“The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela,” read a February 15 press statement made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo López. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”
Kerry’s statement was brief, containing little news for anyone observing the unfolding political crisis the South American country. But in his nine sentences, the secretary of state drew attention to the heart of the issue; nearly everything in Venezuela — except oil — is imported, and that situation has likely been exacerbated by shortages in hard currency. As a result, basic goods from toilet paper to cooking oil are scarce. Those shortages fueled the protests initially, but a larger concern has emerged; now, Venezuelans are taking to the street to demonstrate against mounting government repression. These protests are the largest to rack the government of President Nicolas Maduro during its 11 months in power.
Typical of a government facing widespread unrest, Venezuelan leadership, including President Nicolas Maduro, has villainized the opposition, especially López, who has become the face of the movement. López — the Harvard-educated, unofficial head of Venezuela’s newly active opposition movement — turned himself in to authorities Tuesday after President Nicolas Maduro issued a warrant for his arrest, charging the activist with terrorism and murder.
The government maintains that a bout of violence in early February, which saw gunmen open fire on thousands of anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, was the work of López. But demonstrators say that the authorities began shooting to disperse the crowd, and their bullets killed three. Those three people were young students, and they died on Venezuela’s Youth Day. As Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Taylor wrote, the vast majority of protests are young as well, with the average protester between the age of 18 and 25 years old. That generation came of age as Chavismo, the ideology espoused by former president Hugo Chávez, began to falter. For them, Chávez’s choice of Maduro was an insult. As of Wednesday, the death toll had risen to five.
Maduro’s government has also strived to frame the protests as the work of extremists rather than the result of profound social and economic problems. “The peace-loving Venezuelans feel very, very worried by the irrational, fascist-leaning attitude and actions of a sector of the Venezuelan opposition,” Julio Rafael Chavez, a lawmaker of the ruling United Socialist party, told CNN en Español on Tuesday.
Robin Meyer, an officer of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, noted in a classified 2009 cable published by WikiLeaks that López was “often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry,” although party officials also conceded “his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer.”
In recent tweets, López has called Maduro a coward, and before he was detained, he tweeted: “The change we want is in every one of us. Let us not surrender. I will not!” Given that he has turned himself into authorities, it may seem that López has given up. But just before surrendering to National Guard troops, he confronted Maduro, telling the crowd of a thousand protesters he had little choice. “The options I had were leave the country, and I will never leave Venezuela!” López told the crowd, as CNN reported. “The other option was to remain in hiding, but that option could have left doubt among some, including some who are here, and we don’t have anything to hide.”
— Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) February 12, 2014
The tweet above reads: “The students of Tachira in the street.” Tachira is one of the 23 states of Venezuela.
The protests he organized demand the government provide better security, an end to shortages of basic goods, and protected freedom of speech. But instead of engaging with López, the government is moving forward with prosecution of the terrorism and murder charges, which Amnesty International has said “smack of a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent in the country.” The charges “appear to be politically motivated because of his leadership in the recent anti-government protests,” the organization noted in a Wednesday press release. “Currently, Amnesty International has not seen evidence to substantiate these charges. This is an affront to justice and free assembly.”
López – who is expected to appear in court on Wednesday — has denied the accusations. His latest tweet reads: “I am going as a prisoner to Ramo Verde,” a military prison outside Caracas. “I have left a recorded message because I will continue to fight against this dictatorship.” The post was linked to a prerecorded video, in which he called for Venezuelans to keep protesting for change. “If you are watching this video, it is because the government has carried out one more abuse, full of lies, of falsehoods, of twisting facts and trying to manipulate the reality that we Venezuelans are living,” he said. “I want to tell all Venezuelans that I do not regret what we have done up to this moment, in convoking the protests. The people came out. The people woke up.”
But López is not the only voice guiding the country’s political dialogue. Hours after the arrest of the opposition leader, Maduro held a rally, during which he described opposition leaders as right-wing fascists who are responsible for spreading violence and fear, according to CNN. “The only way to fight fascism in a society is like when you have a very bad infection. You need to take penicillin, or rather the strongest antibiotic, and undergo treatment,” he said. “Fascism is an infection in Venezuela and in the world. And the only treatment that exists is justice.”
The 2013 election of Maduro — previously, a lackluster National Assembly deputy under Chávez — was not exactly a foregone conclusion, but he was handpicked by his predecessor. His election to the presidency left Venezuela more politically fractured than the country has been in years; Maduro’s victory over rival Henrique Capriles — the governor of the Venezuelan state Miranda — was described as a margin-of-error win by Bloomberg, and Capriles contested the count. But his efforts were stymied by the Chavista-stacked courts.
Whatever political capital Maduro earned in his electoral victory were quickly eroded by growing social and economic problems. Inflation has soared to 56 percent, the budget deficit has grown by 50 percent, China is cutting back on its lifeline $20 billion loan, and Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s both downgraded the country’s bonds to junk status. Furthermore, the bolivar fuerte — or “strong bolivar,” as Chávez renamed the currency — has weakened against the U.S. dollar. On the black market, it has decreased from approximately one-eighth the value of the dollar to one eighty-seventh, according to Bloomberg. Making the situation worse, Maduro’s government has made it harder for the private sector to operate, and it is the private sector on which the Venezuelans rely on for food.
Still, Maduro has placed the blame for the country’s problems on U.S.-backed “fascists” and a “parasitic bourgeoisie,” who are plotting to overthrow him and destabilize the Venezuelan government. Chávez — who ruled for 14 years despite being briefly ousted in a coup in 2002 — made the same claims as his successor. The U.S. State Department has repeatedly denied any intervention in the country’s political process.
The question for political analysts is whether López and fellow opposition leader María Corina Machado can orchestrate a successful coup. Both López and Machado tried before, in 2002.
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