Venezuela: Could protesters' deaths hurt fractured opposition?

Thousands of protesters came out nationwide yesterday to call for Venezuela's President Maduro to step down, but the death of at least two people could give the government the upper hand.

Alejandro Cegarra/AP
Demonstrators march to the General Prosecutors building in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. At least two people were killed after the largest protests ever against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s one-year-old government turned violent.

It didn’t take long for Venezuela’s warring politicians to start pointing fingers last night, attempting to turn the deaths of at least two people killed in nationwide protests into political rallying cries.

"We know who the violent ones are," said Leopoldo López, a former mayor and one of the opposition leaders responsible for organizing national antigovernment demonstrations yesterday.

"Stones against bullets; it cannot be that today the government denies and tries to lay the blame on the students," who made up the majority of the thousands of demonstrators in cities from mountainous Merida to the Capital, Caracas, yesterday, Mr. López said.

The protests against President Nicolás Maduro’s policies took place amid growing national unrest, which stems from a soaring crime rate and a faltering economy. Hard-line opposition leaders cast Wednesday as a countrywide show of force to peacefully demand President Maduro’s resignation.

But violence erupted across the country, with antigovernment demonstrators clashing with National Guardsmen and armed vigilante groups. Maduro condemned the killings, blaming the deaths on "fascist" groups set on ousting him.

Despite both political camps trading blame, observers warn that the recent antigovernment push to take to the streets could backfire on the fractured opposition. The unrest could offer the Maduro administration a welcome diversion from the slew of problems plaguing Venezuela.

"The government is in the best position to take advantage of the situation," says political analyst Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis. "The violence provides a scapegoat for the crises at hand."

'The exit'

"In Venezuela we are facing a fascist Nazi resurgence, and we will defeat it," Maduro said on Wednesday evening at a military event, referring to the opposition.

This week’s clashes were the most violent since protests following Maduro’s razor-thin election victory last April. His 10-month tenure has been marred by accusations of election fraud and a stumbling economy, which the government blames on private business and its political opponents.

Piggybacking on weeks of sporadic protests, López and other opposition leaders called for thousands of Venezuelans to take to the streets yesterday in support of students calling for the release of demonstrators detained in previous marches. The demonstration trended on social media as the #LaSalida, or the "The Exit," uniting Venezuelans on a range of grievances, and seeking to send Maduro a clear message to step down.

While boasting the world's largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela is simultaneously struggling with runaway inflation, currently at over 56 percent, shortages of many basic food staples, and one of the world's highest murder rates.

Such disparities have long served as rallying points among the government's critics, but analysts say López's tactic of taking to the streets exposes divisions among opposition leadership, many of whom are pushing for a rapprochement with Maduro.

"These events clearly put the leadership of the opposition in question," says Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela.

The opposition's two time presidential candidate and de facto leader, Henrique Capriles, did not endorse yesterday’s protests, which some believed risked playing into the government’s hands.

"The government needs to show they are on top of the situation says Mr. Romero. "It will take measures against the opposition and protesters to try to ensure that this violent situation does not get out of hand."

By early Thursday morning the government had issued a warrant for López's arrest on charges of inciting violence.

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