Talk or take action? On Venezuela's streets, protesters take sides.

The opposition vacillates over tactics to deal with the Maduro administration. But some antigovernment protesters seek a new identity entirely.

Tomas Bravo/Reuters
Antigovernment protesters yell outside the Our Lady of Coromoto church in Caracas March 6, 2014. Demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro have for weeks been staging rallies and setting up barricades, leading to clashes with security forces and government supporters.

From the western Venezuelan city of San Cristóbal to the capital Caracas, protesters still manning barricades after a month of sustained demonstrations are increasingly voicing their disagreement not only with the government, but with moderate factions of the opposition as well.

“People have stopped believing in some of the opposition leaders because they have been co-opted by the government,” says Carlos Alviarez, as he prepared to march through this city of 500,000 near Venezuela’s border with Colombia on Wednesday. Dialogue with the government, he says, only “legitimizes its policies.”

When protests first began in San Cristóbal – one of the few Venezuelan cities where the political opposition enjoys a majority – the marches focused on problems like crime, corruption, and crippling inflation of more than 56 percent. Yet, while some sectors of the political opposition saw the protests as a way to pressure President Nicolás Maduro’s exit from office, others worried the demonstrators were stepping into a situation where any violence could play into the government’s hands. For those not directly working in politics, however, the back and forth within the opposition has highlighted the need to create a more catch-all label for the antigovernment movement.

“We are no longer calling ourselves the opposition,” says Jose Vicente García, a student leader manning a barricade at a San Cristóbal intersection known as the obelisk. “Now we are the resistance,” Mr. García says.  

“One of the negative consequences of this crisis has been the fracturing of the opposition movement,” says Caracas-based political analyst Carlos Romero.

“The main division within the opposition today is whether or not there are conditions to bring on a regime change,” Mr. Romero says. “The ultra radicals think they can bring down the government with continued protests, while the moderates are looking for dialogue with the government.”

Talk vs. action

Yesterday, Maria Corina Machado, a lawmaker who represents a more radical wing of the opposition, flew in from Caracas to lead a protest march here. She encouraged crowds to stay on the streets to maintain pressure on the government of President Maduro, and to seek a regime change.

“The most important thing we have achieved in these days [of protest] is that we have met citizens on all the streets of Venezuela...who want a political change,” Ms. Machado said.

Her participation in the march contradicted calls from members of the opposition alliance known as MUD, led by two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, not to stage protests yesterday. March 5 was the one-year anniversary of former President Hugo Chávez’s death, and a day filled with military marches and government fanfare.

This tension within the party is to be expected in a broad coalition of opposition members, which includes everything from socialists to ultraconservative detractors of the Maduro government, says Julia Buxton, a Venezuela expert at the Central European University.

“They maybe all agree that they want to see a change, but [the opposition] doesn’t agree on the mechanisms to achieve that,” Ms. Buxton says.  

One hard-line opposition figure, Leopoldo Lopez, was arrested in mid-February on charges of instigating violence after he encouraged the burgeoning protests. Mr. Capriles, who narrowly lost the 2013 presidency to Maduro and is considered a moderate, proposes a long-term strategy using constitutional instruments such as a recall referendum that could be implemented in 2016. In the meantime he says he is open to dialogue, which many protesters in San Cristóbal, at least, reject.

But recently, when the government officially recognized Capriles as the opposition interlocutor, it undermined his credibility with more hard-line antigovernment sectors, Buxton says.

Though Capriles has called for talks, he has expressed concern that meeting with the government on their terms would make it look like the opposition was surrendering, says Romero. “That’s his great drama,” Romero says.

Mr. Alviarez, the San Cristóbal protester, says he thinks Capriles has sold out. “He doesn’t represent what we want any more.”

Patience

Today, Vice President Jorge Arreaza will launch a “peace conference” in San Cristóbal to bring together various sectors of society to seek a peaceful solution to the ongoing violence here. Local opposition leaders said they would not attend.

But Pedro Pablo Quintero, an agricultural engineer in San Cristóbal, says the more radical opposition leaders are misguided if they think the government will fall “with a few barricades.”

“Any Venezuelan who thinks these protests are going to kick Maduro out, are wrong,” says Mr. Quintero who nonetheless supports the demonstrations. “This sets a precedent but we have to be patient. This fight is not a short one.”

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