Widespread protests continue for a thirteenth consecutive day in Venezuela as the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, faces increasing criticism—some of it from within his own ranks—for how he has handled the unfolding crisis.
The president’s recent crackdown on the remaining free media in Venezuela and an upsurge of State violence last week have led at least one member of Maduro’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) to criticize the government’s repression of the protesters.
In a radio interview on Monday, the governor of the state of Táchira, José Vielma Mora, an active member of the PSUV, criticized the use of excessive violence against protesters and said that Maduro should release political prisoners from the opposition to ensure peace.
“I am against treating peaceful protests with violence and abuse,” Vielma Mora said. “I support peaceful protests because they help us understand what is happening …Not a single protester has been wounded in Táchira. Not one of them has died.”
On Monday, however, authorities confirmed the death of a protester in Táchira state, which has seen some of the worst repression in the country.
Fifteen people have died so far in less than 13 days of protests across the country. Seven of those killed were shot in the head at political protests.The recent death in Táchira was that of 34-year-old Jimmy Vargas, who fell to his death from the second floor of a building in San Cristóbal city. His family originally reported that Vargas had fallen after being hit in the head with riot control pellets and a canister of tear gas, adding his death to a list of reports of the National Guard acting against unarmed citizens who protest from their apartments. Recent evidence, however, seems to indicate that Vargas fell by accident while confronting the National Guard, which has indeed fired from the street at protesters in buildings who live in other cities. Both of these versions have been reported as true by different media outlets.
Meanwhile, Vielma Mora’s remarks constitute the first time that someone politically aligned with Maduro’s government has publicly recognized the State-sponsored violence that has occurred in the past two weeks. Vielma Mora once held important posts in the late Hugo Chávez’ administrations and participated in the 1992 coup attempt organized by Chávez to topple the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez.
On Monday, Vielma Mora also acknowledged some of the reasons behind the protests. “There are problems in our economy that are real and we cannot hide them,” he said. “There is a foreign currency problem that is real. There are problems of food shortages.”
The governor’s statements are both a source of hope and a source of skepticism for members of the Venezuelan opposition, some of whom have turned belligerent and are barricading roads and major highways.
This weekend, 29-year-old Santiago Enrique Pedroza was killed when militant anti-government protesters strung wire across a road, causing him to slit his throat and crash his motorcycle. On Monday, a group of anti-government activists organized blockades of all Venezuela’s major roads through an online video posted over the weekend even though political parties in the opposition repudiated such actions.
Meanwhile, there are dozens of reports of student torture and at least one allegation of rape against State security forces. At least three students have died after being wounded by the National Guard. Local newspapers report that more than 500 people have been detained for protesting against Maduro.
Evidence of these abuses has appeared online in disturbing cellular phone footage, even as Maduro makes a clear effort to convey that nothing out of the ordinary is happening in Venezuela. He appeared on television last Sunday at a concert organized by the government, where he danced with First Lady Cilia Flores as much of the country followed the burial of 23-year-old student Geraldine Moreno on Twitter and other platforms.
Moreno died from severe brain damage on Saturday after members of the National Guard dispersed protesters at a barricade set up near her home in the city of Valencia. During the dispersal, Moreno was shot in the face at close range with a shotgun round of metal pellets. Venezuelan law strictly prohibits the use of this type of deadly ammunition to control riots and other forms of protests.
The government’s failure to address the violence caused by State security forces has further enflamed the opposition.
“This is not a confrontation between Venezuelans,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who obtained almost half of the votes in last year’s presidential elections. “This a struggle against a regime that does not value the lives of its adversaries.”
Maduro, for his part, has announced plans to launch a national peace conference this week to help diffuse the conflict. Although the president has invited all sectors of society to participate in the discussion, his credibility as a spokesman for peace and national dialogue has been slowly eroding throughout the crisis.
In his recent speeches, Maduro has said that the current upheaval is being orchestrated by the CIA and the U.S. State Department to topple his regime by any means necessary. So far, however, he has not presented conclusive evidence of such a plot—at least none that overshadows the discontentment of a large segment of Venezuelans with how Maduro is running the country.
As of Thursday this week, Venezuelans will be on a national holiday, since Maduro added a day of paid vacation to the regular Carnival weekend—but everything seems to indicate that the protests will continue.
At this stage of the crisis, the opposition in Venezuela faces a legitimate challenge. Opposition leaders must find a way to demand accountability for state-sponsored violence while also developing a plan to ensure that political protests are productive and nonviolent. Yet the constitution does not provide short-term channels for a regime change in Venezuela, except in the event of Maduro’s resignation.
But are we at the brink of that remote possibility? Is Maduro’s presidency at stake?
None of the recent developments in Venezuela seem to pose a real threat to Maduro’s ability to remain in office. The barricade protests that have caused chaos in Venezuela are not directed toward finding a solution, but toward aggravating the conflict.
The real danger is a surge in political violence between two sides of a divided country, where political preferences have become a form of collective identity.
As consensus is being built among a fragmented opposition, student leaders presented a four-point draft agenda on Saturday to demand, among other things, the liberation of their detained peers and an end to human rights violations. This concrete list of demands by the opposition has kept growing, and now has ten points, including the disarmament of government-sponsored “collectives” and the reinstatement of major public authorities.
The draft is a step in the right direction toward avoiding further conflict. As this list of demands develops, defining a real agenda, there will be grounds for future talks and greater clarity about how to move forward.