On Sunday in Venezuela, thousands gathered once again to march peacefully in the upper-class neighborhoods of Caracas, continuing the opposition movement’s momentum. President Nicolas Maduro attempted to slow this momentum by declaring a seven day holiday for Carnaval and to commemorate late president Hugo Chavez who died on March 5, 2013.1 Maduro also used the announcement to promote the sale of government-subsidized food in markets on Sunday, but shortages were quickly revealed. While some Venezuelans took advantage of the added holiday by heading to the beach, others headed to the barricades on the streets.
On a hill overlooking the continued protests in Caracas, within century old military barracks, lies the guarded mausoleum of beloved president Hugo Chavez. Below, protests continue against the problems since his handpicked successor, Maduro, took power.2 The strong support that once backed Chavez is now fading quickly under Maduro’s rule. Maduro speaks of Chavez and his ideals daily and has also inherited an incredibly strong party from the late charismatic leader. However, the anti-government protests are continuing to de-stabilize the government. Since Maduro took office, the crime rate in the country has continued to grow, the inflation rate has grown to 56%, and there is a crippling shortage of basic needs like flour and toilet paper.2 Alberto Barrera Tyszka, author of a 2004 biography of Chavez, recently commented on Maduro’s uphill battle: “Maduro has done everything within his power to use the Chavez cult against the economic crisis, but it’s a lopsided battle. Every day that goes by he’s less and less seen as Chavez’s heir.” Even though the origins of the crisis stem from Chavez’s state centered management of the oil industry, the blame is falling on Maduro and Chavez remains a treasured hero. Since taking office, Maduro has appointed more than 300 current or retired military members to political positions, increased soldier salaries more than the inflation rate calls for, and created a military run TV network. These moves have earned him total military support and could be the explanation for the violent crackdown on protesters.2 While the majority of the lower class still remains supportive of Maduro, the upper and middle class protests are still growing.
The unrest throughout Venezuela is the worst since the close election following the death of Hugo Chavez. Sunday’s marchers, old and young, united by wearing white shirts and hats with Venezuelan flag colors. While these protestors are mostly from the upper class, some protestors from the lower class are beginning to join the efforts. Some think they did not participate sooner because the pro-government militias intimidated them. “People there are starting to wake up. The insecurity has become unbearable,” said Liomar Moreno, a 21-year-old graphic design student.1
Saturday night in Caracas was the first night in the 16 days of protests where the night did not end with violent conflict between protesters and the military forces.3Although it seems as though Saturday’s quiet was in preparation for Sunday’s march. Protesters arrived Sunday with pre-made Molotov cocktails and homemade shields made of aluminum siding with handles made from garden hoses. Protesters also wore heat-resistant gloves to make it easier to throw tear gas canisters back at the guardsmen. The national guardsmen protected themselves with their signature plastic shields and new, semi-permanent chain link barricades. Throughout the country in cities like Mérida, Valencia, and San Cristóbal, protesters have set up and maintained their own burning barricades like the ones being built by protesters in Caracas.3
According to Venezuelan government figure, 18 people have been killed and 260 have been injured. On Sunday, the government released 41 people that were arrested in a protest in Caracas on Friday that ended with the protesters throwing Molotov cocktails, bottles, and rocks at National Guard troops.1 Opposition leader Leopoldo Lope remains in custody, but his wife, Lilian Tintori, continues to lead protests in Caracas.
Additionally over the weekend, the opposition refused to sit down for a “peace dialogue” with Maduro until he frees all detainees. The opposition is also lobbying for the creation of a Truth Commission to determine how protesters and bystanders have died during the marches. There are accusations of pro-government attackers gunning down protestors. Maduro has openly discussed his suspicions of a coup attempt by the “fascist right wing” protesters, which Maduro believes are backed by the United States.1 Officials in Washington are denying the accusations and have maintained opposition against Maduro’s actions to silence the free speech of the people. Also, on Friday the U.N. human rights chief called for the Venezuelan government to respect the peaceful assemblies and expressed concern about the use of excessive force against protesters.3
As the protests continue to gain momentum, and new members, it appears as though neither side will be backing down any time soon. With shortages and inflation at an all time high and conditions showing no signs of improvement, the tension that began since Maduro took office will only continue to grow. Many knew that Venezuela would have major issues when the charisma and drive of Hugo Chavez was no longer around, but it appears as though the secrets to running a successful Chavista nation died with him.
1. Bajak, Frank, and Andrew Rosati. "Venezuelan Opposition Marches to Keep up Momentum." The Washington Post. Pg 1-4. 02 March 2014. Web. 03 March 2014.
2. Goodman, Joshua. "Chavez Cult No Match for Venezuela’s Crisis." The Washington Post. Pg 1-5. 02 March 2014. Web. 03 March 2014.
3. "Venezuelan Protests Continue, despite Carnival Holiday." Al-Jazeera America. Pg 1-7. 2 March 2014. Web. 03 March 2014.