Today’s edition of the Spanish newspaper El País carries a photographic essay with vivid images of the anti-regime demonstrations that convulsed Venezuela yesterday. The opening image shows a bloodied student, 24 year-old Basil Alejandro Da Costa, being pulled into a truck by fellow protestors moments after he was shot by pro-government militiamen known as colectivos. Da Costa died of his wounds later in the afternoon.
Two others also lost their lives in the clashes: Neyder Arellano Sierra, another student, and Juan Montoya, a chavista activist from one of the poorer neighborhoods of Caracas. According to Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, between 70 and 80 people were also arrested, although the organizers of the demonstrations are saying that the figure is likely to be much higher.
The demonstrations were not confined to Caracas alone: protestors took to the streets in Barquisimeto, Valencia, Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz, and Mérida among other locations. Nor were they spontaneous: opposition activists have been pushing for demonstrations for several weeks now, rallying supporters around the Twitter hashtag #lasalida–Spanish for “the exit,” which is where the protestors hope President Nicolas Maduro’s regime is headed.
There are few signs of that outcome being achieved. While yesterday’s clashes bring to mind similar student-led protests in Egypt, Ukraine, and, in the wake of that country’s fraudulent 2009 presidential election, Iran, there is no clear indication whether the Venezuelan opposition has either the stomach or the capability for a sustained fight.
In part, that’s because they know that Maduro has few qualms about using his considerable resources–the National Guard, the colectivos, and the chavista-controlled judicial system–against the demonstrations. As the opposition newspaper El Universal reported this morning, armored personnel carriers are being deployed in Caracas and other cities to pre-empt further protests. At the same time, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a faithful chavista, has accused the protestors of trying to foment a coup similar to the one in 2002 that resulted in the temporary removal of Hugo Chavez from office.
The strident tone of Díaz’s remarks was set directly by Maduro himself, who has spent much of the last week warning of a coup. Responding to earlier protests in the run-up to yesterday’s events, Maduro took to state television to declare: “I’ve had enough. You can accuse me of what you want, I am obliged to defend democracy and the peace of the people.” Later in the same speech, he added ominously, “I’m going to look for very strict norms so that anyone involved in these coup-seeking adventures can never participate as a candidate for anything again.” That was a reference to Leopoldo López, the leader of the Voluntad Popular party, who has been barred from running for office on trumped-up charges of corruption. An arrest warrant has now been issued for López, whose current whereabouts are unknown.
The targeting of López is certain to intensify an increasingly fractious debate within the opposition MUD coalition over future strategy. During last December’s municipal elections, the MUD’s declared aim of turning the ballot into a referendum on Maduro’s regime failed to pass muster–although as I wrote at the time, important gains were made, especially in Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chavez, where his brother, Adan, remains governor. Now, with no further elections on the immediate horizon, the MUD is agonizing over whether to endorse additional demonstrations, or whether to hold fire until the next election campaign at the end of 2015.
Henrique Capriles, the longtime leader of the MUD who challenged both Chavez and Maduro for the presidency, has left little doubt regarding his distrust of the protest strategy. While Capriles did join the students in Caracas yesterday, his recent statements have urged caution, reflecting his belief that disillusioned supporters of Maduro can yet be won over to the MUD if they are approached in the right way. On his Facebook page yesterday, Capriles asserted, “NO more violence, it’s obvious that the extremists have an interest in generating it.” Seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics surmise that the barb at “extremists” is directed at both López and the charismatic opposition parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado, another fulsome backer of the demonstrations, as well as toward the chavistas.
Nor can the opposition entirely rule out the prospect of the protests continuing despite the reservations of Capriles. Almost a year after Chavez passed from the scene, Venezuela has been pushed by his successors to the brink of economic catastrophe. The shortage of basic goods has plummeted to a five-year low, while inflation–by the regime’s own admission–has climbed to a whopping 56.3 percent. The knowledge that the currency crisis has actually aided by Maduro by making the price of newsprint prohibitively expensive for opposition news outlets, 12 of which have recently shut down, has bolstered the realization that peaceful resistance has its limits.
However, the response of the authorities to yesterday’s protests underlines the obvious risks of pursuing a path that can easily turn violent. Additionally, the opposition knows only too well that it can expect, at most, qualified rhetorical support from more moderate Latin American leaders as well as the United States, where the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to start a dialogue with Maduro.
Meanwhile, the militarization of the Maduro government continues: seven senior military officers currently serve as cabinet ministers, among them the widely-feared Gen. Rodolfo Marco Torres, who runs the Finance Ministry. Should the protests go on, no one should be foolhardy enough to rule out that a military regime like this one will react in the only way it knows how.