A sexual assault in a small college city of San Cristobal in Venezuela’s Western state of Tachira has galvanized protests that have spread quickly and now threaten to tear the country apart.
On February 2, students at the University of the Andes in San Cristobal took to the streets over the city’s deteriorating security situation, after a fellow student was sexually assaulted a few nights prior. Police responded harshly, and many students were detained and allegedly abused. Within a few days, more protests popped up at other universities in solidarity.
By February 12 protests spread to 18 cities, including the capital of Caracas, as students and members of Venezuela’s middle class took to the streets to express their frustration with President Nicolas Maduro’s government. Pro-government protesters also joined, and soon reports emerged of widespread violence, including 3 deaths, which many blamed on the pro-government side.
Police responded with force February 24 as barricades were built on streets in cities as part of a social media campaign.
Venezuela’s National Guard, as well as government affiliated irregular militias known as “colectivos” have been accused of exacerbating the violence. Footage of colectivos riding around on motorcycles attacking protests have made the rounds on social media. Protesters, too, have damaged property and fought with police.
Fifteen years after Hugo Chavez was elected and began his Bolivarian revolution, Maduro has attempted to carry on his legacy. A former bus driver, Maduro was elected to the national assembly in 2000 and won a narrow presidential election over Henrique Capriles in April 2013, following Chavez’s death.
Maduro’s government has given protesters ample reasons to take to the streets. Inflation is at 56 percent, and Venezuela suffers from one of the highest murder rates in the world (23-25,000 in a county of 30 million). There have been severe shortages of basic goods, like toilet paper and flour. Newspapers are running out of paper, and despite having what is alleged to be the largest oil reserve in the world, the country is vastly in debt. Infrastructure is rapidly declining, and corruption is rampant.
Leopoldo Lopez, the Harvard-educated son of a prominent family and former mayor of a Caracas municipality, has emerged as the main opposition leader after attaching himself to the student led protest movement. He has continuously called for people to take to the streets and demand Maduro’s ouster, a movement coined “La Salida,” or “the exit.”
Maduro has blamed Lopez for the protester deaths, and after a brief role as a fugitive, Lopez turned himself in and awaits trial for charges of sedition. Lopez played a major role in the attempted 2002 coup of Chavez, and has frequently been at odds with the government. Maduro and his supports have labeled him a fascist, and accused him of being an American-backed puppet of Venezuela’s elite. Maduro has also accused the protest movement of being a US financed coup attempt, and expelled three US diplomats shortly after protests broke out.
Also earning Maduro’s wrath is former President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe, who he says is funding paramilitaries to foment violence in the Western state of Tachira.
Maduro’s government has also attempted to censor reporting on the protests. Media repression has been ongoing in Venezuela, where most outlets are already state-controlled. Journalists from CNN had their accreditation revoked, then reinstated shortly after. The Colombian news channel NTN24 was blocked for reporting on the protest. Twitter was also restricted, and the Internet has been shut off in restive areas.
“The censorship is so brutal,” Venezuelan journalist Mariana Atencio told VICE News. “The government really controls the internet platform. It's hard for people to protest.”
Demonstrations have continued through the week, with dueling rallies between opposition and pro-government protesters. Protesters are back in the streets, and the death toll has reportedly risen to 14.