Five ways in which this wave of demonstrations in Venezuela is different

May 25 at 7:00 AM
Protesters clashed with security forces in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 18, in the latest demonstration during weeks of anti-government unrest. (Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — For nearly two months, Venezuelans have been holding almost-daily demonstrations against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, demanding early elections, more democratic rights and the release of political prisoners. At least 55 people have died in the protests, which come amid a severe economic crisis in the oil-producing country.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that Venezuelans have launched protest movements against Maduro. In 2014 and 2016, demonstrators held a series of marches, but they died down after a few weeks.

Will this time be different? Here are five reasons this wave of protests could achieve more results:

1. The demonstrations are more widespread and have continued for longer than in previous periods.

Never before have so many people taken to the streets for so long in so many states across the country, according to PROVEA, a nonprofit Venezuelan group that monitors human rights issues. Another organization that tracks social conflict, the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory, said that from April 1 to May 17, there were 1,208 protests across the nation. Dozens more have occurred since then, even though security forces have tried to discourage the marches by deploying tanks and using rubber bullets and tear gas.

2. The demonstrations are drawing people from a variety of economic classes.

The economy has sharply contracted, and the inflation is among the highest in the world because of low oil prices and ineffective policies implemented by the socialist-oriented government. Venezuelans are suffering from a severe scarcity of food and medicine. The government’s popularity has fallen to less than 15 percent, according to a recent poll from the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis, or IVAD.

Clashes broke out during an anti-government march led by thousands of elderly Venezuelans when police tried to block them from advancing in the capital city of Caracas. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Low-income residents in areas that had been strongholds of the ruling party have started to join the protests. In the past, many working-class Venezuelans supported the system put in place by late president Hugo Chávez in the early part of this century — and maintained by Maduro — because they received benefits such as cheap groceries and free medical care and housing. But many “Chavistas” have become disillusioned with the government. “The difference this time,” said Nicmer Evans, a member of Marea Socialista, one of the Chavista movements that is critical of Maduro, “is that they have reasons to protest.”

3. There are open divisions in Maduro’s party.

There are clear signs of fissures within the ruling party. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a longtime Chavista, condemned a decision by the supreme court in March to strip the opposition-controlled legislature of its powers. She also has denounced the use of military law to judge detained protesters and criticized Maduro’s recent call for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. “Her statements, I think, make change a probable scenario,” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalisis polling firm.

Two supreme court magistrates declared this week that they’re also against Maduro’s push for a constituent national assembly. Although they’re not members of the constitutional court, which decides if the assembly is legal, their dissent was highly unusual, because the government exercises great influence over the judiciary.

Henrique Capriles, opposition leader and governor of the state of Miranda, said such actions could have a “snowball effect” in the near future. “They set a precedent for others to do it tomorrow.”

4. Maduro’s government is more isolated internationally.

Many countries and international bodies have become more critical of the government and supportive of the opposition. Members of the Organization of American States, for example, voted last month to call an emergency meeting to discuss the humanitarian crisis and political violence in Venezuela. The country reacted by announcing it would withdraw from the entity. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights recently sought to meet with Capriles, but the politician reported that his passport was annulled as he tried to leave Venezuela to travel to New York.

The U.S. Treasury Department last week announced sanctionsagainst eight magistrates of Venezuela’s supreme court because of its decision to strip power from the opposition-controlled congress.

5. Opposition parties are unified, and the coalition is evolving.

Unlike in past protest movements, the opposition coalition (MUD) has a clear and unified message and agenda, said Daniel Fermín, a sociologist who specializes in nonviolent conflicts.

Leaders of different parties have joined the marches. Young leaders are emerging and taking a central role, giving fresh energy to an opposition whose main figures have been in politics since the early years of the Chávez presidency.

Some opposition leaders have hinted that mid- and low-ranking members of the military are becoming more sympathetic to anti-government protesters. Freddy Guevara, vice president of the National Assembly, tweeted recently that lawmakers were starting to work on amnesty measures that would apply to some government officials and members of the military in the event of a transition, with the goal of making it easier for them to change sides now.

Despite these differences with past protest movements, there is no guarantee that the demonstrators will achieve their aims. The government has cracked down fiercely on the protests, using force and making over 2,600 arrests. And the opposition could lose its ability to mobilize people if it can’t prevent more radical demonstrators from resorting to violence, Fermin said.

Still, there are signs that Venezuela is living a new chapter of its history.

Published in The Washington Post May 25, 2017.

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