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reflections

May 12, 2017 | 19:04 GMT

How Venezuela's Protests Are Different This Time Around

Protesters help a demonstrator who was run over by a National Guard vehicle during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose government is desperately clinging to power.
(FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

For nearly five weeks, Venezuela's political opposition has organized thousands of people to protest almost every day. All major cities have experienced formal protests organized by the opposition and destructive bouts of looting by hungry citizens. Unlike the protests in 2014, which were led by a relatively small faction of opposition parties, these demonstrations have maintained their momentum despite several weeks of violent government crackdowns. The frequency of violent confrontations between protesters and security forces suggest that the demonstrations will not quietly taper off, even though each day the government has managed to disperse the protesters. Venezuela's protests have passed the point of no return, though their final outcome depends on actions by the protesters, the government and, most importantly, the armed forces.

Support for the Venezuelan government has steadily eroded under two years of severe economic crisis. Polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that only a third of the population would support the ruling party in an election. Complicating the government's position is the fact that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is split. Attorney General Luisa Ortega is openly defying its leadership over decisions taken to quell protests, but President Nicolas Maduro has been unable to remove her from her post because she enjoys the support of key factions of the government and armed forces.

Desperate Governments Do Desperate Things

Faced with the possibility of losing power in an electoral contest, and with party officials facing the risk of imprisonment or extradition, the government has begun trying to bolster its position in case it has to hold elections. The increasingly divided ruling party is attempting to limit the number of parties that can run against it as it moves to rewrite the constitution and build a new militia. However, popular anger from the middle class and increasingly from the country's lower classes is boiling over in the streets. Years of food and medicine shortages as well as high inflation mean the government will struggle just to contain large-scale daily demonstrations, much less win elections. And there is no relief in sight: Oil revenue in the country will likely be stagnant for years because of long-term economic mismanagement, and runaway inflation will continue. Even if current protests fade, they will act as a catalyst for future demonstrations. 

Though it is unclear how protests will progress, it is obvious that the current situation is unsustainable. Protests have not dissipated, despite daily crackdowns by the National Guard and by the Bolivarian National Police. The state is devoting a significant amount of resources — money and security personnel — to maintaining public order in Caracas and in other cities. But still, demonstrations have repeatedly shut down the Caracas mass transit system and major thoroughfares. Bouts of looting have increasingly broken out in Valencia and in the poorer neighborhoods of western Caracas. And it's not just civilians protesting. The General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence has been arresting dissenters — even passive ones — in the military's ranks to ward off the threat of a coup. Stratfor sources claim that members of the military have complained about worsening work conditions and have been jailed by military counterintelligence agents. However, the military counterintelligence apparatus is spread thin and is limited in its ability to crack down on internal dissent. Still, rumblings of military dissent are of crucial concern: Efforts to stop protests from crumbling the government will prove futile if parts of the army support them.

Look for Repression To Increase

As protests intensify, so too will the government repression of them. Protesters have not been able to overwhelm the National Guard or police, but neither have they been deterred by their presence. This could prompt the government to turn to more violent methods of repression, especially as protests also become more violent. Cities in Venezuela's Andean region, such as Valencia, Merida and San Cristobal, have experienced frequent violent protests and looting, as well as violence against security forces. But if the president deploys the armed forces against demonstrators, it could prompt Washington to enact more sanctions against he country. There is also the risk that members of the military could defect if they are tasked to use force to bolster such an unpopular government. For these reasons, while Maduro is hesitant to rely on the armed forces, it does not mean that he won't.

The Maduro government has tried to offer political solutions to its opponents, such as creating a way for citizens to help rewrite the constitution. But opposition forces are unlikely to negotiate, given how unproductive government-sponsored talks last year were. As its options dwindle, the Maduro government is more likely to turn to violence. Whether it can do so without alienating important members of the armed forces is an open question.

There is clearly enough momentum for protests to persist. Demonstrators are showing very little fear of security forces and return to the same protest sites after being dispersed the day before. Even if the government manages to slow protests, it will likely only be buying itself a bit of time rather than solving its problems permanently. The longer that waves of protest keep pressuring the government, the more likely a severe split within the government and the security forces will become — which will risk ending Maduro's term early.

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