Three more people were killed in clashes in Venezuela on Wednesday, raising the death toll of the unrest that started there more than a month ago to 25.
The latest victims — a student, an army officer and a man who was reached by a bullet while painting his house — died in the central state of Carabobo as riots continued to flare up across the country.
Far from dying out, the protests have grown in intensity and violence - though not in massive numbers of people hitting the streets. Each side has repeatedly blamed the other for the violence, and each has doubled down on its tactics: not only barricades and tear gas, but also improvised explosives and live ammunition.
But with the two camps aligned solidly along class lines, the protests have remained largely confined to a small, more privileged minority. And while things in Venezuela are getting ugly, it’s looking less likely that they’ll bring down the government.
Most protesters — who were initially calling for reforms — are now rallying for President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation. Maduro, for his part, has gone from labeling the protesters “fascists” to calling them “criminal terrorists,” and he has unleashed an increasingly impatient national guard on them.
“I'm going to take drastic measures with all of these sectors that are attacking and killing the Venezuelan people," he said on Wednesday, as the now daily fighting between police and protesters resumed in Altamira Square, one of Caracas’ main battlegrounds.
Also on Wednesday, opposition leader Maria Corina Machado, who has led the protests since the beginning, told the BBC that anti-government groups are now demanding a change of government.
But as tensions deepen, bringing with them the quasi-certainty of more violence to come, a change of regime continues to seem improbable, and that’s because a significant proportion of Venezuelans oppose the protests and back the government.
“Just like they couldn’t get rid of Chavez, now they are trying to get rid of Maduro, but they can’t do that because the people are with him,” Ulises Bravo, a resident of the Caracas barrio of Nuevo Horizonte, told VICE News earlier this month. “All they care for is to get rid of Maduro, they don’t care that people eat or that they are educated.”
Many in Venezuela are wary of the protests, saying they're filled with middle- and upper-class “private university students” and pro-US and Colombian “infiltrators." They fear a change of government would return the country to the hands of the economic elites that used to rule it before Chavez.
For a majority of Venezuelans, there is only one revolution, and that’s not the one being fought in the streets these days.
“Seventy percent of Venezuelans, we have a very free conscience, our commander opened our eyes,” Bravo said.
There is no poll to corroborate Bravo's numbers, and the last presidential election — which opposition leader Henrique Capriles lost to Maduro — was a close call. But the Chavistas won most elections in the last decade, including last year's December regional election, a clear sign of the support they retain across the country.
“We can’t ever lose this revolution," he added, referring to Chavez' Bolivarian revolution. "And we’re going to teach that to our children, and our children will teach that to their children. This revolution will continue until the end of the world.”
While still poor and faced with the same spiraling violence and chronic shortages that brought several protesters to the streets, a majority of Venezuelans fear that a return to the deep inequalities of the past would strip them of the economic and social progress they have benefitted from under Chavismo.
Unemployment dropped during Chavez' 14-year rule, and although crime and inflation have skyrocketed, most Venezuelans say they are better off today than they were before his reforms.
“We in Venezuela know very well hunger, misery, the abuse of those who think they are superior,” Tony Rodriguez, a coordinator for one of the country’s colectivos told VICE News. "We don’t want this to be repeated.”
Rodriguez said the protesters are “selfish” and suffering from a “superiority complex.”
“We don’t want to take the things they have, on the contrary, what we want is for everybody to achieve a better life,” he added. “We want to overcome poverty, we want to overcome marginalization, we want to overcome injustice.”
But protesters say colectivos— which date back to the urban guerrilla movements of the 1960s, and reinvented themselves as defenders of the revolution under Chavez — are paramilitary groups, usually traveling on motorbikes, and armed by the government to silence the opposition. They accused them, as well as the national guard, of causing many of the deaths of the past weeks.
Pro-government militias, known as “colectivos,” reportedly arrived in Valencia on motorbikes and shot at random.
Rodriguez denied colectivos are supported by the state and said they have been unjustly “demonized.”
“There are workers’ collectives, artists’ collectives, fishermen’s collectives,” he said. “We’re just working for a better society.”
Caught between the protesters calling for change and those ready to defend Maduro’s government from what they see as an attempted coup, are also regular Venezuelans - tired of the shortages and crime but also of the barricades and clashes that have paralyzed the country for weeks now.
“Opposition and Chavistas both are so radical,” Luis Itanare, a college instructor from outside Caracas, told VICE News, “I don’t want to go to the street and punch in the face someone who thinks differently.”
Others criticized the opposition — and leaders like Machado, Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles — of co-opting what was born as a spontaneous movement.
“At the beginning these were autonomous, civilian mobilizations,” artist Gala Garrido told VICE News. “Then Lopez and Machado came and put a flag on them.”
On Wednesday, foreign ministers from several South American nations met in Chile to discuss the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. Back in Caracas, some suggested the only solution would be unity.
“I think the way out of this situation must be something other than Chavismo and other than the opposition,” Garrido said. “Hopefully we’ll learn something from these protests, as a society.”
Photo via Flickr
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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