Less than ten months since Nicolas Maduro, 51, took office on April 19, 2013, Venezuelans remain divided on their political future. The division between the political left and right in the country continues amidst a state of unrest that has been ongoing since the death of Hugo Chavez on March 5, 2013. Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who served as Vice President under Chavez had also been designated by Chavez himself as the one who should succeed him in the event that he could not continue with his duties. When Chavez died, Maduro assumed the presidency much as would a U.S. Vice President in the event of the death a sitting U.S. President. Such a transition would normally occur peacefully in America, but Maduro’s authority as interim President of Venezuela was immediately questioned by the right-wing opposition giving rise to a number of protests.
A special election was then held on April 14, 2013. Maduro was elected, defeating his right-wing opponent Henrique Capriles by a margin of just 1.5 percent. Capriles immediately challenged the integrity of the election and demanded a recount, but Maduro was sworn into office on April 19 despite the challenges. An audit in June confirmed the legitimacy of Maduro’s electoral victory but Capriles made another appeal regardless which was overturned by the Supreme Court on August 7, 2013. The legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency together with the viability of his policies has since been opportunistically scrutinized by a number of opposition groups.
The most profuse outbreak of violence since the election of Maduro occurred in the streets of Caracas on Wednesday with at least two anti-government protesters killed and 23 injured by pro-Maduro vigilantes on motorcycle. The protesters were attacked by the vigilantes as they clashed with security forces attempting to suppress their demonstration. Although supposedly gathered to celebrate Youth Day which falls on February 12 in Venezuela, the demonstrators which consisted of thousands of students and several anti-government demonstrators of the political right joined ranks in downtown Caracas to protest the Maduro administration whose policies, they claim, are ultimately responsible for the country’s many political, social and economic difficulties. These include high crime, corruption, shortage of food, medicine and basic necessities as well as an inflation rate approaching 60 percent per year.
In other parts of the capital as well as in other cities in the land, supporters of the socialist coalition of left-wing parties led by Maduro also gathered to show their support for the government’s acclaimed war against private economic interests. The Maduro administration has repeatedly transferred the blame for Venezuela’s political, social and economic hardships to the country’s right-wing opposition movement. Venezuelans are currently divided into a left-wing coalition of parties under Maduro (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the right-wing opposition giving rise to an ongoing cycle of violence and political uncertainty in the country. This week’s violence has not been confined to the capital city of Caracas but also included shootings in the Andean city of Merida on Tuesday where five students were shot by motorcycle vigilantes and ten arrested.
Following the violence on Wednesday, Maduro promised that he would do everything in his power to restore peace and to bring lawbreakers to justice. He also threatened to arrest anyone who participated in demonstrations that had not received governmental approval. News media in the country were also threatened with sanctions in the event that their messages should promote chaos rather than peaceful dialogue. Maduro accused the right-wing opposition of trying to overthrow the democratically elected government through violence rather than democratic process and of attempting to stage a coup d’état as they did in 2002 that resulted in the temporary removal of Chavez.
Leopoldo Lopez, one of the right-wing opposition leaders, responded to the accusations saying that the anti-government protests are peaceful and that the violence was brought about by government security forces and vigilantes. He insisted that the opposition is not seeking a coup-d’état but the removal of the narrowly elected and incompetent Maduro whose policies, he claims, are ultimately responsible for the country’s many political, social and economic troubles. Capriles, who to this day maintains that he had won the election against Maduro, also condemned this week’s events as did a number of human rights groups who regard the government’s response as an unjustifiable act of violence designed to quash any demonstration against the government.
It appears that Venezuelans will not find an easy solution to their current dilemma. A return to basic democratic principles and increased cooperation between Venezuelans of different stripes (as opposed to the ongoing blame game) is certainly in order if the division and violence is to stop and a more peaceful future for Venezuela is to be realized.
By Nicholas Maletskas, Editorial