BY JOSE FRANCISCO MUCI
The wave of protests and civil unrest that is sweeping over Venezuela began on February 4th in San Cristobal, a city in the state of Táchira. That day, university students gathered to demand improvements on campus security after a case of sexual assault went unresolved. Police forces tear gassed the protest and arrested two students.
Outraged youths showed up in greater numbers the next day to defend their right to protest and demand improved campus security. The students were once again suppressed by tear gas, and several more were arrested. Every day, more students and universities join the protest movement. In a way no one could have predicted, the cycle of protest and police crackdown quickly snowballed into a nationwide phenomenon.
On February 12th, demonstrations were organized all over the country by opposition leaders calling for the resignation of Maduro. While some of these protests went smoothly, many were violently repressed by military personnel and paramilitary groups called colectivos. Several unarmed protesters were shot in the head. Hundreds were detained and wounded with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Raw footage that captured the atrocious human rights violations made it onto social media platforms and fueled subsequent protests.
Leopoldo Lopez, a prominent opposition leader, turned himself in to authorities on February 18th on highly controversial charges. He is being held in jail. Lopez wagered that his politically motivated arrest would incite further outrage and protests in the country. And he was right. Major protests are still organized by opposition leaders and students every day, with no signs of stopping. Lopez became an opposition martyr.
Instead of attending the causes of the unrest and making concessions, president Maduro doubled down on the revolutionary rhetoric and endorsed violent paramilitary groups on national television. Government officials have minimized the demonstrations and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcries. The brutal repression of peaceful protests and the tactless way in which the government has dealt with them has only served to make protests bigger.
Disregard for the civil and human rights of Venezuelans is only one of the government’s sins. Considering that it is still financing the fiscal deficit with inorganic money for the central bank and that the Just Prices bill was passed, it’s reasonable to expect inflation will surpass last year’s 56% this year and that the scarcity of staple goods will hit critical levels. That means one thing: protests will get bigger.
Maduro is in a bind. He can do one of three things to fare through this crisis. First, betray the legacy of Hugo Chavez and implement radical economic and social reform to quell protesters and hope the economy normalizes. Second, give up the democratic facade and employ severe authoritarian measures to silence protests by force. Third, give in to the pressure and resign. With every passing day, it seems like Maduro favors the authoritarian route.
So far, 22 people have died, hundreds have been injured and over 1,200 have been detained. If the government continues on this route, its popularity will continue to decline and the political project that was Chavismo will become increasingly unfeasible.
Venezuelans have countless things to complain about—the country has regressed to a veritable third world status. Focused policy measures here and there could patch up specific problems but it won’t be enough for genuine systemic change. Only one thing will normalize the economy, reestablish independent powers and fix the government—a complete overhaul of the current administration, a regime change. That is what the opposition ultimately aims to achieve.
While important developments have been taking place in Venezuela, international media has focused on Ukraine. Latin American governments have turned a blind eye to the atrocities being committed by state police and the gradual erosion of democracy. Venezuela is for the most part alone in its fight for freedom.
Imae via Jorge Silva / Reuters.