What started as a protest early this month following a sexual assault at the University of the Andes in San Cristóbal has blown up into a massive political crisis in Venezuela, with no clear end in sight.
The assault set off the frustration of students with the country’s endemic crime problem. Local police responded aggressively, and their arrests and blithe mistreatment of protesters catalyzed demonstrations that have swept the country.
At least 14 people have been killed in clashes so far. Still recovering from a bitter, narrow loss to Maduro in the presidential election that followed Hugo Chávez’s death a year ago, opposition members have seized on the public’s disgruntlement — with the country’s security forces, its crippled economy, and the state’s abuse of power — as an opportunity to push much-needed reforms.
Now, weeks into this nascent resistance movement, the participants have determined that it’s time to state what it is they actually want.
Lists of demands have circulated online detailing measures “to get out of the crisis,” which range from the release of all detained protesters — of which there are at least 48, according to President Nicolas Maduro — to the disarmament and disbanding of paramilitary groups.
A 6-point list drawn up by representatives of the student movement was picked up within days by political opposition leaders. They expanded the list to a 10-point platform that calls for reforms that include opening access to the national media, ending the country's generous oil disbursements abroad until the economic outlook improves, and selecting a nonpartisan mediator (possibly the Catholic Church) to convene a “truth commission” that would examine the course of recent events.
The Venezuelan Embassy referred VICE News to the government’s press officers in Caracas for comment, but officials there did not respond to questions about the demonstrations and the demands of the opposition.
Meanwhile, Maduro has been promoting the upcoming Carnival, even adding another two days to the national holiday, hoping that this will entice people to leave the streets. A state television advertisement invites Venezuelans to party it up, telling them Carnival is “cool.”
Amid ongoing protests, Venezuelans are encouraged to enjoy Carnival.
Many are of course calling for the ousting of Maduro and his administration —they have demanded Maduro’s resignation on Twitter with the hashtag #LaSalida, “the Exit.” But generally, protesters appear to be less intent on promoting another coup than in advocating an end to rampant crime, shortages of goods and supplies, and government repression.
Protesters are calling for a boycott of the holiday — a spontaneous initiative that was loosely organized via social media and phone apps, despite the government’s attempts to slow down the Internet and block services.
While representatives of the student movement and opposition parties are increasingly coordinating protests and inviting the public to join, most initiatives — like a recent call for Venezuelans across the country to set up barricades and block traffic — have simply been improvised.
“When someone has a catchy idea, people just get on it and start supporting it,” Carlos Romero, an outreach coordinator for the opposition, told VICE News. “It’s not one person in particular. People just really need to express their frustration and indignation at all the repression and all the violence.”
But while political opposition parties haven't really co-opted the protests, they have definitely embedded themselves within the movement.
These politicians are not particularly keen on some of the protesters’ more radical tactics, like the use of barricades, but overall they are trying to build consensus and maintain a united front.
“People are fed up — they don’t know what to do, so they go to the streets and set up barricades,” Bernardo Pulido, a member of the Voluntad Popular movement and lawyer for jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, told VICE News. He said that student organizers and political leaders wield little influence on the movement.
“Some people think we have to be more active in the streets,” Pulido noted, adding that others, like the opposition’s defeated candidate for president, Henrique Capriles, “think the protests must be highly organized and thought out. But it’s a difference of opinion, not a conflict.”
Maduro has condemned the protesters as “fascists” and the demonstrations as a US-inspired attempt to justify foreign intervention. He expelled three US diplomats from Caracas, to which the US reacted by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats.
Maduro has also referred to the masses gathering in the streets as “a violent minority.” Protesters maintain that they have conducted themselves peacefully.
“The government has tried repeatedly to say that the opposition is getting involved in violent activities,” Pulido explained. “But all the violence has come either from the government, like the national guard, or by these pro-government paramilitary groups, the colectivos. The amazing thing is that after seeing the terrible things that are happening, people are still not getting scared.”
Protesters and opposition leaders hope that stating their demands might lend the movement direction and set the stage for a productive dialogue — though they have so far shunned Maduro’s calls for a national “peace” conference.
With the protests in full swing, when and how things will end in Venezuela is anyone’s guess.
“It’s a visceral crisis,” a local journalist who asked not to be named told VICE News, before noting that the movement remains well short of a coup attempt. “There’s no Kiev-like momentum here. We’re not at the brink of a change of power.”
While these recent developments can give the appearance that Chavismo is on the wane in Venezeula — after all, much has been made of the fact that Maduro commands none of Chávez’s charisma — the government’s critics generally accept the reality that Maduro is backed by the army and remains solidly in power.
"If there's one thing these violent protests have done, it's unite Chavismo,” Maduro said last weekend.
But the government has also suffered blows, as some within its ranks have criticized the president’s escalation of the crisis.
On Monday, Jose Vielma Mora, a respected member of Maduro’s party and the governor of the state of Tachira, where the original student protest in San Cristóbal took place, publicly criticized the president’s deployment of troops and called for a release of detained protesters.
However, Pulido pointed out that Vielma Mora later appeared on television to proclaim his support for Maduro.
“There are disagreements,” Pulido said of divisions inside the ruling party, “but they are trying to silence them. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
At the moment, that uncertainty is keeping people in the streets — even with the likelihood that things will likely get worse before they change.