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Venezuelan Government Crisis Unfolds in the Streets

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The Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela, currently led by Hugo Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, is facing the most significant wave of social discontent with its policies in more than a decade.

Over the past six days, daily spontaneous protests across the country have diluted the government’s ability to maintain social order and address the concerns of millions of Venezuelans who oppose its socialist project.

Today, Caracas will be the site of yet another round of political protests. This time, the protests will be far from spontaneous. They will concentrate in two opposing marches that will take city streets simultaneously.

One side will march in defense of Maduro’s regime and against what the government has called “an unfolding coup attempt” against the Revolution. The other side will accompany opposition leader Leopoldo López to the Ministry of the Interior, where López will make a set of demands and probably be apprehended by the State for his supposed involvement in the violence that has shaken the country.

This latest chapter of Venezuela’s divisive political context began on February 12, when the remnants of a peaceful student protest against the government were met by a group of unidentified gunmen in Caracas.

Arriving in pairs on high-power motorcycles, the gunmen opened fire in different parts of the city, killing three people (among them a student and a government loyalist) and causing further political violence that left dozens of people in Caracas wounded.

As usual, the shooters have not been identified, despite a number of videos that have emerged online showing not only the brutal violence that detonated the crisis, but also the faces of the presumed assassins.

Meanwhile, Leopoldo López, who is the founder of the dissident Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, is expected to appear in public today after spending several days in hiding. Last week, after López joined students in the protest that turned violent, Maduro alleged that López was responsible for the dead and wounded, and accused him of committing violence against State institutions and trying to destabilize the country.

López has become the spokesman for a more radical sector of the opposition that hopes to pressure the regime by taking the streets all over the country.

Pressure it toward what? This has become an increasingly pertinent question.

While Maduro blames his most visible adversaries for last week’s violence, his opponents do the opposite. In the past few days, the government has implied that opposition leaders orchestrated the shootings against their own supporters to destabilize the country and eventually topple Maduro’s regime. So far, there is no evidence that proves this grave allegation. 

For its part, citing footage of the violence posted online by local activists, the opposition claims that the gunmen belong to one of many militant groups armed by the government  that are known as “collectives.” These groups are known for appearing in anti-government protests riding motorcycles and brandishing guns and assault weapons to intimidate the crowd. The video footage suggests that this may have been the case, but ongoing investigations have not been conclusive.

The dramatic difference between these two versions of last week’s events illustrates the confusion that is holding the country hostage—confusion exacerbated, no doubt, by a general lack of updated, reliable information about what is currently happening in Venezuela.

As of last week, Twitter and the radio have supplanted televised media outlets as the main source of partially credible news coverage of the situation. But this has not been a spontaneous phenomenon; it is the result of strict government policies regarding the media that have become characteristic of the 15-year-old Revolution.

According to Venezuelan law, the live transmission of political events can be considered a cause of social unrest and anxiety for the population. If the State deems it is so, then the coverage of these events can be punishable by law. In light of these policies and fearing State reprisal, national media outlets have been widely criticized for resorting to a self-defeating strategy of self-censorship to survive.

The media’s fears, however, are not unfounded. Last week, right before the shootings began, the government prevented a Colombian television chain from broadcasting in Venezuela while it provided live, on-the-ground coverage of the march—as any respectable news source would. Maduro called his decision “a matter of State,” but by blocking the channel’s signal, he drew the attention of a now-global audience that is following the crisis.

As the protests continue—at times disjointed and spontaneous—all over the country, today’s march, it seems, will be a moment of reckoning for both sides of the political conflict here.

The government will try to demonstrate that it remains in control of public space in the city and that it has thwarted the so-called “coup attempt” it associates with its opponents. 

Meanwhile, the opposition will try to prove its non-violent intent and challenge the regime with further pressure.

Which brings us back a crucial question: pressure toward what? What does the opposition hope to accomplish by accentuating the social crisis?

The impetus of the recent protests, the allegations of State-sponsored violence, the acts of censorship against the media and the accusations of torture and rape against students detained at the protests have led some to suggest that the opposition will occupy the streets until Maduro resigns or until his government crumbles.

To be sure, the president’s resignation is an option in the Venezuelan constitution for a transfer of power. But is it realistic to think that such a resolution is viable? Is this objective, and the proposed means to achieve it, compatible with a peaceful agenda? Does it betray the basic processes of our ailing democracy?

As the crisis unfolds, these are the issues that chip away at the hard-earned consensus behind the coalition of parties that oppose Maduro’s regime—the same coalition that backed Henrique Capriles’ candidacy in last year’s presidential elections. But the crisis is fracturing forces on both sides of the conflict, as government loyalists begin to question the legality of Maduro’s measures.

Today, both sides will march in the streets of Caracas. What the country wants—what it needs right now—is a viable path toward political dialogue.

Let us be spared further violence.

*Juan Víctor Fajardo is a guest blogger for AQ Online and Venezuelan freelance journalist and photographer based out of Caracas. He is currently working as a consultant on Mercosur issues. His Twitter account is @juanvictorfg.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Venezuelan Protests, Nicolás Maduro, Leopoldo Lopez

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