Venezuela's protests: The who, what, and why

Tensions abound in Venezuela's opposition – as well as within President Maduro's government. How are the protests playing out?

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Demonstrators stand at a barricade during an opposition protest in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Venezuelan opposition leaders condemned the government Thursday for its heavy-handed attempt to subdue a protest movement with nighttime sweeps that have turned many parts of the country into dangerous free-fire zones.

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

Below is a written interview I did with Isabel Fleck of Folha de Sao Paolo.

How do you feel about the last demonstrations in Venezuela and the government’s response? 

The demonstrations began with students supporting Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado’s #lasalida mobilization. Ms. Machado and Mr. López do not agree with the opposition coalition’s (called the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, or MUD) strategy of trying to grow their constituency through longer term groundwork, nor with their willingness to dialogue with the government in January.

They want a more aggressive and immediate strategy because they feel the situation is unsustainable and that in a couple years’ time there will not be enough democratic liberties for them to fight for power.

They have successfully tapped into the discontent of middle class students. The first round of protests in the Andean states two weeks ago were small. However student protesters were arrested and this motivated protests in Caracas. The Feb. 12 protest in Caracas was impressive but not massive by Venezuelan standards, approximately 10,000. Here again there was violence and arrests and this motivated protests every day since. The Feb. 18 concentration in support of López brought together a larger segment of the opposition base and was even larger, probably 20,000 – 30,000.

The student protests as currently formulated have little chance of developing a strong cross-class alliance. Their themes are the typical themes of the Venezuelan middle class focusing on issues of liberty: freedom of expression, freedom to protest, democratic liberties, and economic opportunity. Images of Cuban dictatorship are important symbolic foils. However, Venezuela’s popular classes are more responsive to messages of equality and the fight against poverty.

Nevertheless, the government of President Nicolás Maduro has swung wildly in response to this challenge. It has arrested and fired on protesters, and tragically failed to ensure their safety from armed pro-government collectives. This has energized opposition protest to the point that students have been in the street every day since the Feb. 12 violence. It is not easy to understand why the Maduro government has reacted this way. This could be an effect of the number of military officers that hold important government ministries and are not trained for governance and therefore have little tolerance for political contention. Or it could be because they find it more desirable to confront a radical opposition than a moderate opposition.

Do you think that this tough reaction from the government is a signal of President Maduro’s political desperation? How do you evaluate his first ten months as president?

I don’t think desperation is the right word. I do think Maduro does not provide a clear vision and authority to a government that is extraordinarily centralized in the executive branch. This leads to many confrontations, stalemates, and paralysis among and between ministers and other government officials. This, combined with the number of military officers in key positions means the Maduro government shows much less political effectiveness than the government of Hugo Chávez did.

It is important to remember that the core economic and political problems that Maduro is confronting were inherited from former President Chávez. Chávez presided over several years of significant growth in the Venezuelan economy based on high oil prices. Nevertheless, he exacerbated Venezuela’s traditional vulnerability to “Dutch disease” whereby a high priced export overwhelms domestic production of everything else. He sought to control inflation by keeping the local currency strong. During Maduro’s year at the helm, this inflated exchange rate has reached epic proportions and has led to destructive distortions in the economy.

Chávez also created a coalition of leftists, progressives, nationalists, military, and popular sectors that perhaps only he could keep together. Maduro has considerable support and legitimacy in this coalition because he was publicly designated by Chávez as his successor. But any leader would struggle to keep this coalition together and someone with limited charisma like Maduro struggles even more.

Overall, Maduro has done a more effective job at keeping together Chavismo than many of us expected. But in objective terms, the Maduro government has not been successful at addressing the major issues that Venezuelans confront: crime, inflation, scarcities and economic opportunity. And there has been serious deterioration in terms of the freedom of expression, protest as well as in electoral democracy.

Do you see any possible political solution for this crisis in Venezuela?

Sure. There was some movement towards dialogue in January as the Maduro government attempted to address issues of citizen security. Furthermore the opposition coalition – MUD – seemed to be moving towards a strategy of coalition building. That spirit could be revived once the cycle of protests dies down, something that is likely given the class endogenous nature of their demands. However, López behind bars will likely keep the radical opposition energized and generate more governmental dysfunction. In addition, the economic situation is difficult and there are signs that it could get worse. That by itself could produce a broader opposition movement.

Last Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomatic officials, accusing them of conspiring against his government. How do you feel US-Venezuela relations will be during Maduro’s term? Could the relations become even more complicated than in the Chávez years?

Maduro is subject to the same tensions as Chávez. On the one hand, the US is the one Venezuelan oil client that pays in cash and is, at this point, an irreplaceable source of revenue. On the other hand, the US and its history of domination and intervention in the region serves as the most important symbolic foil for the government’s calls for unity. Add to this the fact that the US does not like the Venezuelan government and feels it complicates its regional alliances, and you have a very complicated relationship indeed.

The Maduro government has made overtures to the US in a way that the Chávez government rarely did. Nevertheless, occasional overtures on each side have been overwhelmed by Venezuela’s interests in a multipolar world — for example by offering asylum to Edward Snowden. Furthermore, it should be said that the US has not been less important in South America for more than a century. Venezuela’s main reference points are Brazil, Argentina, and multi-lateral institutions such as CELAC, UNASUR, and MERCOSUR. The US is considered politically expendable.

What should be the US response to this new move?

As is true in any country, US foreign policy statements are as much about domestic constituencies as relationships with other countries. The Obama administration is under continual attack from conservative members of Congress for not taking a harder line in foreign relations — witness the difficulty it has had developing a constructive relationship with Iran because of opposition in Congress.

And of course Venezuela is ever less important to the US as the latter’s demand for foreign oil declines as does Venezuela’s regional leadership. This means that the Obama administration can use Venezuela to demonstrate its toughness, in order gain domestic political space for more complicated diplomatic efforts with countries like Iran, Israel, Mexico, Brazil, and China. 

What critical statements the US does make only provide substance to the Maduro government’s use of anti-imperialist rhetoric to deflect citizen demands.

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