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Venezuela on the brink
The sound of banging pots began well before dawn. Out on the streets of Caracas on February 24, the barricades were going up across the south and east of the Venezuelan capital. Tree trunks, blocks of concrete, burning tires and smoldering trash brought traffic to a halt. In some areas demonstrators slicked the road surface with oil or spread spikes to keep away government forces.
It was the same picture in other big cities across Venezuela this week. With impressive co-ordination, opposition radicals were sending a message to President Nicolás Maduro: Beatings, bullets and tear gas will not deter us. “Look, this is a sacrifice,” says a barricade-builder in San Cristóbal in the southwestern border state of Táchira, where the protests began three weeks ago and tensions are highest. “It doesn’t matter if it takes a month, two months, three months. We have to get rid of this government.”
The protests started because of anger over violent crime, inflation and shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods, but the authorities’ harsh treatment of demonstrators has fuelled the rage. More than a dozen people have been killed since the regime’s response turned violent on February 12, half shot in the head.
Most of the deaths have been at the hands of security forces or civilian gunmen backing the government: On February 26 the authorities announced that seven members of the intelligence services have been charged with murder. The Venezuelan Penal Forum, a human-rights group, says that it has documented 18 cases of torture among the hundreds of detainees. More than 500 complaints about abuses remain to be investigated. Dozens of amateur videos show an excessive use of force on the streets.
Moderate leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity alliance are struggling to control the radicals, whose figurehead, Leopoldo López, has been in custody since February 18. On February 22 former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, told a mass rally in the capital that there were “millions of reasons to protest,” but that for protesters to barricade themselves in their own districts played into the government’s hands. That call has fallen on deaf ears.
There are signs of fracture within government ranks too. The official line of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela is that the opposition is trying to mount a “fascist coup.” A “truth commission” has been proposed to investigate “violence promoted by far-right groups.”
Nonetheless, Capriles’ calls for the authorities to cease repression and to free political prisoners were echoed on February 24 by José Gregorio Vielma Mora, a Socialist who is governor of Táchira state. Vielma acknowledged abuses and said that the economic crisis was behind the protests.
Although Vielma later retracted these comments, presumably under pressure from the government, his words were the first public evidence of tensions within the regime. They were all the more significant because the governor, a retired military officer, took part in the 1992 coup attempt by the late Hugo Chávez, founder and “eternal leader” of the Socialists, and is highly regarded by many former comrades.
Meanwhile the country’s economic woes worsen. In an effort to blunt the impact of the protests, Maduro decreed that this Carnival weekend—which coincides with the so-called “Caracazo” of 1989, when economic hardship led to days of looting and a massacre by the army—would begin on February 27, two days earlier than scheduled. With many offices and stores already closed because of the protests, an extended holiday will exacerbate pervasive shortages.
Extreme economic hardship is just around the corner in Venezuela, and with it the likelihood that anger against the regime will spread.