how Venezuela got to this point, we called Javier Corrales. He's a professor at Amherst College, and he focuses on Latin American politics and economics. I started our conversation by asking him about the helicopter attack last week.
JAVIER CORRALES: It was significant because a lot of people who are watching events in Venezuela want to know whether members of the ruling party are breaking ranks and how exactly the military would respond. So people were trying to figure out, is this a coup, or is this just an isolated incident or maybe even a stunt by the government? Whatever the cause of this incident, it shows that the government is ready to intensify its crackdown, but it also shows that the government does not have complete military control of the situation.
MARTIN: So talk a little bit, if you would, about how Venezuela got to this point.
CORRALES: Essentially, Venezuela, starting in 2003 under the late President Hugo Chavez, introduced a series of policies that anybody who studies these topics would have told you back then were going to lead to where we are now.
MARTIN: Give an example.
CORRALES: Well, perhaps the most important mistake is the introduction of price controls. When inflation started to happen, the government reacted by introducing a series of price controls across many markets - the exchange rate, retail products, labor markets. And this produced a collapse in domestic production.
Companies were not able to sell goods at the price that they needed to sell goods in order to make profits, and so production by the private sector started to decline. And this led to shortages. So that is one example.
MARTIN: Now, I think people who have followed this story, you know, even casually will note that there have been massive protests against the government for months. But that doesn't seem to have made any difference. I mean, the state and local elections have been canceled. Now, there is a scheduled - a July 30 election to change the constitution. Why don't you explain, like, what these upcoming July 30 elections would do, and what's the significance of that?
CORRALES: There are two crises going on in Venezuela. The first one is the economic crisis. Venezuela is experiencing the worst economic situation that we have seen in a country short of being at war. But then, there is the political crisis. Essentially, the government stopped being competitive electorally. The ruling party knows that it cannot win election. It has incredibly low approval ratings. So the government has tried to avoid having competitive elections. It has lost control of Congress, and this presents a problem because it means that it has to find a way to neutralize the actions of the Congress or the National Assembly. So what the government has done is to say, you know what? Let's start from scratch, and let's create a new constitution.
Part of the problem is that the existing constitution requires the government to hold these elections, requires the government to seek approval of a number of laws from Congress. And because the government cannot win elections and does not control Congress, it has decided, well, let's produce a new constitution. So this combination has produced a political explosion in Venezuela, and this is the cause of the more than two months of continued street protests all over Venezuela.
MARTIN: So, Professor Corrales, before we let you go, it's a difficult question because I'm asking you to speculate, but how long is this sustainable in your view?
CORRALES: What has happened is that the government is not providing any dollars for imports to come in. And because Venezuela is an oil state, it essentially only produces oil. The rest of domestic production is non-existent. And so without imports, you don't have food, and you don't have medicine, and this gives you a serious humanitarian crisis.
You know, the question is, the government doesn't care so much about these losses. Think of it in terms of a war. The government will wage this war regardless of the casualties sustained by the other side. And so they have made the determination that we will simply not make a change. We will fight back until the will to protest by the opposition is broken.
MARTIN: That was Javier Corrales. He's a professor at Amherst College with a deep background in Latin American politics and economics. Professor Corrales, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CORRALES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.