Recent video footage on Twitter from San Cristóbal, a provincial city nestled in the Andes of western Venezuela near the border with Colombia, shows students dressed in white approaching a barricade of security personnel. Young and unarmed, they walk with their hands raised and palms facing outwards, as if they could somehow literally push their country in a new direction.
They may just be grasping at thin air.
The past two weeks of massive protests have caused the government to clamp down hard. For starters, President Nicolás Maduro has taken extraordinary measures to block media coverage of the protests. The government has kicked out foreign news outlets, tampered with online coverage, and mandated that local stations run long, pro-government propaganda pieces called cadenas (see video below). Tweets and other forms of social media slip through the cracks, but few outside Venezuela realize the scope of the demonstrations. Meanwhile, many Venezuelans inside the country are turning to international media for “local” reporting on their own crisis. Delcy Rodríguez, Venezuela’s Minister of Communication and Information, has apparently succeeded so far in following the blackout orders.
The now country-wide protests began on February 4, when university students in San Cristóbal took to the streets in outrage over the sexual assault of a classmate. The movement soon grew to other major cities, including Caracas, Valencia, and Maracaibo. The student activists have linked arms with the opposition party, Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), and prominent figures such as politician Leopoldo López in an effort to provide some direction to a diffuse movement that is still less than the sum of its parts. López, the Kennedy School-educated and former mayor of a tony Caracas neighborhood, was arrested on February 18 on charges that he had trained activists to unleash violence as part of a coup against Maduro. “We are living in a dark time when criminals are rewarded and they want to imprison the Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change,” he said. Using garbage and debris to create roadblocks, the demonstrators are pressuring the government to release López, who is being held in a military prison just outside Caracas.
This isn’t the first time the opposition has taken to the streets. Students protested against the Chávez government back in 2007, too, but these never gained traction. If anything, the fact that the protests were confined to students allowed Chávez to paint them as ungrateful, spoiled brats. Besides this, it is difficult for any opposition movement to gain traction; the state has incredible powers at its disposal—and, of course, the constant influx of state oil revenues.
This time around, the protestors’ list of grievances is uncoordinated, and as the protests have picked up momentum, the list of grievances has grown. The major grievance, however, remains an economic one. The importation and circulation of basic goods within Venezuela has slowed to a crawl. Long accustomed to importing most of what they consume, Venezuelans now are now struggling to get food and medicine. Maduro has attempted to address this problem by using decree powers granted him by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly to eradicate the “corruption” and “sabotage” allegedly practiced by the United States and the opposition.
So far many of the protests have had an anarchical tinge to them, which both scares off potential supporters and supplies Maduro’s government with more than enough grisly images of burning barricades and Molotov-wielding anarchists to flood the state’s propagandistic media networks.
The oil age began in Venezuela almost a century ago, and one myth has persisted since then: the myth that Venezuelans would be rich if it weren’t for the corrupt politicians and businessmen who always steal the country’s vast wealth. Venezuelans’ disgust with the petro oligarchy running the country in the 1980s and 1990s led many to rally around—and democratically elect—the fiery populist Chávez. After 15 years of the socialist revolution, however, Venezuelans are increasingly fed up with the shortages and insecurity that persist despite the billions of dollars pouring into the state’s coffers from oil revenues.
There are no safe channels for citizens to voice their frustration with this state of affairs. Determined to criminalize political dissent, the government has responded especially brutally to the demonstrations. Tear gas, water cannons, plastic bullets, and even live ammunition have left at least 15 dead and more than 150 injured. Countless more are jailed, with some tortured. In San Cristóbal, military fighter jets have buzzed the city—a powerful show of force designed to intimidate the students.
Pro-government motorcycle gangs, known as colectivos, have added to the tensions and even fired on protestors in some cases. Originally created as Neighborhood Watch-like groups intended for keeping order in slums that lacked a legitimate police presence, these now politicized and radicalized militias coordinate with the government’s security forces to intimidate the protestors.
