A “Venezuelan Spring”?

AP Photo. Protests in Venezuela demand freedom of expression.
 Protests in Venezuela demand freedom of expression. Source: AP Photo

On February 4, 2014, a female student was raped on a university campus in the western state of Tachira, Venezuela, spurring student protests across the country. The conflict escalated quickly when three students were killed in clashes with security forces at a rally on February 12.  With inflation at 56%, the fifth highest murder rate in the world, rampant crime, and ballooning oil industry debt, the opposition protesters have called for more freedom, security, and an end to food and good shortages.

The opposition has blamed the 11-month-old government of President Nicolas Maduro for insecurity, shortages, and economic hardship.  Maduro, originally a bus driver, rose to power through the favor of the late President Hugo Chavez, whom he supported when Chavez was detained after instigating a coup in 1992.  Maduro helped Chavez found the Fifth Republican movement, a left-wing, socialist political party, which merged into the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in 2007. Chavez handpicked Maduro to be both his Vice President and, on his death bed, his successor.   Maduro has every intention to ensure that Chavismo – the political ideology of Hugo Chavez that combines Bolivarianism (a belief in pan-South Americanism, participatory democracy, equitable distribution, and an end to corruption) and Socialism of the 21st century (a type of democratic socialism) – continues to govern Venezuela.

Chavez used his charisma, control of the oil and media industries, and personal wealth to create an extremely loyal following of Chavistas – mainly impoverished (and some middle class) Venezuelans who were positively impacted by his social “missions” to eradicate illiteracy, distribute resources, and provide health care.  In reality, his regime was ripe with corruption and flawed economic policies, such as currency controls and expropriation of private companies, which meant that the majority of Venezuelans often lacked basic goods and services.  While these conditions may have worsened in the past 11 months, it is apparent that what Maduro really lacks is Chavez’s charisma.

In a recent survey by the Venezuelan polling firm DATOS, 72.1% of the 800 participants from across the social spectrum evaluated the situation in Venezuela as negative, with 58.1% answering “extremely bad.” 43.7% support the opposition, while only 27.1% are pro-government and 24.2% support neither. 87% said that the government should change its policies and should work together with the opposition.  The most surprising result was that 64% favored getting rid of the government by constitutional means as soon as possible.

AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra. An anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela on February 12, after which the protests gained national attention.  Student pictured is shot in the head, being carried by fellow protesters.
An anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela on February 12, after which the protests gained national attention. Student pictured is shot in the head, being carried by fellow protesters. Source: AP Photos/Alejandro Cegarra

The opposition is split between students who initiated the protests, hardliners, and moderates.  The hardliners, led by Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo Lopez, call for an end to Chavismo.  The moderate anti-Chavez umbrella organization, Mesa de la Unity Roundtable, is split between those calling for Maduro’s resignation and those calling for institutional change.  The protesters have taken both to the streets and to social media. The Venezuelan National Bolivarian Guard (GNB) and colectivos, Chavista civilian militias, have responded to protests with force by tear-gassing students, destroying make-shift barricades (guarimbas) engineered by protesters to protect themselves, and preventing rallies.   The protesters have reacted with more defiance, further inciting the National Guard and the colectivos, and creating a divide between the protesters and the ordinary citizens angry at traffic jams and greater food shortages caused by the conflict between the proponents and opponents of the regime.  As of March 20, 2014, the protests had amassed a death toll of 30. The government has additionally cracked down on all media outlets that support the opposition, increasing the importance of Twitter and Facebook.

President Maduro remains unapologetic about his government’s use of force, commenting in an interview on March 5, that “I sleep like a baby.” He has yet to concede to any of the opposition’s demands.  He has accused the U.S. of conspiring to destabilize the Venezuelan government and for financing protesters. Moreover, he has expelled eight U.S. diplomats in the past 13 months, including three in September on 48-hour notice for purported involvement in a widespread power outage. He has called the opposition “fascist” and compared them to a virus in need of eradication. Leopoldo Lopez, one of the most visible faces of the opposition, was jailed on February 18 for “inciting violence” (on unproven arson and conspiracy charges). On March 19 and 20, two mayors who opposed the government, Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos, were arrested. Scarano was jailed for 10 months for failing to comply with a previous order to remove barricades the opposition had erected, and Ceballos was detained for fomenting violent anti-government protest.

