Thousands of protesters clashed violently with security forces on the streets of Caracas Tuesday in one of the largest demonstrations in months over fears of President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly “dictatorial path.”
The Venezuelan leader and his government have been strongly criticized by regional powers and the international community for the “brutal repression” of opposition lawmakers and protesters on the streets of the capital this week, which were a direct response to a Supreme Court ruling that effectively stripped the last vestiges of power from the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the government’s legislative branch.
The move was seen as the latest display of Maduro’s efforts to consolidate power and quell his critics as he faces mounting pressure and a spiraling economic crisis that shows no signs of letting up.
Tuesday’s planned protests in Caracas were the latest effort by opposition leaders to rally the public against Maduro’s struggling government.
“Here the world can see the dictatorial path Mr. Maduro has chosen,” former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said Tuesday.
Maduro has regularly blamed outside forces — particularly the U.S. — for agitating tension in the country as it weathers an array of crippling economic and social problems, and his response to Tuesday’s protest maintained that stance.
“They [U.S.] give the order to the defeated fascist right of Venezuela to fill the streets with violence and blood,” Maduro said Tuesday evening.
But the U.S. is hardly the only country to draw the embattled leader’s ire. Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, condemned the use of tear gas, gunfire, rubber bullets, and repression by police against peaceful demonstrators on Tuesday. “What happened today in Caracas leads me to condemn in the strongest terms the brutal repression carried out by the government of Venezuela against demonstrators in the streets of the Venezuelan capital,” Almagro said.
What’s are the protests about?
Last week the Supreme Court voted to strip the opposition-led National Assembly of its last vestiges of power. The move led to widespread criticism from the international community with many claiming that Venezuela was no longer a democracy.
On Sunday the court and Maduro attempted to walk back the decision, reinstating the assembly’s power, but opposition leaders said the backtracking was too little, too late, and called on the citizens to rise up against the leader.
But police blocked the planned route, forcing the thousands of protesters to congregate next to a public housing unit that features the signature of former President Hugo Chavez. Soon residents from the nearby neighborhood got involved, with some taunting opposition protestors.
A smattering of protesters began throwing rocks at the police, who responded with water tanks, anti-riot vehicles and tear gas. Pro-Maduro gangs on motorcycles later joined in the clashes, firing guns into the air, with one bullet lodging in the thigh of a protester.
Analysts have strongly rebuked Maduro’s latest power grab. One commentator for Argentina’s Clarin newspaper said that Venezuela has now “fully entered classic totalitarianism,” while an editorial in Spanish newspaper El Pais labeled the move “a coup.”
Maduro supporters, however, cast the latest protests as simply political theater. “Today the National Assembly tried to mount a new show,” Congressmen Diosdado Cabello said. “The only coup here is against President Nicolas Maduro.”
A congressional vote originally scheduled for Tuesday, on whether to oust the Supreme Court judges, was postponed until Wednesday. But even if the congress does vote to oust them, it would be little more than a symbolic victory for Maduro’s opposition, as the National Assembly has been left badly weakened by previous court rulings that have greatly limited the legislative branch’s power.
Maduro has faced constant international pressure and dwindling public support since taking the helm of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela in 2013.
No surprise. The country is in crisis.
A dramatic dip in the price of oil — which accounts for 96 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings — and constant food shortages has badly crippled day to day live inVenezuela. And Maduro has looked increasingly vulnerable of late.
Last December the country was on the brink of collapse as a result of a currency crisis sparked by Maduro’s decision to withdraw the largest banknote from circulation — a deeply unpopular move made after the collapse in the price of oil. And critical ongoing challenges include massive food and medicine shortages; rolling electricity blackouts; inflation, at a staggering 800 percent in 2016; and a rising murder rate, an average 60 per day last year — up 33 percent over the previous year.