Originally published at the Huffington Post
National protests were called in Venezuela on 12 February under the hashtag #LaSalida meaning “the exit”. This hashtag was not a strategy, it was a call for mobilisation. They are two very different things and explain why the student protests are not a manifestation of opposition desire to overthrow the government through a right-wing led coup nor are they a calculated plan for regime change, despite some efforts to push this absurd rhetoric. The protests are palpable signs of mass discontent.
The protests began mainly in opposition dominated, middle-class areas i.e. Altamira, San Cristobal and Valencia. They have since engulfed more Chavista areas such as Catia and Antimano. This changes the dynamics of the protests since it is a tangible sign of discontent from bases that would have been otherwise considered non-engaged with and opposed to the student protests.
There is no longer a need for speculation on violence that is occurring. There is hard evidence of government colectivos and the National Guard firing at civilians, colectivos firing at protestors and National Guardsmen shooting tear gas canisters into residential buildings, as well as footage of the National Opposition Building being raided by unknown, armed men. The government must begin investigations into these as soon as possible. The government ought to also stop politicising citizen demands by labelling anybody who protests as a “fascist” , as this does ease the dichotomous schisms that consume Venezuela.
It is important to remember that these protests do not negate the presence of democratic processes and mechanisms, the government has a mandate and was democratically elected in April 13. It is better to view democracy as a process and not a point of arrival. In this sense, Venezuela has been in the process of establishing a protagonist, participatory democracy since 1999 and the current setbacks do not cancel these achievements out. The students are protesting against criminalisation of protest and current economic downturns. They are not battling a tyrannical dictatorship- to claim this is to do injustice to the democratic developments of the last fifteen years.
Venezuela is not Egypt. Nor is it Ukraine. I am not comfortable with the notion of a “Venezuelan Spring” or with comparisons of Venezuela to draconian states that have violated human rights on a mass-scale. That is not to say that the government’s National Guard have not committed crimes in Venezuela, there is now explicit evidence of this that not even Maduro can deny. However the government is not forcing virginity tests on women or hiring snipers to go on killing missions, both of which have happened in Egypt and Ukraine amidst citizen protests.
This is not to excuse the government since the way in which they have mismanaged these protests is unacceptable. Yet, the Venezuelan government is not arbitrarily killing its citizens. If the colectivos or tupamaros decide to take it upon themselves to be “defenders of the revolution” that is not directly relatable to the Maduro; it is a by-product of his administrative actions. The government can do better to deal with these protests, but that does not make render them blood-thirty murderers as is being portrayed by some extreme-oppos.
Leopoldo Lopez is not only going to see a surge in attention and interest, but he could potentially emerge as a leading figure for the opposition. The government issuing an arrest warrant and subsequently attempting to charge him with conspiracy to murder, street destruction and terrorism makes the government look weak, paranoid and repressive. Lopez was never much of a threat to Maduro’s leadership until Maduro turned him into one.
Maria Corina Machado, Leopoldo Lopez and the rest of MUD have not helped their case. By calling for these protests in the first place, they are viewed as the instigators of violence. While I do not agree that they are responsible for what happens on the streets following their issue for demonstrations, I do believe that they have a responsibly to alleviate violence and stop calling people out on to the streets after it clearly turned into a deadly situation- they failed at this and now they have to seek ways to redeem themselves.
There are over 30 different parties within the opposition and they are majorly fractured. If they want present themselves as a viable alternative, they must aim at floating and alienated voters and disgruntled chavistas. Only – and only then– will we see any hope for the opposition. They are not going to cause drastic internal change within the country through these demonstrations- they may rattle a few cages and gain brief international coverage – but this does not translate into institutional change at a top-level.
The MUD must seek peaceful recourse, issue a public apology for the deaths of civilians from the student protests (even though they were not directly responsible for these deaths, an apology would serve as a respectable move to all the families and friends of those murdered) and strategically plan for the 2016 recall referendum window, otherwise recent events will be as fleeting as those of 2002-4.
There are reports that the government has taken down the internet in the opposition state Tachira and Maduro has warned that “If I have to decree a state of exception for Tachira and send in the tanks, I am ready to do it”. Maduro is making a big, big mistake in threatening this. Is he looking for an all out war? First the arrest of Lopez, then SEBIN debacle where the intelligence police force shot and killed Bassil Dacosta. Maduro has since removed the head of SEBIN, but sending in tanks? This would prove to be a disastrous move. Maduro’s mismanagement of the economy is a major driver of these protests and instead of giving two-hour long speeches on television, he should strive deal with one of the world’s highest inflation rates, the highest homocide rate in Latin America (above Mexico) and forecasts of a looming economic recession all happening in Venezuela today.
The president needs to realise that the biggest dagger to his government won’t come from “fascists” on the street, it will come from a failure to stabilise inflation and the exchange rate. The practice of state-led development is very simple, do not bite off more than you can chew, lest we forget over nintey-per cent of Venezuela’s revenues come from oil and there is no use talking about a Bolivarian Revolution that can no longer be sponsored by a state that is headed for bankruptcy.
Fransico Toro is absolutely right to talk of a game change. Everything changes from here on out. There is now clear evidence of the government officials violently repressing the protests and international media has been negligent of this. Let’s see how the next few weeks unfold. My prediction is that the situation will only further polarise an already devastatingly polarised country and violence will only escalate. Time to step up Maduro.