Will Venezuela's protests fizzle out?

Some question whether protests that erupted nationwide last week can succeed without appealing to Venezuelans who don't typically identify with the opposition.

Fernando Llano/AP
Demonstrators bang on corrugated iron sheets at a roadblock in La Boyera neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.

For more than a week, security forces backed by water cannons and tear gas have broken up crowds of anti-government demonstrators across Venezuela.

Opposition leader Leopoldo López is behind bars, but the student groups he helped back in the nationwide Feb. 12 protest against President Nicólas Maduro have pledged to stay on Venezuela’s streets to push for democratic change.

The end goals are vague, but student protesters across the country are united in their condemnation of the government, blaming it for Venezuela’s mounting woes. A faltering economy, soaring crime, and rampant shortages of basic consumer goods are the result, they say, of 15 years of Hugo Chávez-inspired socialist rule.

“It’s not that we’re simply demanding change,” says student leader Juan Requesens. “We’re showing that this inefficient, ineffective, and corrupt government is responsible for this mess."

With thousands demonstrating daily, the student effort has struck a chord with many of the president’s critics that reside beyond university walls. However, observers say the movement may not succeed if it can't breach Venezuela’s bitter class divide.

While the issues sparking the protests affect all Venezuelans, David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, cautions that there has so far been little effort to reach out to other sectors of society, particularly the traditionally pro-chavismo base. “It is important to remember that these protests are motored by ‘students,’ but not all students are involved.”

Venezuela is a polarized nation, proof of which was made clear in last year's presidential election where Mr. Maduro won by less than 2 percent of the vote.

'A pressure cooker'

Student protests have long played a prominent role in Venezuelan politics. In 2007, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched on Caracas to protest what they saw as an assault on freedom of expression. The government, led by then-President Chávez, refused to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, then the country’s most watched TV channel. The channel was openly critical of the government.

But Mr. Requesens, a political science major and president of the student government at the Central University of Venezuela, believes now is the right time for political change.

“It’s like a pressure cooker here,” he says of a country that saw prices rise more than 56 percent last year and that recorded more than 24,000 murders. Pointing to protests that have erupted in cities from Guarenas to Carirubana, locations traditionally been loyal to the government, Requesens says “people are waking up.”

Street protests have long occurred in Venezuela, but after large-scale demonstrations led to the brief ousting of former President Chávez in 2002, the opposition splintered and fell prey to infighting. Opposition mobilization since then has largely surrounded elections and constitutional referendums. More recently, two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, along with other opposition leaders, began pushing for a rapprochement with the Maduro government.

But now more hardline Maduro critics are seeking an overt expression of their unhappiness, pushing for regime change through peaceful protests and jamming the nation's streets. 

The increasingly widespread violence – and fatalities – associated with this month's protests, however, could potentially play into the government's hands, some say. On Wednesday, the death toll surrounding the protests climbed to five when a former beauty queen died from a gunshot wound in the central city of Valencia. Tense fighting is now bubbling up across the nation.

While protests began peacefully outside the courthouse where Mr. López was to be tried yesterday, clashes erupted throughout Caracas in the evening, with gunshots ringing out late into the night.

Analysts say that without broader support, the current protests – whether peaceful or violent – are unlikely to achieve the momentum needed for Maduro to step down.

“I have seen no effort to reach out to try to build a broader coalition with other classes or sectors of society,” says Mr. Smilde. Without including themes such as poverty reduction or inequality – often central issues for Venezuela’s poor – many fed up with the government’s performance are likely remain on the sidelines, he says.

Still, some say the students' efforts will leave a lasting mark on Venezuela’s political landscape.

“The student movement has captured [national] angst, putting the blame on the government,” says Elsa Cardozo, a political scientist at the University of Central Venezuela.

Regardless of whether or not the protesters are able maintain their physical presence on the streets, they are garnering attention. “The opposition is going to capitalize on the success of the student movement and work to expand," says Ms. Cardozo.

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