“Aut Libertas aut nihil.” The message from the Venezuelan students cannot be clearer: “freedom or nothing.” As the events since Feb. 12 have shown, Venezuelans are willing to give their lives for the cause of peace and justice and the “exit” of the President Nicolás Maduro. This is not the first instance of civil unrest in the past decades in which the opposition seeks to oust the regime in power. However, the context of current events is very different to previous ones and in the eyes of the student movements, provides the perfect conditions for a victory.
Nicolás Maduro took power in April 2013 after a less than reassuring victory (less than one percent margin) over the opposing coalition leader, Henrique Capriles Radonski. Maduro, who is not a military officer, gained the support of the PSUV (Chavista Party) as Hugo Chávez chose him to be his successor in the presidency. His government has been characterized by an increase in the participation of the armed forces in governmental duties, and particularly in the application of economic policies through what he calls a “Civic-Military coalition.” And yet, his government has not been able to efficiently manage the economy given the current high inflation, loss of monetary reserves, high unemployment, strict currency exchange controls and product shortages.
The week previous to Feb. 12 consisted of a series of peaceful student demonstrations, which led to the arrest of several protesters in the states of Mérida and Tachira. Students protested the high levels of violence and the poor management of the economy. On Feb. 12, students in several parts of the country flooded the streets to demand the release of the arrested students and the resignation of President Maduro. Since then, protests have intensified and participation has extended to the most important cities and across the socioeconomic spectrum.
In the middle of these protests, the Venezuelan government assures that they are victims of a fascist conspiracy sponsored by the right-wing Venezuelan extremists, United States and Colombia. A possible coup d’etat, which in this case the protesters would justify as a restoration of democracy and constitutional order, rests on the Venezuelan armed forces’ willingness to act. Although Maduro and the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, have kept a strict command over the armed forces, the arrest of General Camacho Rincones on the 25th is not the first evidence of discontent and insubordination among the military. The nature of this movement was truly spontaneous. A few small protests turned into a student-supported movement, which then inspired many other Venezuelans to join the cause of freedom and democracy. However, the spontaneous nature of this movement left no room for the election or sudden rise of one specific leader who can give these protests a clear direction.
From the beginning of the protests, everyone’s eyes, including Maduro’s, turned to the main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who almost defeated Maduro in the presidential elections last April. Capriles has urged students to negotiate their demands with the government, instead of supporting the street demonstrations, a decision that the students did not take as a supportive one and led the students to distance themselves from Capriles. Since then, Capriles has continued negotiations with the regime, expressing his concerns regarding the regime’s policies. Students believe that this strategy is based on the assumption of a democracy and a constitutional government, which, therefore, makes it completely useless. Instead, students argue that they are going to win their freedom back on the streets. All these factors have given a sense of anarchy to the whole movement.
On the other hand, Leopoldo López, former major of Chacao and opposition candidate in the primary elections, encouraged every Venezuelan who believed in the need for a change in the political regime to go out to the streets, where this “struggle belongs and where the necessary strength can be gathered.” López, who has been previously criticized by the student movements, decided to lead the people from the street and to certain degree became the face of this movement. It didn’t take Maduro a long time to issue an arrest warrant for López. On Feb. 18, López turned himself in to the police and is now one of the many detained protesters. This measure, rather than instilling the intended fear, reassured the Venezuelan people’s motivation, which could be argued to be the very same right to protest.
Venezuela’s government has failed to control and effectively respond to the strong discontent of the people. They have applied repressive measures, distinctive of an authoritarian government. The government has made use of armed civilian groups protected by the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) in order to “control” the protests by shooting, brutalizing and torturing protesters. The use of semi-automatic guns, small explosives, plastic bullets and tear gas against protestors has been common occurrence to suppress the protests. The GNB has taken oppressive measures a step further by targeting private residences and buildings in protesting neighborhoods since last Monday.
There is also the strong possibility that those repressing the protesters are not only Venezuelan radical supporters of the regime, but also Cuban militants sent by their own government to aid the Maduro regime. This has raised greater concerns and discontent about the level of influence and infiltration that the Castro regime has in the Venezuelan government, which would be a strong degradation of Venezuelan sovereignty.
Government repression, however, has gone beyond the realm of physical violence. On the 14th, Maduro ordered the ban of the Colombian based news agency NTN24 from Venezuela after presenting “biased” information on the events of that day. Maduro also threatened the international agency, CNN, to either provide a “balanced coverage” of the events “based on respect to Venezuelan laws” or leave the country. NTN24 has condemned these actions and described them as an “attempt against freedom of expression.” As a response and in protest to these actions, several journalists from state-run news agencies have quit their jobs.
On Feb. 17, Maduro ordered three American Embassy officials to leave the country, accusing them of recruiting students to join the anti-regime protests, now the third time Maduro has expelled U.S. officials from Venezuela. This incident, together with the amount of violent repression and the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López has raised concerns in the U.S. government as John Kerry stated: “The government’s use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures, who are exercising a legitimate right to protest, is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence.”
Venezuelans have made a call to encourage the international community to denounce these acts. Although the international attention has been more substantial than in previous Venezuelan crises, the movement has lacked the support from other Latin American leaders. Only the Presidents of Chile, Panamá and Colombia have publicly condemned the Venezuelan governments actions. The politically guarded rhetoric of Brazilian President Dilma Roussef and several others are of no help at all and leaves the doubt as to who they support and as to whether or not these leaders are just trying to maintain the status quo in terms of their dependence on discounted Venezuelan oil prices and recent capital ventures in Cuba.
After two weeks, the intensity of the protests, repression from government and radical groups and general discontent of the Venezuelan people has nothing but strengthened. Venezuelans have realized that this opportunity has risen with the necessary conditions to achieve their goals: a government that lacks the popular support to make repressive measures a sustainable mechanism of maintaining power, an economic crisis that has caused discontent not only in the economic elites but also in every other level of the socioeconomic spectrum and general uncertainty in the armed forces as to whether their loyalty lies with this repressive regime or with the Venezuelan people.
Protests continue, now stronger and larger in numbers. Venezuelans protect their neighborhoods with barricades from Maduro’s guns and bombs, pots and pans clatter through cities, casualties increase day by day but it seems that no one is going back to their homes until they find the Venezuela they went out looking for.