Feb 26 7:00 AM

What’s the context of Venezuela’s street uprising?

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, in white and holding up a flower stem, is taken into custody by Bolivarian National Guards in Caracas on Feb. 18.
AP Photo

Hugo Chavez' Bolivarian Revolution had leveraged Venezuela's enormous oil wealth by selling oil cheaply to Caribbean neighbors, and heavily subsidizing consumer goods for the masses at home.

But recently, the Venezuelan economy has not been performing. At the time of Chavez' death last March, it was predicted that the country would have to devalue its currency, cut back on subsidies, and back off from many of the policies that had won the loyalty of lower-income Venezuelans and the disdain of wealthier citizens.

Many airline carriers have suspended their flights to Caracas, and others won't accept payment for tickets in the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar.

Nicolas Maduro, a vice president who had gradually taken power during Chavez' long battle with cancer, was elected in his own right after Chavez died. Now, after less than a year in charge, Maduro is facing rising opposition from his people. In recent weeks the conflict has turned more violent and deadly.

What’s the context of this conflict?

Who are the rising opposition?

And should the U.S. play a role in the Venezuelan solution?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: What are the immediate causes of the protest?

Alejandro Velasco: Severe social and economic crisis in Venezuela, like really high levels of insecurity, inflation and shortages.

Who are the forces of the opposition?

It is diffuse. It is a historically splintered opposition with radical and moderate sectors. The sectors on the street are students. They mobilized in February in response to insecurity, as a result of overreaction on the part of the state.

There are people calling for La Salida (the exit) — the departure of Maduro — because they fail to recognize the legitimacy of the government. Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has called for building out of opposition to popular sectors — or poorer people. That has not been a strong suit of the opposition. That, of course, takes time. He may be playing the long game. But the radical sectors, represented by Leopoldo Lopez, are advocating more immediate solutions like La Salida. The people on the ground have more diffuse demands. They have to do with a lack of political and economic opportunities; maintaining a right to protest.

It is a historically splintered opposition with radical and moderate sectors.

Alejandro Velasco

New York University

How should this be resolved, and what role should the U.S. play?

What is interesting about these protests is how much there have been calls for cooperation, and Capriles did meet with Maduro relatively recently. Protests put a stop to efforts to talk with one another. There need to be joint efforts to reduce inflation and improve security. At the end of the day, it does not serve the government either. It alienates segments of the population that it might otherwise bring into the fold. Moderates have an incentive to come together, and I see that happening.

The U.S. is in a very difficult position. It has denounced the government while refusing to denounce elements of the opposition. It only fuels skepticism of U.S. intervention in the region. To the extent that the U.S. tries to have a presence, it needs to be extremely light. It cannot be in support of one side or another. That has not been what we have seen, even though statements have been — to their credit — more measured than in the past.

Inside Story: What are the forces driving the unrest in Venezuela right now?

Deborah James: Certainly there are people protesting out of legitimate grievances from some of the economic and crime issues that have been widely discussed. It is important to understand as well that there is a very strong current of people attempting to destabilize the country and to destabilize it to the point of a coup. Some protesters want Maduro to resign. There are people throwing Molotov cocktails to provoke a reaction and use international instruments to force an elected government out of power.

Is the U.S. playing a constructive role?

I don’t think that the U.S. has played a constructive role in Venezuela in 10 years. It is striking that President Obama has called for all protesters to be released. If you have protesters in the U.S. throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, Obama would not want them released. Obviously, not everybody knows circumstances in which everyone is arrested, but still. By contrast, there were massive protests in Colombia against the trade agreement months ago, and there were far more deaths by the government, and the U.S. said nothing. U.S. hypocrisy is unfortunate. Instead, they should urge their allies to dialogue with the government.

It is striking that President Obama has called for all protesters to be released. If you have protesters in the U.S. throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, Obama would not want them released.

Deborah James

Center for Economic and Policy Research

How should this end?

Well, obviously it needs to end with negotiations between protesters and opposition leaders and the government to figure out issues that need addressing. There are different opinions about what is causing shortages and a crime wave, but there must not be an extrajudicial conclusion to this. That would be a huge travesty. It is unacceptable for a minority to force their way on the majority.

Inside Story: Why have there been protests in Venezuela?

Leopoldo Martinez: Why are there ever protests? Economic and social conditions in Venezuela have triggered the spark of a social movement. It shows the surface of what is coming. Inflation is very high. Unemployment, particularly for the youth, is very high. And there is a skyrocketing homicide rate. There is a real deterioration of quality of life in Venezuela.

Do you think there has been violence from some opposition protesters?

Most violence is from collectivos (Chavistas). Look at the death counts: all on the student side. I have not seen any indication that there have been students promoting violence. Have there been violent responses to state violence? That is for investigators to show. But the judiciary has been corrupted and taken over by Chavez.

Economic and social conditions in Venezuela have triggered the spark of a social movement. It shows the surface of what is coming.

Leopoldo Martinez

Ctr. for Democracy & Development in the Americas

How do you think this will end? La Salida or negotiated solution?

La Salida is not what we are talking about here. That could be a cry among the different protests, but Capriles has set forth a constructive agenda. We are promoting a mediated, international, constructive dialogue. Some of our main demands are the release of detainees; neutral, duly appointed judicial appointees (which the government is evading due to the need for a supermajority); and the disarmament of the collectivos.

This panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story.” 

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

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