Although Obama remains opposed to any direct intervention, the U.S., Canada, and Panama were the only three countries (opposed to 29) that rejected the Organization of American States’ (OAS), a multilateral governing institution for North, South and Central America, declaration of “full support” for a government-led peace talks. The initiative was not endorsed by the opposition because it did not meet their demand to release political prisoners nor defend their right to free speech, to protest, and to strike.  Therefore, the U.S. government representative wrote that “The OAS cannot sanction a dialogue in which much of the opposition has no voice and no faith. Only Venezuelans can find the solutions to Venezuela’s problems, but the situation in Venezuela today makes it imperative that a trusted third party facilitate the conversation as Venezuelans search for those solutions.” The second part of this statement is particularly interesting, and highlights the intense public debate in America over whether to intervene in other nation’s domestic disputes.  Historically, the United States has been inconsistent and selective in its interventions based on its changing geopolitical aims, such as oil interests, and the public’s oscillating preference for isolationism.

As protests in Venezuela keep escalating with no end in sight, they begin to look eerily similar to the uprisings that have rocked our world over the past three years.  Especially when one considers factors of youth involvement, social media, and violent police response, it becomes easy to draw comparisons.

However, as journalist Rafael Cabrices wrote in his New York Times Opinion Piece Venezuela Goes Mad, these “riots do no portend a Venezuelan Spring.” He argues that because Chavismo is so well-entrenched in Venezuela and there are no unified groups backing the opposition, the protests may just “inject new energy into a weak and inefficient dictatorship.”  But while Chavez was unquestionably entrenched in power with an extremely strong support base, Maduro is much poorer demagogue.  And his forceful reaction to the uprisings may only further incense Venezuelans – disillusioned by the violence of the very people who are supposed to protect them – to take an unrelenting stand against their regime and not back down until demands are met or the government is out.

AFP Photo/Juan Barreto.  The GNB prevents an “empty pots march” of 5,000 people in Caracas, Venezuela from reaching Venezuela’s food ministry on March 9.  They are protesting chronic food shortages and crippling inflation.
The GNB prevents an “empty pots march” of 5,000 people in Caracas, Venezuela from reaching Venezuela’s food ministry on March 9. They are protesting chronic food shortages and crippling inflation. Source: AFP Photo/Juan Barreto

While the protests may escalate and leak over the Venezuelan border to other South American countries, there are two reasons why the no single recent uprising provides an adequate model to predict how the Venezuelan protests will turn out.  First, even the “pan-Arab” uprisings have never been one unified battle for liberty. Starting in Tunisia, with the self-immolation of Mohamad Bouazizi, each uprising has devolved into a completely different movement with unforeseen outcomes and sky-high economic and social costs.  The protests in Turkey that started May 2013 were originally about environmental issues, but quickly got out of hand as police struck back hard.  In Syria, the protests that started with the assault and arrest of a man by a police officer, which led to calls for freedom and democracy, is now in its third year of civil war with over 140,000 casualties.  Second, the cry for change in the Arab countries came largely from young, unemployed citizens dismayed by their dismal life prospects.  While protests in Venezuela were similarly instigated by students, they have focused more on insecurity, shortages, and problematic economic policies.

It remains uncertain whether the protests will create a domino effect for the Venezuelan government and throughout South America, akin to that seen in the Middle East.  It is clear, however, that there is no one recent, historical framework that can be applied to predict the future trajectory of the Venezuelan protests.  In our highly integrated world, the protests in Venezuela will not only effect Venezuela, and the ripple effects will likely effect the whole continent and the larger global economy.

U.C. Berkeley students are never far from the action.  Many were instrumental in leading a protest on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco February 16-18 to raise awareness of what it happening in their native Venezuela.