What's going on in Venezuela?

Recent protests have pitted the government and Venezuelan opposition against each other – and the stakes are high.

Alejandro Cegarra/AP
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, dressed in white and holding up a flower, is taken into custody by Bolivarian National Guards, in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb 18. Lopez re-emerged from days of hiding to address an anti-government demonstration and then turn himself in to authorities. Speaking to some 5,000 supporters with a megaphone, Lopez said that he doesn't fear going to jail to defend his constitutional right to peacefully protest against President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelan opposition and pro-government demonstrators took to the streets again today in the highly polarized South American nation. The turnout was large and protests remained relatively calm, but tensions have been on the rise since the Feb. 12 deaths of three people after demonstrations in Caracas.

Why are Venezuelans taking to the streets?

Venezuela is faced by economic, social, and political challenges: Inflation is at 56 percent, the currency is rapidly devaluing, shortages of staples like toilet paper and sugar are plaguing the nation, and the murder rate is one of the worst in the world. What started out as roughly two weeks of small, student-led protests against the Maduro administration has turned into opposition-organized marches that involve stone-throwing and taunting met by tear gas and water cannons.

“These are legitimate issues that do need a popular voice and channel for expression,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society in New York. “What makes the protests particularly volatile is that other avenues to express these demands have been closed down,” Mr. Sabatini says, referring to the closure of opposition media over the past several years and the shuttering of multiple newspapers nationwide more recently due to paper shortages.

What’s at stake for the opposition?

The government issued an arrest warrant last week for opposition leader Leopoldo López, on charges of inciting protest violence. His home, office, and other locations were raided in an attempt to take him into custody, and he ultimately turned himself in to the National Guard today after speaking to opposition protesters in downtown Caracas.

“Our youth have no jobs, no future because of this economic model that has failed,” Mr. López told his supporters. "If they put me in prison, it'll wake up the people. That's worthwhile."

Some fear López’s role in organizing recent protests against the government could further splinter an already fragile opposition. De facto opposition figurehead and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles did not support the Feb. 12 protests, which also injured dozens, and has called for greater engagement and discourse with the Maduro administration.

Furthermore, the opposition has a touchy protest history in Venezuela. Early on in former President Hugo Chávez’s administration, the opposition was consistently on the streets calling for an end to his presidency. In 2002, they organized a coup that briefly unseated the president. Though the opposition leadership is not calling for a coup, the reputation the group made for itself just over a decade ago may be haunting it as it vocally pushes back against Maduro’s administration. Maduro and his supporters frequently bring up the previous coup attempt, making it difficult for the opposition to separate its current goals from a more radical past.

“As this movement is increasingly identified with the opposition, it’s less likely to be a broad popular movement that could include former Chavistas that are feeling the bite of Venezuela’s disastrous economic policy,” says Sabatini.

The opposition not only risks losing what sympathy it has nationally, but internationally as well. MERCOSUR, the South American trade bloc of which Venezuela is a member, issued a statement over the weekend condemning all “violence and intolerance that tries to attack democracy and its institutions, whatever its origin.”

Some believe the protests can give  the government the upper hand – and may already have.

What’s at stake for the Venezuelan government?

This is the first popular, non-electoral challenge to Maduro’s rule. The attention Venezuela has received over the past week has put government policies in the national and international spotlight less than a year after former President Chávez’s death was announced.

Maduro was elected president by a razor thin margin, and the lack of mandate was a challenge from the start. The visible, vocal demonstrations by opposition supporters calling on the government to make changes in Venezuela risk pealing away Maduro supporters, says Sabatini. There are fears that the government itself could become fragmented.

“Maduro’s credibility has always hung by a thread,” Sabatini says. If Maduro doesn’t appear to be in control, it could lead to infighting within Chavismo.

The administration has accused the opposition of plotting a coup, operating a fascist movement, and over the weekend announced the expulsion of three US Embassy employees for their alleged involvement with opposition organizing against the government. This is the third time Maduro has kicked out US officials, a common tactic of the Chávez administration.

The government is appealing to its more militant base, says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “Maduro’s under a lot of pressure,” from his supporters, Mr. Weisbrot says.

In the short run, the rhetoric the government uses to characterize the opposition may be deflecting attention away from many of the protester complaints. However, if larger-scale violence breaks out, or if it is traced back to the government, these tactics could backfire.

What’s next?

The government has strong political organization and mobilization capabilities, but it inherited and continues to implement damaging economic policies. Short of making any drastic economic changes, many analysts fear further violence in Venezuela.

Weisbrot believes the opposition doesn’t want to wait years for the next democratic election, and “there’s no peaceful way to do that.”

“Is there a government in the world that would step down just because there are a lot of people calling for change?” Weisbrot asks, citing unrest in Ukraine in addition to Venezuela. “No, it doesn’t happen. They don’t just resign. There has to be violence.”

But political violence has long been forecast in Venezuela.

“This is the penny that never drops. We always expect this moment where everything will turn and the government will change course … and try to build trust and dialogue,” Sabatini says. “But instead, the government and the country keep stumbling on, and stumbling downward.”

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