What is happening in Venezuela?

Mass anti-government protests in Venezuela have gripped the country over the past two weeks, claiming 10 lives and injuring at least 100. Angry with President Maduro’s government, demonstrators have taken to the streets in what are the biggest protests since Chavez hand-picked successor was elected by a narrow margin last April. But why did the protests erupt in the first place, and where do things stand now?

The unrest kicked off on 12 February with a student-led rally on the streets of San Cristobal, in the state of Táchira (where Internet access has recently been cut by the government). Students started by demanding that the Maduro administration tackled safety concerns, following the sexual assault of a freshman student at ULA university. Despite attempts to crack down on crime, Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with one person murdered every 21 minutes (the death business is thriving as a result of that).

The protest quickly turned violent, killing three people and escalating to other cities, including Valencia and the capital Caracas, where tear gas and rubber bullets have become the norm. Opposition leader Leopoldo López soon has become as the main face of the movement, especially since he turned himself in to the authorities this week. Maduro accused López of training gangs of youths to incite violence as part of a coup to bring down the government. Undeterred, the former mayor of Caracas’ Chacao district urged demonstrators to stay on the streets. The president has also threatened to imprison other opposition members and protest leaders, called the anti-government protests a “fascist coup plot” backed by the US and financed by Colombia’s former president Álvaro Uribe.

Crime is far from being the only problem in the deeply divided and oil-rich country. Inflation is at a startling 56% and the bolívar currency has devaluated drastically. And constant shortages of basic commodities such as sugar, flour, toilet paper and even newsprint paper, have added to the discontent (the government has accused distributors of leaving supermarket shelves empty as a way of fuelling unrest). Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators appear to have had enough of empty promises and of the ineffective and authoritarian policies seemingly incapable of solving a series of crises. Their clashes with the state police and with colectivos, pro-government citizen militias, have turned some municipalities into authentic battlefields.

The government accuses distributors of orchestrating the shortages as part of an “economic war” to fuel unrest.

Another major issue and one of the opposition’s accusations is that the government’s worsening crackdown on free speech and freedom of the press. The government controls most of CANTV, the state-owned internet provider, which provides more than half of broadband connections in the country. That near-monopoly makes it very easy to block its citizens from uploading and viewing pictures on Twitter, for example, as it did last week.

“Venezuelan broadcast media showed very unflattering signs of self-censorship, restricting its transmissions to telenovelas, interviews with athletes or obligatory government messages, rather than live coverage of events in the streets,” David Smilde, a Caracas-based analyst with the Washington Office for Latin America, told the Financial Times.

On Friday, Venezuela revoked the accreditations of CNN reporters covering the country’s crisis for allegedly “fomenting violence”. A few days earlier, Bogotá-based cable news network NTN24 was taken off the air in Venezuela following coverage of anti-government demonstrations – just to name a couple of examples. One of the regime’s arguments is that reporting of violent acts could violate broadcasting law. Here’s a good summary of the situation. In the meantime, personal accounts of torture in the hands of the authorities have been picked up in several international publications.

So what happens now? As with other insurrections, it’s hard to predict an outcome. Judging by the tone of Maduro’s latest speeches, where he called the street demonstrations a “fascist plan” that he plans on eradicating “as one eradicates infection”, it seems unlikely that he will make concessions any time soon. But with public demonstrations now approaching their third week, it also looks like protesters won’t budge, even if structural change comes at a high price. While Maduro still holds a strong support base in the country, if he keeps crushing his opponents, be it citizens or politicians, that might fuel his people’s anger further.


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