Venezuela unrest energizes opposition

Analysis: Protesters fill the streets of Caracas, but their narrow middle-class message is limiting their reach

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez holds a national flag as he addresses thousands of supporters during a demonstration on Feb. 18 in Caracas, shortly before turning himself in to the police.
Cristian Hernandez/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Before Leopoldo Lopez, the Harvard-educated economist who has vaulted to the forefront of Venezuela’s anti-government unrest, turned himself in to the police on Tuesday, he recorded a video egging on the largely middle-class, student-led protest movement that has poured into Venezuela’s public squares every day for the past few weeks, calling for the country's president, Nicolas Maduro, to resign.

"Today more than ever, our cause has to be the exit of this government,” said Lopez, seated beside his wife in the video that he instructed to be released upon his arrest. "The exit from this disaster, the exit of this group of people who have kidnapped the future of Venezuelans, is in your hands. Let's fight.”

Lopez, the leader of the opposition Popular Will party, faces charges of fomenting unrest after protests he called for turned violent last week. Four people were killed, including one government supporter, and dozens were injured. Whatever his fate, the movement Lopez helped spark to unseat Maduro seems to constitute the most significant threat to the socialist Chavista administration since a 2002 coup attempt briefly ousted then-President Hugo Chavez from power.

Maduro, the chosen successor of Chavez, assumed the presidency when Chavez died on March 5, 2013. A month later, Venezuelans elected Maduro by a narrow margin over moderate opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Almost immediately, Maduro came under fire for the country's foundering economy, its high crime rate and a crackdown on dissidence in the media.

"I've hardly been in office for 10 months, and for 10 months this opposition has been plotting to kill me, topple me," Maduro said after Lopez turned himself in. "For how long is the right wing going to hurt the nation?”

Despite presenting a broad list of complaints, the opposition is aware that unseating Maduro is probably unachievable in the short term. The president retains the support of at least half the population, analysts say, and as the violent crackdown on protesters shows, Venezuelan security forces remain loyal. 

"The armed forces will always be on the side of justice and development of the fatherland," Defense Minister Carmen Melendez said. "Every act of violence takes us back to intolerance.”

Yet for the past few weeks, thousands of opposition protesters dressed in white have met with red-clad Chavistas — supporters of Chavez’ so-called Bolivarian revolution, a socialist project that sought to transform Venezuela and rectify endemic poverty — in the streets of the capital, Caracas. The opposition has rallied behind a slogan popularized by Lopez and fellow opposition leader Maria Corina Machado, “la salida” (the exit), in calling for Maduro to step down immediately. 

“They've been energized in a way they haven't been energized in the past several years, and they have a leader now in Lopez,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America, who lives in Caracas. WOLA is a nongovernmental organization that works to promote social and economic justice.

As protests spread across the country, violence has followed — sporadically. The opposition accuses the government of a heavy-handed crackdown in the streets and in the media, which has been barred from covering the unrest.

“We have evidence that the police and security forces beat detainees and shot at unarmed protesters. While a few protesters committed acts of violence and vandalism, nothing they did justified this sort of brutal response,” Human Rights Watch’s Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco told Al Jazeera. Dozens of activists have been arrested, and local rights groups have reported a range of police brutality, including against 11 student protesters in the city of Valencia who were stripped naked and beaten.

The situation in Venezuela’s restive cities is fluid, multifaceted and rather opaque. The opposition itself is split between the more radical wing under Lopez and Machado and a moderate one under Capriles, who has led the opposition for two years now and has called for an end to the current violence. On the other side, pro-government Chavista militias called “colectivos” — which Maduro has condemned — only add to the chaos by intimidating or attacking protesters with apparent impunity.

The roots of the current unrest predate Maduro's ascent to power. In late 2011, the Chavez administration passed an antiterrorism law that widened the government’s capacity to crack down on political dissidents, say activists who feared the erosion of democracy.

The Maduro government has taken advantage of the open-ended rules to investigate television channels and radio stations, imposing fines of up to $2 million. The law, implemented to stifle protests over the past two weeks, has inadvertently stoked the anti-Maduro fire.

For several days now, the president has ordered pro-government news stations to broadcast soap operas or other benign programming. He also forced NTN24, a Colombia-based cable news channel with regional Latin American reach, off the air for “misinforming” the public.

“They’ve gone after news outlets and human rights groups in the past, but this is one of the most aggressive efforts we've seen from them to date to discourage, and even block, reporting on what's going on in the country,” Vivanco told Al Jazeera.

Economic woes are also in the spotlight. Venezuela’s oil reserves — among the world’s largest, according to a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study — have failed to invigorate the economy because of underinvestment and operational problems. Many fear that the collapse of oil-funded welfare programs, which have helped prop up the Chavistas, could be imminent.

In November, Maduro was granted the right to sidestep parliament and rule by decree for one year, purportedly so that he could better tackle the country's steep inflation rate.

In Caracas, Smilde told Al Jazeera that he heard protesters rail against “Cuba-style dictatorship” as speakers promoted traditional middle-class messages. But, he added, the opposition will need to do more to expand its support base.

“If you listen to Lopez’ speeches, there’s been no effort to reach out to disgruntled Chavistas, and no effort to reach out to Venezuela’s poor. The message is simply that this government is corrupt, and we represent what is good.

“It's a little hard to figure where that’s going to lead them because that base, numerically, will be lucky to get to 40 percent of the population,” he said.

The longer term might be a different story. Smilde said the current mass mobilization can be viewed as a step taken by the opposition to position itself for a time when other factors make Maduro especially vulnerable — like an acute economic collapse or even a overstep in cracking down on the opposition in the coming weeks.

If nothing else, the opposition over the past weeks has demonstrated its capacity to mobilize against the government and enliven its constituency. Now it will have to broaden it.

With wire services

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