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In Venezuela, New Protests Loom

4 MINS READAug 29, 2014 | 17:49 GMT
Anti-government protesters light molotov cocktails in San Cristobal, Venezuela, on Aug. 25.
(George CASTELLANOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Recent events in Venezuela suggest that sections of the country's political opposition are readying for another wave of protests. Sporadic street demonstrations and statements by government officials and opposition leaders in the past few weeks may signal greater social instability to come. Triggering the unrest are rampant inflation and ongoing economic decline, including shortages of food and consumer goods. An outbreak of protests now would compound the government's ongoing concerns, particularly the current gridlock within the ruling party over key economic reforms.

Some segments of Venezuela's student protest movement and political opposition appear to be tentatively preparing for further street protests. According to an Aug. 25 report, Juan Requesens, the head of the Federation of University Centers of the Central University of Venezuela, has announced that student protests against the government will begin soon, though he did not mention a specific date. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said in an Aug. 21 televised address that the student movement is readying protests under the guise of demanding additional funding for universities.

Official Consumer Price Index for Food, January 2013-May 2014

Official Consumer Price Index for Food, January 2013-May 2014

Meanwhile, opposition leaders have called for demonstrations against a planned fingerprinting system for distributing food at supermarkets and stores, denouncing the measures as tantamount to food rationing. On Aug. 25, political opposition parties Voluntad Popular, led by jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and Primero Justicia, led by former presidential candidate and current Miranda State Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski, agreed to support protests against the planned system. Opposition party Copei has also called for a protest in Caracas on Aug. 30.

Small, sporadic protests have already occurred in Cabimas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto, Caracas and San Cristobal between Aug. 25 and Aug. 28. The protesters included groups of masked individuals who blocked the roads with barricades — tactics similar to those used during opposition-led demonstrations in the early months of 2014. The most recent protests involved several dozen individuals at most, with some quickly dispersed by the police or the National Guard. In several cases the protesters specifically demonstrated against the planned fingerprinting system.

The tentative unrest seen thus far resembles the political climate seen in the lead-up to protests earlier this year. The first round of protests, which lasted from February to April, was sparked in part by the arrest of several students at a seemingly small demonstration on Feb. 6 outside the Tachira state governor's residence. Days later, student movements calling for the release of the protesters joined forces with an existing protest movement led by several political parties within the opposition, including Voluntad Popular. Together, the student movement and opposition parties were able to mount major demonstrations that culminated in several months of street barricades and protest marches.

Consequences of Further Protests

The Venezuelan student movement and opposition parties once again appear to be edging toward renewed anti-government protests. Although the opposition remains divided and is mostly excluded from governing, it can clearly mount disruptive protests by capitalizing on public discontent stemming from the country's ongoing economic decline. Caracas successfully managed the protests earlier this year, but a second wave of protests would increase the pressure on a government that is already paralyzed by indecision over key economic reforms.

Unofficial Basic Food and Consumer Product Price Increases, January 2013-July 2014

Unofficial Basic Food and Consumer Product Price Increases, January 2013-July 2014

During the previous round of protests, inflation, food shortages and rampant crime were among the grievances cited by protesters. With inflation, food shortages and steadily increasing consumer prices, worsening unrest is plausible. Inflation has steadily risen to about 68 percent year-on-year in May 2014. Food shortages, which are spurred by declining domestic production, import bottlenecks and a thriving domestic black market coupled with smuggling to Colombia, have continued across the country. According to an unofficial estimate, the cost of obtaining basic food items and consumer goods in Venezuela nearly doubled from some 6,470 bolivars per month in July 2013 to nearly 12,700 bolivars per month in July 2014.

While these economic problems have not yet eroded the popularity of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela to the point of threatening its hold on power, political dissatisfaction is clearly emerging within the party's base. These grievances have spurred highly disruptive nationwide demonstrations in the past and are likely to do so again. With that in mind, figures within the party have resisted economic reforms proposed by Rafael Ramirez, the president of Venezuelan state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, to the continued detriment of the oil sector.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro still seemingly retains enough political support to shield him from facing a direct threat from within the party's ranks or from other government factions. Most of the government's internal attention appears to be focused on negotiating a compromise reform package that is acceptable to the factions within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The party knows it has to decide on some version of this package to forestall a complete economic collapse, but any new wave of protests would likely delay its implementation. As shortages and inflation persist and as the government finds it increasingly difficult to fund social spending through oil revenue, Maduro's support will decline. The opposition is not yet unified or politically popular enough to present a credible electoral alternative to the government, but renewed demonstrations will likely put further stress on the government, which will have to rely mainly on force to put down future protests.

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