Desperate for change, Venezuelans weigh risks of protest

Why We Wrote This

Yesterday’s opposition protests turned into clashes with security, leaving demonstrators with little doubt of the risks ahead if they stay in the streets. But they also realize how much their presence matters. 

We also want to highlight a few other stories we’ve written on the crisis, which further explain what’s at stake. Please click here to read.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
A man walks his dog at the site of the previous day's clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces near La Carlota airbase in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, May 1, 2019. A new round of protests began Wednesday, after opposition leader Juan Guaido called for Venezuelans to fill streets to demand President Nicolas Maduro's ouster.

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On Wednesday, the day Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó urged people to turn out in support of “peaceful rebellion,” Sol Guerra was readying herself for another day on the streets.

“I know they can hurt me or take me prisoner, but I will not stop participating,” says Ms. Guerra. She says that she’s afraid to protest sometimes, but that she’s more afraid of President Nicolás Maduro staying in power than getting hurt.

While much of the focus has been on whether the military will come out to support Mr. Guaidó – no doubt key to success – the presence of thousands of protesting Venezuelans is vital, too. What’s unclear is how much appetite there is among Venezuelans to remain in the streets longer-term, and how much patience they will have with Mr. Guaidó if he’s unable to tip the balance of power in his favor.

The stakes are high. Not only for Mr. Guaidó, who is one of the only people involved in yesterday’s announcement not taking refuge in a foreign embassy. Tuesday’s protests ended with some 60 people injured and a brazen episode of armored government vehicles driving into crowds of protesters.

“If this fails, I will have to leave,” Ms. Guerra says. “But that’s a last resort.”

The day after a bombshell announcement by Venezuela’s National Assembly President Juan Guaidó that the military was on his side and President Nicolás Maduro needed to step down, the world is still waiting to see how the cards will fall.

Mass defections never came Tuesday. But that hasn’t kept Venezuelans from taking to the streets in a broad show of support for the opposition’s so-called Operation Liberty. By early Wednesday morning, small groups gathering in western Caracas were already facing off with security forces trying to disperse them with shots of tear gas. Across town, thousands of defiant demonstrators dressed in white and wearing tricolor hats of the Venezuelan flag poured into the streets, readying themselves for news of when and where Mr. Guaidó would speak next.

As protesters milled around in the blazing tropical heat in Plaza Altamira, one of 14 meeting spots in the capital, most conversations revolved around what to make of yesterday’s events. Opinions swung drastically between confusion and excitement, with many commenting that they’d expected something more definitive by now. Others preached patience: “Easy, Guaidó knows what he’s doing.”

While much of the focus has been on whether the military will come out to support Mr. Guaidó in larger numbers – key to his plan’s success – keeping thousands of Venezuelans on the street across the country is vital, too. In a YouTube address Tuesday night, he encouraged citizens to show the world where popular support lies, saying “the whole of Venezuela” must hit the streets May 1 to force Mr. Maduro from power in what he called a “peaceful rebellion,” not a coup. The opposition holds that Mr. Maduro’s reelection last year was fraudulent, and that per the Constitution the National Assembly leader is interim president until a new election can be held.

What’s unclear is how much appetite Venezuelans have to remain in the streets longer-term, and how much patience they will have with Mr. Guaidó if he’s unable to tip the balance of power in his favor. 

The stakes are incredibly high. Not only for Mr. Guaidó, whose credibility is on the line – and who is one of the only people involved in yesterday’s announcement who has not taken refuge in a foreign embassy – but for Venezuelans demonstrating. Tuesday’s protests ended with some 60 people injured and a brazen episode of armored government vehicles driving into crowds of opposition protesters.

“I know they can hurt me or take me prisoner, but I will not stop participating,” says Sol Guerra, standing in line at a bakery in eastern Caracas Wednesday morning, readying herself for another day on the streets. She says that she’s afraid to protest sometimes, and her mother certainly discourages her out of concern for her safety, but that she’s more afraid of Mr. Maduro staying in power indefinitely than getting hurt.

“If this fails, I will have to leave,” Ms. Guerra says. “But that’s a last resort.”

‘We don’t want to live like this anymore’

Compared to past uprisings, “almost everything is different” this week, says Luz Mely Reyes, director and co-founder of independent Venezuelan news site Efecto Cocuyo. She’s covered every coup attempt in Venezuela since 1992, she says, and “citizen participation is at the heart” of what’s new this time.

In 1992, followers of Hugo Chávez attempted two separate coups. Then in 2002, four years after he was elected president, a coup attempt against him took advantage of existing popular protests, but was orchestrated by a small group without strong public backing.

“In today’s case, what’s important and unique is that people are still in the streets. They’re constantly in the streets” showing their support for change, Ms. Reyes says. 

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, whom many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, gestures after talking to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019.

There’s immense hope among opposition supporters, in and outside the country. If Mr. Maduro indeed steps down, it would be the end of the two decades-long Bolivarian Revolution, and could help lay a foundation to pull Venezuela out of a deep economic spiral that’s caused widespread food and medicine shortages, as well as regular blackouts. But the young interim leader’s credibility is at stake: Can he maintain support if there’s no follow through on his lofty declaration?

“We have to show the world that we don’t want to live like this anymore,” says Yajaira Gallardo, a homemaker dressed in a white T-shirt to symbolize peace, on why turning out is key. “I think Venezuelans have been very passive.”

Another key difference between this rebellion and past coups is the level of international support for Venezuela’s opposition – both from Venezuelans living abroad and from foreign governments. More than 50 nations, including the United States, now recognize Mr. Guaidó as the country’s interim president, and expatriates have been instrumental in helping maintain the opposition’s momentum. 

“Levels of domestic support, whether expressed through being able to get people to the streets or polls – they’re important,” says Alejandro Velasco, an associate professor of Latin American history from Venezuela who teaches at New York University. “But they’re not decisive. What’s important for momentum is showing the expat [and international] population that you can actually deliver on the promises you’ve been making.”

If the current plan “doesn’t work, we’ll have to ask for more help from Uncle Sam or our neighbors. The government is armed and Venezuelans are not. Alone we can’t make it. My compatriots need to continue in the streets,” says Ms. Gallardo.

The big what-if

But many question if it will be enough – especially if Mr. Guaidó’s bid fails, and the military can’t be swayed. The lack of a clear offer of enforceable amnesty for military leaders if they do defect may be holding some back. Even amid citizens desperate for change, not everyone is willing to risk public protest.

“The reality is I don’t even like to leave the house when there are protests,” says Rovin Pan, a publicist whose best friend’s child suffered severe burns and nearly died in the 2014 anti-government demonstrations. “I put everything in God’s hands. I think all Venezuelans see in Guaidó a new hope,” he says, adding that he contributes in other ways, like sharing information on social media. “In that way I will continue being part of the citizens that want change.”

If Mr. Guaidó fails to deliver on his promises this week, and support for him fizzles, Mr. Velasco agrees Venezuelans will find someone else to peg their hopes to. “In 20 years there have been so many leaders that have come and gone that the hope is always there that ‘This one might be the one,’” he says.

But the very real consequences of failure include even stronger international sanctions against Venezuela, which could directly affect citizens. He expects to see more people flee the country, whether due to a more violent government clamp-down on citizens or simply the loss of hope for a peaceful transition to democracy.

“There will be someone else and people will rally behind him,” he says of opposition leadership. “But the question is, how many people will be left?”

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