Protests against Maduro unite Venezuela's fractured opposition

A wave of demonstrations in Caracas and other cities has met a steely response from President Maduro and brought a reluctant rally leader to the fore. 

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Opposition leader Enrique Capriles delivers a speech next to Lilian Tintori, wife of detained opposition leader Leopoldo López, during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 22, 2014. Supporters and opponents of the government of President Nicolás Maduro are holding competing rallies in the bitterly divided country.

Tens of thousands of white-clad demonstrators flooded the streets of eastern Caracas yesterday in the largest show of strength so far against President Nicholás Maduro’s rule.

The arrest of opposition firebrand Leopoldo López for fomenting unrest – and the heavy-handed tactics of security forces – hasn’t snapped the momentum of the demonstrations. Instead, Venezuela's fractured opposition banded together to denounce the jailing of Mr. López and the government’s broader crackdown on dissent.

"We demand an immediate end to the brutal repression in our society," Henrique Capriles, the de facto opposition leader who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Maduro in last April’s presidential election, told the crowd here. 

But Mr. Capriles also tried to distance himself from rowdy rock-throwing protesters – a minority at the demonstrations – whom Mr. Maduro has branded as “fascists” conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow his administration. 

At least 10 people have died and around a hundred have been injured since nationwide antigovernment protests erupted last Wednesday. Pro-Maduro rallies have also been held. 

The protest-related violence creates a dilemma for mainstream politicians like Capriles, who was initially cool to the nascent movement. Now he’s on the streets in what analysts say is an attempt to avert a violent showdown that would jeopardize what he sees as years of hard-fought electoral gains.

"It's not that he's openly supporting them, rather that he's trying to reorient them," says Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela. "He realizes that continued violence is a threat to the opposition's legacy."

Speaking at yesterday's rally, Capriles sought to put the focus on the country's socioeconomic woes, including high prices and rampant crime. He also warned that violence would ultimately backfire on the opposition.

"Venezuela needs you alive, not dead. Nicolás Maduro does not care about your lives, but we do," he said. 

In some respects, Capriles is taking the reins from the detained López. While most opposition leaders favor dialogue with Maduro – the successor to former President Hugo Chávez, who reshaped Venezuelan politics during the 2000s and died in March 2013 – López sought to mobilize discontent on the streets.

Before the current round of protests, Capriles had openly criticized this strategy, saying it would play into the government's hands. "We chose this path which could be long but it's safe," he said at a press conference last week.

But with López behind bars, Capriles may be calculating that he can’t stay above the fray any longer, lest the movement spin out of control.

"The violence creates problems of legitimacy for the opposition in and out of the country," says Dimitirus Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant. "If the protest loses steam, and violence persists it threatens the opposition's claim that they represent the majority of the population."

While yesterday’s march in Caracas was billed as a peaceful protest, hundreds of demonstrators broke away from the main group and tried to block the city's main roadway, provoking a response from security forces.

Protesters threw together barricades of burning trash and debris and threw rocks at National Guardsmen who responded with repeated volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

"Of course dialogue would be better," coughed Freddy Serrano, a business student, as tear-gas rounds fell on the crowd. "But they're repressing our rights. We're not going to respond by throwing flowers."

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