Laura Gamboa, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame
Last February, Venezuela saw the beginning of widespread student demonstrations gainst Nicolás Maduro’s government. ((For more information on Venezuela in English I recommend the Caracas Chronicles.)) For a while, it seemed like the government was not going to stand the pressure. Four months, 41 deaths and 3864 detentions later (Foro Penal Venezolano), however, things have not changed much. Maduro is still in power, the opposition still has little access to the state, and while pressure from protesters in the streets is withering down, it has not disappeared yet. As an outside observer, who has spent a couple of months in Caracas, it is unclear to me what, if anything, will happen next. Economic problems, violence and discontent run deep, but the opposition hasn’t been able to build on that to present themselves as a credible alternative yet. Divided as they are, their dominant discourse hasn’t been able to move past the existing chavista – non-chavista cleavage and propose an alternative future to substitute the reality in place.
What drives the ongoing protests?
The grievances that have fueled the protest are threefold. First, people are protesting scarcity and inflation. Throughout his government former president Hugo Chávez used the country’s oil revenues to increase social spending and buy international support. Meanwhile, Chávez failed to promote new industries and hurt the existing ones with his ownership and labor policies. As a consequence the Venezuelan economy has not been able to produce enough food and goods to meet the domestic demand and the government has had to rely on oil money – even more than previous administrations – to import everything, from milk and toilet paper to cell phones. As corruption and mismanagement have seriously hindered PDVSA’s (the country’s petroleum company) revenues, however, the government has had substantially less income and has failed to pay international trading partners who, therefore, have stopped selling food and goods. Consequently, today it is not only hard to find basic products such as butter, oil, sugar or flour, but the country is also running low on medicines, medical equipment and other supplies.
Secondly, people are protesting rising violence. Government-armed militias (colectivos armados) and impunity have created opportunities for crime. As a result, the homicide rate in Venezuela has increased non-stop since Chávez came to power. The exact numbers are contested ((For an interesting discussion on the numbers and their validity see this blog post by Dorothy Kronick.)) but according to most sources the homicide rate approximates 50 incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. Venezuela, which was never known to be violent and does not have guerrilla, drug or gang related problems like other countries in the region, is now the second most dangerous country on the continent after Honduras (UNDCP).
Finally, people are protesting the deterioration of human rights and civil liberties. Slowly but steadily Chávez coopted state institutions and used them to tighten state control over the media, increase repression, and outlaw peaceful protest. Throughout the last decade the government bought out various formerly critical news outlets such as Globovision and Cadena Capriles, and has been obstructing the paper purchases of opposition newspapers like El Universal and El Nacional. The government has also used the National Guard to suffocate opposition protests. In early 2014 Human Rights Watch documented more than 150 victims of serious human rights abuses, including unlawful detentions, police brutality and even torture. Furthermore, the judiciary has been used to protect the perpetrators of these crimes and „legalize“ the imprisonment of students and opposition members. Just recently, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice outlawed peaceful protest without government „permits“. Even though the opposition has managed to win one third of the seats in the National Assembly, some mayorships and governorships, as of now there is very little they can do to influence the decision making process and stop these abuses. Every day government opponents see less and less public space to voice their grievances which in turn increases the frustration and with it recklessness in the streets.
Why have protesters not been more successful?
Despite the severity of these problems, it should be noted that not everybody agrees with the protests. There is a significant group of Venezuelans who have benefited from Chávez‘ government policies. Even though people in the slums (so called barrios) also suffer from inflation, scarcity, and violence, many still believe that things have improved and that an opposition takeover would make them worse off. These feelings should not be dismissed easily. Chávez was able to reach sectors formerly invisible to traditional politicians. Not only did he improve the living conditions in the slums but, more importantly, he gave their inhabitants access to the state. With few exceptions, the opposition has failed to even discuss these groups‘ problems and concerns, which reinforces the idea that whatever they have gained will disappear if the opposition attains power again. ((For more information on this comparison check Dorothy Kronick’s and Rebeca Hanson’s posts.))
This neglect is, in part, why the protests, despite increasing international awareness, have failed to gather enough domestic support to push for meaningful political changes. Although initially organized by the student movement against rising violence, these demonstrations where later transformed by radical opposition sectors into a platform to force Maduro out of power. „The Way Out“ (La Salida), as this “strategy” is known, served two purposes. First, it helped its leaders – politicians like Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado – contest Henrique Capriles‘ (opposition presidential candidate in 2013) leadership and gain leverage within the opposition coalition. Second, La Salida voiced the anxiety of many middle and upper-class Venezuelans who believe Chavismo is moving the country towards socialism and the only way to prevent that is to get rid of the government itself.
However, despite the students‘ perseverance and drive, it is very unlikely that they will successfully push a regime change. First, the protests have failed to fully attract less committed Chavistas and political independents (so called ni-nis, what roughly translates to „neither-nors“). An important sector of society is disappointed with Maduro’s administration, but these people are not yet ready to jump in bed with an opposition that calls for Maduro’s head. Second, although impressive the student movement is still organizationally weak. Student leaders lack full control over the student body and, while several protests have remained peaceful, others have turned violent, hurting their cause. Finally, and most importantly, the protests have failed to inflict serious harm on the government. They have not created splits in the Chavista coalition but rather strengthened it. Leading politicians and the armed forces are fully behind the regime and although the government’s repressive actions have harmed Maduro’s international image, the scope of this damage is unclear. After all, and despite the concerns about how contested the 2013 elections truly were, Maduro was popularly elected and therefore, it is unlikely that the international community will openly aid efforts to oust him.
Looking forward: where the opposition might go from here
The most serious problem of the opposition lies within its own ranks, as radical and moderate sectors pull in opposite directions. The former group wants to stick to the original goal and push for regime change by fueling protests in the streets. The latter group believes such strategy is costly and ineffective and proposes an „electoral strategy“ instead. Their objective is to use whatever institutional spaces they have won already in order to win some more. In doing so, they aim to level the electoral playing field such that in the next elections (and possibly an impeachment referendum) they might actually win.
Neither strategy is perfect. The opposition lacks the civilian support to push for a government change from the streets. Maduro was popularly elected and forcing him to resign would be seen as illegitimate, both domestically and abroad. Furthermore, forcing Chavismo out of power would further polarize an already divided country and hinder any chance for political reconciliation. Any regime change in Venezuela must start with both groups acknowledging each other. In order to succeed, the opposition needs to assure Chavistas that they will maintain the visibility and representation they have won. In this sense, a long-term electoral strategy seems better suited to reach a political turnover. However, for this strategy to work, the moderate sector of the opposition needs to include the student movement and the people who are already mobilized in the streets. They need to devise a strategy to represent and channel more radical demands. They need to show that refusing to act rashly is not the same as being inactive, and that patience and creativity might go a little further than force.