Viewpoints: Venezuela's Anti-Government Protests

Protests in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 15. (Photo: Andres Azp)

On Feb. 2, a freshman student in the college town of San Cristóbal was sexually assaulted, which catalyzed local protests by students and civil rights groups. The government's response was so heavy handed that it sparked protests at other universities. Since then the protest movement has expanded to cities across the country, driven now by a host of issues ranging from economic failures to civil and political liberties. State security forces have used excessive force on protesters, beating detainees and shooting into crowds. Oppression of the media has made death counts difficult, but more than a dozen people have died in clashes. Opposition leaders have been targeted by the government, members of the foreign press have had their credentials canceled, and U.S. diplomats have been expelled. The government is also accused of using armed paramilitary groups in its abuse and intimidation of demonstrators. presents a sampling of recent news coverage from around the globe.

Argentina – Buenos Aires Herald, Feb. 26: Venezuela's opposition has declined its participation in the so-called "National Peace Conference" sponsored by President Nicolás Maduro in the presidential palace, as marches and protests continue nationwide. "We will not participate in a dialogue simulation that represents derision to our fellow citizens," stated Democratic Unity Board (MUD) in a press release. Although the opposition alliance supported the necessity for a dialogue, they assured it cannot be characterized by "frivolity and improvisation." … Meanwhile, leader of the "Better Future" (Futuro Mejor) opposition party, Henrique Capriles, affirmed his denial to meet President Maduro. "We received a call inviting us to the peace conference and we stand in favor of peace," explained Capriles, "but we will not take part in a Carnival."

Canada – Montreal Gazette, Feb. 27: It is hard to find toilet paper or flour in oil-rich Venezuela these days, and the country is plagued by some of the highest inflation, murder and kidnapping rates in the world. Clashes between protesters and security forces loyal to the president have left 16 dead, and a telegenic opposition leader has been thrown in jail. But don't expect a Ukraine-style street revolution anytime soon in this South American nation, where the frequently outmaneuvered opposition hasn't united behind a single strategy or managed to broaden its appeal beyond the largely middle-class, educated followers it's had on its side all along. The man they are up against, President Nicolás Maduro, has a near-complete grip on the military, broadcast media and institutions from Congress to the judiciary after 15 years of socialist rule.

Chile – Business News Americas, Feb. 25: Venezuela's growing political turmoil on top of its economic woes has boosted capital flight and driven up bond yields and credit default swap premiums, said independent research firm Capital Economics. … Violence and opposition crackdown have escalated at a rapid pace this month since anti-government protests broke out at a university campus in San Cristóbal, capital of Táchira state. International media reports said two people were killed in San Cristóbal on Monday, and though calculating the death toll has been difficult due to censorship of local media, it is believed to be around a dozen. One of the highest inflation rates in the world, persistent violent crime and a scarcity of basic goods, such as milk, have driven demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro. The government's aggressive response—deploying the armed forces, arresting opposition leader Leopoldo López, censoring social media—have only increased the outrage and the number of people taking to the streets.

France – Reporters Without Borders, Feb. 26: [In an open letter to President Maduro]: We are particularly concerned about the difficulties that journalists have encountered when covering the protests that have been taking place since the start of February, and about your decision to step up censorship in response to the protests. We have so far registered more than 70 incidents in which media personnel were targeted. They include at least 60 cases of physical or verbal aggression and 13 arrests, usually accompanied by the theft or destruction of equipment. In one case, the premises of the national television station, VTV, were attacked. Journalists are being targeted by the National Bolivarian Guard, the National Bolivarian Police and by certain demonstrators and paramilitary groups that are taking advantage of the demonstrations to spread terror.

Thailand – Bangkok Post, Feb. 28: Venezuelan authorities issued an arrest warrant for a second opposition figure, ramping up the pressure on protesters who have staged nationwide rallies this month in the biggest threat to President Nicolas Maduro since he came to power. … Leopoldo Lopez, of the opposition Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), turned himself in last week after a warrant went out for his arrest, and the party said Thursday that Maduro's government was now seeking Carlos Vecchio, the party's national political coordinator, … "for the alleged crimes of arson, public incitement, damage and association," the same charges brought against Lopez.

United Kingdom – Reuters, Feb. 27: Piles of glass, a trashed refrigerator and the burned remains of a car litter the streets of the Pirineos neighborhood in the Venezuelan city of San Cristóbal, giving it the look of a community under siege. In fact, the residents of this middle-class area have created the disorder themselves as part of anti-government protests demanding President Nicolás Maduro resign. Open sewer grates expose gaping holes in the street. Debris piled across intersections blocks traffic. Residents set the rules as to which cars can pass through and when. "This barricade is a community effort. The neighbors held an assembly and we're all in agreement," said one man who asked not to be identified, as hooded teenagers unloaded sacks of rocks from the back of a pick-up. "We call this resistance. We're not going to ease up no matter what the governor or the president says." Businesses are mostly shut and public transport suspended.

United States – U.S. News & World Report, Feb. 26: While it looked like the protests might die down this week, student protesters have continued to block off streets to prevent a return to daily life; repressive actions by Venezuelan security forces have continued as well. The opposition risks overplaying its hand and earning the lasting resentment of the population as it has on previous occasions. However, at this point it looks like the student protesters are setting the agenda, not opposition leaders. This is not surprising given the lack of leadership shown by opposition politicians since losing the April 2013 snap elections after the death of Hugo Chávez. The population's discontent with 56 percent inflation, scarcities of basic consumer goods and a horrendous crime situation has been growing over the past year. Yet opposition political leaders have not benefitted from this discontent because they have failed to address these problems and put forward policy alternatives.

Venezuela – El Universal, Feb. 27: The European Union condemned on Thursday the violence emerging in Venezuela since Feb. 12. … The resolution calls on "the Venezuelan authorities to immediately disarm" and dissolve "the uncontrolled armed groups that have a pro-government character" and to "end impunity." It reminded "the government of Venezuela that freedom of expression and the right to participate in peaceful demonstrations are fundamental human rights in a democracy as recognized in the Venezuelan Constitution." The European policymakers also called on Nicolás Maduro's government for the "immediate release" of students and opposition leaders, and to leave aside baseless accusations and arrest warrants against opposition leaders.