As Venezuela enters its third week of social unrest, President Nicolas Maduro continues to suppress street protests across the country, threatening to escalate a crisis that has already left 14 dead, 150 wounded and scores detained.
For three weeks now, anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets in what has become the biggest political crisis here in a decade. Protests have often been matched by competing government rallies held simultaneously but on opposite sides of the capital.
Until now, protests take place mainly in middle-class neighbourhoods, and Mr. Maduro has portrayed the protests as a provocation limited to his political opponents. In a statement on national television recently, he charged that they have “only” occurred in “18 of the country’s 335 municipalities, all of which are under opposition control.”
So far, he does not appear to feel pressured to change, let alone step down. But some analysts say that could change if his populist base – poorer Venezuelans who are suffering from the same high inflation, spiralling crime and food shortages as the middle-class and student protesters – join in.
Marlon Garcia, a self-employed driver of a moto-taxi, sees the effects of the protests every day when he is forced to skirt around heaps of trash and burning tires. On one level, he says, the protests are a nuisance. On another, he admits, he is tempted join. “That we don’t protest in the streets, does not mean we are not unhappy,” Mr. Garcia says.
Some parts of Caracas have been paralyzed by the demonstrations. More and more people have been forced to stay home. Several schools have closed their doors. For Mr. Garcia, the chaos has meant it takes an extra two additional hours to get home to Guatire, a low-income shantytown west of Caracas of bare-brick homes with zinc roofs, where people don’t protest.
But his neighbours are full of questions about what is happening; very little of the demonstrations and the National Guard crackdown on protesters are shown on the tightly-controlled television stations. One, Chargenis Sanchez, a friend who works in a small distribution plant, says he can barely make ends meet. “My salary lasts two days,” he says. Mr. Garcia’s wife Yessica voiced similar complaints. “I am having to use every trick I know to stretch the money I make – I buy less, I work more. And when I do have money, I can’t find what I need, like milk,” she says.
But Mr. Maduro still retains significant support in parliament, and across regional governments. His government can survive, according to Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College in Massachuetts, albeit remaining “forever wounded, too weakened to be capable of achieving much in terms of policy, but alive.”
Beginning last week, military forces moved in to restore order in the city of San Cristobal in western Venezuela. The National Guard has escalated efforts to suppress smaller groups of protesters in Caracas and other cities across the country using tear gas, rubber bullets and forceful detentions. Beyond barricading streets and setting off a deafening banging of pots and pans every time Mr. Maduro takes to the airwaves, some breakaway protester groups turned to guerrilla-style tactics against police. In one case, protesters hung a wire on a street that accidentally decapitated a passerby.
Opposition politicians have not broadened the anti-Maduro movement in part because the two highest profile leaders, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and the jailed Leopoldo Lopez, are viewed as part of an elite detached from the working class. Luis Vicente Leon, director of Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis, said they haven’t convinced the poor that they are capable of governing in their interests.
“They [the poor] are not going to get out in the street to do anything if they don’t feel there is an alternative” to the government, Mr. Leon told the Associated Press.
Protesters say the tit-for-tat violence is frightening, but the future more so. “We are scared because the National Guard has suppressed several of our protests but I am more scared of the day-to-day crime,” says Jonathan Mendez, a law student at Venezuela’s Central University. “I am indignant and I feel powerless but I want to fight for our country, for what is left of our freedom, and for a better future.”
Ronny Benavides, a 24 year-old, engineer student in Ciudad Bolivar, agrees. “I am more afraid of living with no opportunities, or of being killed by common street crime than I am of dying in a protest,” he says. “The country’s basic industries have collapsed under the government’s mismanagement. What is my life going to be like? I want a change.”