Venezuelans braced for more political violence as thousands of supporters and opponents of the government of President Nicolás Maduro took to the streets on Saturday for competing rallies. With the economy in shambles and violence escalating, Venezuela’s crisis and criticism of Maduro mount. There are calls for more protests on Sunday.
The protests began February 2 in San Cristobal, a remote city on the western border, where at first students then tens of thousands marched. They were protesting the soaring crime rate, food shortages and runaway inflation that have made life difficult in oil-rich Venezuela, which used to have one of South America’s highest standards of living.
Protests quickly spread to Caracas and other major cities, and intensified over the past two weeks. Anti-government protests and clashes have been a daily occurrence in the highly divided country since Feb. 12, leaving eight people dead and hundreds injured. The opposition has accused armed militia groups of attacking protesters and firing indiscriminately into crowds.
Venezuela’s economy is in free fall. The government has devalued its currency multiple times, most recently on Jan. 22. The devaluations intensified inflation, which is now near 60 percent. Crime is forcing Venezuelans to stay indoors rather than going out to shop, dine, or see a movie. Not that there is a lot to buy or eat as food shortages escalate. Shopping online is now limited to $300 a year on credit cards. Travelers to the U.S. and other top destinations for Venezuelans cannot shop on trips either; they are now limited to charging only $700 a year on credit cards, down from $2,500, which will not cover most hotel stays much less anything else.
The origins of the current problems started when Chavismo, the leftist ideology espoused by Hugo Chávez, was already in trouble. Prior to his death from cancer last year, Chávez chose Maduro, a lackluster National Assembly member, as his successor. Despite not having his predecessor’s communications and unifying skills, Maduro sought to continue Chávez’s policies. He barely survived the April 2013 presidential election, where he squeaked by with 50.6 percent of the vote.
As the protests have escalated this year, Maduro has accused the United States and media of plotting to overthrow his government. He revoked press credentials for CNN reporters covering protests and ordered them to leave the country, but later let them remain. In a new conference this week, however, he said that CNN, Fox News and other U.S. media are encouraging the opposition forces.
Maduro has also blamed Venezuela opposition figure Leopoldo López for fomenting the violence as the criticism of the President and crisis mount. Maduro recently had López jailed on charges of arson and incitement related to the protests.
López differs greatly from the mostly working-class Chávistas he hopes to oust. The 42-year-old was born to a well-off Caracas family descended from the country’s founder, Simón Bolívar. He went to college in the U.S. and earned a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University. He worked in the oil industry and taught at a university before entering politics in the footsteps of Bolívar and Cristóbal Mendoza, another ancestor who was Venezuela’s first president. López served eight years as mayor of Chacao, a prosperous commercial area.
Now, the social media savvy López has emerged as head of Venezuela’s opposition. He is willing to go up against Maduro. That suits the public, when everyone, including the poor, is dealing with worsening shortages. The middle class is increasingly infuriated by Maduro’s attempts to silence its critics. Before his arrest, López took to YouTube and Twitter to rally Venezuelans fed up with the shortages. With López in jail and protests in the streets, Maduro needs to address the economic crisis and Venezuela crime problems before the violence and criticism of his regime mount any further.
By Dyanne Weiss