against each other — and the stakes are high.
streets again today in the highly polarized South American nation. The
turnout was large and protests remained relatively calm, but tensions
have been on the rise since the Feb. 12 deaths of three people after
demonstrations in Caracas.
Why are Venezuelans taking to the streets?
Venezuela is faced by economic, social, and political challenges:
Inflation is at 56 percent, the currency is rapidly devaluing,
shortages of staples like toilet paper and sugar are plaguing the
nation, and the murder rate is one of the worst in the world. What
started out as roughly two weeks of small, student-led protests
against the Maduro administration has turned into opposition-organized
marches that involve stone-throwing and taunting met by tear gas and
“These are legitimate issues that do need a popular voice and channel
for expression,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy
at the Americas Society in New York. “What makes the protests
particularly volatile is that other avenues to express these demands
have been closed down,” Mr. Sabatini said, referring to the closure of
opposition media over the past several years and the shuttering of
multiple newspapers nationwide more recently due to paper shortages.
What’s at stake for the opposition?
The government issued an arrest warrant last week for opposition
leader Leopoldo López, on charges of inciting protest violence. His
home, office, and other locations were raided in an attempt to take
him into custody, and he ultimately turned himself in to the National
Guard today after speaking to opposition protesters in downtown
“Our youth have no jobs, no future because of this economic model that
has failed,” Mr. López told his supporters. “If they put me in prison,
it’ll wake up the people. That’s worthwhile.”
Some fear López’s role in organizing recent protests against the
government could further splinter an already fragile opposition. De
facto opposition figurehead and former presidential candidate Henrique
Capriles did not support the Feb. 12 protests, which also injured
dozens, and has called for greater engagement and discourse with the
Furthermore, the opposition has a touchy protest history in Venezuela.
Early on in former President Hugo Chávez’s administration, the
opposition was consistently on the streets calling for an end to his
presidency. In 2002, they organized a coup that briefly unseated the
president. Though the opposition leadership is not calling for a coup,
the reputation the group made for itself just over a decade ago may be
haunting it as it vocally pushes back against Maduro’s administration.
Maduro and his supporters frequently bring up the previous coup
attempt, making it difficult for the opposition to separate its
current goals from a more radical past.
“As this movement is increasingly identified with the opposition, it’s
less likely to be a broad popular movement that could include former
Chavistas that are feeling the bite of Venezuela’s disastrous economic
policy,” said Sabatini.
The opposition not only risks losing what sympathy it has nationally,
but internationally as well. MERCOSUR, the South American trade bloc
of which Venezuela is a member, issued a statement over the weekend
condemning all “violence and intolerance that tries to attack
democracy and its institutions, whatever its origin.”
Some believe the protests can give the government the upper hand — and
may already have.
What’s at stake for the Venezuelan government?
This is the first popular, non-electoral challenge to Maduro’s rule.
The attention Venezuela has received over the past week has put
government policies in the national and international spotlight less
than a year after former President Chávez’s death was announced.
Maduro was elected president by a razor thin margin, and the lack of
mandate was a challenge from the start. The visible, vocal
demonstrations by opposition supporters calling on the government to
make changes in Venezuela risk pealing away Maduro supporters, said
Sabatini. There are fears that the government itself could become
“Maduro’s credibility has always hung by a thread,” Sabatini said. If
Maduro doesn’t appear to be in control, it could lead to infighting
The administration has accused the opposition of plotting a coup,
operating a fascist movement, and over the weekend announced the
expulsion of three U.S. Embassy employees for their alleged
involvement with opposition organizing against the government. This is
the third time Maduro has kicked out US officials, a common tactic of
the Chávez administration.
The government is appealing to its more militant base, said Mark
Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research
in Washington. “Maduro’s under a lot of pressure,” from his
supporters, Mr. Weisbrot said.
In the short run, the rhetoric the government uses to characterize the
opposition may be deflecting attention away from many of the protester
complaints. However, if larger-scale violence breaks out, or if it is
traced back to the government, these tactics could backfire.
The government has strong political organization and mobilization
capabilities, but it inherited and continues to implement damaging
economic policies. Short of making any drastic economic changes, many
analysts fear further violence in Venezuela.
Weisbrot believes the opposition doesn’t want to wait years for the
next democratic election, and “there’s no peaceful way to do that.”
“Is there a government in the world that would step down just because
there are a lot of people calling for change?” Weisbrot asks, citing
unrest in Ukraine in addition to Venezuela. “No, it doesn’t happen.
They don’t just resign. There has to be violence.”
But political violence has long been forecast in Venezuela.
“This is the penny that never drops. We always expect this moment
where everything will turn and the government will change course…
and try to build trust and dialogue,” Sabatini said. “But instead, the
government and the country keep stumbling on, and stumbling downward.”