A pillar of the Chávez political model has been to rail relentlessly against alleged American meddling in Venezuela’s affairs. The George W. Bush Administration gave some credence to these allegations by failing to condemn an ultimately unsuccessful coup against Chávez in 2002. It’s been harder to sell this line during the Obama Administration. One factor limiting current handling of the crisis is that Maduro can’t declare the American Ambassador in Caracas as persona non grata, since there hasn’t been one since 2010. The Maduro government was able, however, to order three American consular officials to leave the country after accusing them of recruiting students to riot. It’s not hard to see that this strategy—blaming the Colossus of the North—is a transparent and increasingly ineffective diversion from the country’s real grievances.
Since taking office in 2009, the Obama Administration has considered Chávez’s government a nuisance but not a serious threat to American interests. With this in mind, Obama believed that taking a low-key approach to Venezuela would effectively keep the spotlight on Chávez’s “bad behavior” rather than on the contentious bilateral relationship. Note that none of the diplomatic spats over the years has ever led to a breakdown in the two countries’ symbiotic economic relationship. We still readily buy the oil, and they still readily sell it to us. Because of its large reserves, close proximity, and historic ties to the American market, Venezuela is one of the five largest foreign oil suppliers to the United States.
The question now is whether the Obama Administration believes that it should more actively oppose Maduro’s still decidedly Chavista government. If history is any guide, a greater American role would play right into the hands of those who see the protests as yet another cynical power grab by Washington. To date, the Obama Administration has publicly condemned Maduro’s heavy-handed response. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his alarm at the Venezuela’s unlawful detainments and tactics. “This is not how democracies behave,” he said last week. In a curious contradiction, Maduro has responded both by blaming the United States for fomenting the “fascist riots” and by asking the White House to begin talks aimed at improving tattered bilateral ties.
The logical international actors to step in and play a role in this unfolding drama are Latin America’s democratic countries. Many of them, after suffering from decades of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses during the Cold War, now have under their belts at least a few decades of uninterrupted democratic governance. But thus far Venezuela’s democratic neighbors have largely remained silent. As former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda lamented to the Wall Street Journal, “There is no Latin American government that is going to lift a finger.”
One would expect this kind of response from Latin America’s hard-left governments. Luis D’Elia, a political confidant of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, tweeted for instance that the arrested López “should be shot by a firing squad as an agent of the CIA.” But even groups and governments one might expect to be positively disposed to the protestors’ cause have withheld their support. Chile’s formidable student federation, which has staged its own protests in recent memory, offered a statement that must have come as a crushing blow to the spirits of the student protestors in Venezuela: “We do not feel represented by the actions of the Venezuelan student sectors, which has put themselves on the side of defending the old order opposed to the revolutionary path.”
For the governments and groups who do not share sympathies with Chavismo, many are remaining silent out of fear for the economic or political repercussions that criticism would provoke. But there have been glimmers of good news on this score. Last week several key Latin American political figures signed a communiqué criticizing Caracas for its draconian suppression of the protests. One of the signers was former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, who first gained fame by leading widespread protests against then-President Alberto Fujimori’s autocratic rule.
The stunning events of the past few weeks and months in Ukraine are a sharp reminder that apparently stable regimes can fall to pieces literally overnight. We should not underestimate the danger for the Maduro regime posed by the ongoing roadblocks and street protests, which can further complicate the delivery throughout the country of already scarce consumer goods. (At present, the oil fields and other critical infrastructure are far enough away from the sites of unrest so as not to be in imminent peril.)
Nevertheless, the house money is on Maduro to weather this storm. The Cuban Revolution, with all its contradictions and failures, has now lasted more than a half century. There is no reason why Venezuela cannot go down that path.
Furthermore, the protest movement still has not achieved a critical mass of support from the bulk of Venezuelan society. The country remains extremely polarized, and support for Chavismo is still solid among the legions of poor who identify at a gut level with their dearly departed leader. And the fact remains that, for all the country’s problems, inequality and poverty have actually decreased under Chavismo. Even among the protestors on the streets there is no unifying cry save for discontent with the status quo. All eyes right now are on members of the middle class: Will their dissatisfaction with Maduro’s tenure bring them out into the streets in sufficient numbers? Time will tell.