Venezuela protests: Has the opposition cleared a leadership hurdle?

The two most high profile opposition leaders have had different approaches to seeking change in Venezuela, but thus far the party has remained united.

Jorge Silva/Reuters
Motorcyclists ride past words painted on a street reading 'Maduro go now' at Altamira Square in Caracas February 21, 2014.

Helicopters and an uneasy calm hung over Caracas today, following one of the most violent clashes so far between student demonstrators and government forces. 

Burnt trash scattered along the capitol’s roadways continued to smolder from Wednesday night, when authorities aggressively responded to protestors, blanketing the city in tear gas and firing rubber bullets. Amateur videos of protesters facing off with police, national guardsmen, and pro-government militia groups quickly spread across social media.

Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate and de facto opposition leader, condemned the “brutal repression,” while imploring protesters to stay calm.

“Don’t fall into the trap of violence,” Mr. Capriles said in a news conference Thursday. The government arrested Leopoldo López, another opposition leader, Capriles said, “hoping to continue this climate of violence.”

Mr. López, a former mayor and the leader of a hard-line splinter faction of the opposition coalition, was jailed for fomenting nationwide protests that began Feb. 12 and have roiled South America's biggest oil producer. 

Capriles at first distanced himself from the growing protest movement, calling for national dialogue instead. Many feared the difference in leadership and approach of these two men could mean a fractured opposition – a defining characteristic of the movement for the past decade. However, with thousands still in the streets, Capriles could reemerge on top.  

“This has been López’s moment,” says Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington DC. “The challenge for Capriles is finding out how to work with the protests while giving them national direction and a cohesive message.” 

Striking a cord

López struck a chord with those Venezuelans who don't want to wait for elections to deliver political change, Mr. Shifter says.

Capriles rallied the opposition during Venezuela's past two presidential elections. However, his two failed presidential bids and failure to deal the government a decisive blow during last December's municipal vote spurred López to take a more aggressive stance toward the government, observers say.

Whereas López and student demonstrators want President Nicolas Maduro to stand down, Capriles favors negotiations, fearing that chaotic protests could ultimately strengthen the president's position by fracturing the opposition and reviving memories of a 2002 coup attempt.

The protests first began with student demonstrations throughout the country against spiraling inflation, violence, and other popular complaints.  

Hundreds of students gathered in a plaza in an upscale commercial district in eastern Caracas yesterday. Dressed in white, with many carrying flowers, the demonstration was a timid departure from the angry and raucous marches of the days before.

“After [Wednesday] night, a lot people are more scared than calm,” says Ana Gravelos, an engineering student, who like many, came out to pay her respect to victims of protest violence. At least eight people have died and over 100 have been injured since the protests began. 

Ms. Gravelos says one of her classmates got a broken nose after clashes with security forces on Tuesday. But she argues that people will keep coming out onto the streets. 

"People are going to continue until they see concessions from the government," she says. 

“The government has been very clumsy with their handling of this situation,” says Margarita López Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela. “There is a strong sense that the government is responsible for the violence...[and] the sense of victimization creates a lot of political capital for the opposition," she says. 

Fighting has been particularly intense in western Venezuela along the Colombian border, where the demonstrations began. Authorities announced last night they would send some 3,000 troops to the Andean city of San Cristóbal to quell the unrest.

In an effort to tamp down violence and exert his leadership, Capriles called out to students in his address yesterday: "Those who go out to protest and block the roads, ask yourselves if you can avoid creating a climate of anarchy.”

Capriles and the opposition coalition have called for a march tomorrow to protest the arrest of López and to demand his release. They also want to call attention to the right to peaceful protest.

"The task for Capriles is to focus the protests around real issues," says Shifter. "The question isn’t about the why there is unrest, but rather how they express it."

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