The student-led protests drew tens of thousands of people to the streets in most of Venezuela's medium and large cities from Caracas to the border town of San Cristobal, Tachira state, where authorities arrested the four students earlier this month. The size and spread of the protests mark an escalation in tensions in the country. The last protests of this scope were last April, following the election of President Nicolas Maduro to succeed the late Hugo Chavez. Nine people died and many more were injured in those protests. The momentum eventually died down as Maduro and the rest of Chavez's former inner circle took control of the government, dashing opposition hopes of overturning the contested election results.
During his presidency, Chavez also faced frequent and violent unrest. Two people died in January 2010 protests, four in student-led protests in 2007, two in 2004 protests and 19 in the unrest surrounding an attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. Maduro has said the current unrest is evidence of a developing coup plot against his government and has accused Lopez and fellow opposition leader Maria Corina Machado, who is also a national assembly representative, of orchestrating the event.
While the past week's unrest is significant, it is not clear whether they are a legitimate threat to Maduro's rule in the short term. The 2002 coup attempt against Chavez brought at least 200,000 people to the streets, and it was at that point that a faction of the military attempted to unseat the president. Previous coup attempts in 1992 (the seminal event for Chavez's emergence as a political leader) and 1994 were aborted when the military did not receive the anticipated wave of public support. Public backing is a crucial factor for any new government, democratic or not, and while the tens of thousands who protested Feb. 12 have marked a turning point in the trajectory of Maduro's tenure, their numbers are still not large enough to bring him down.
The unrest may still build momentum as Venezuelans react to the arrests and deaths. But as Lopez's arrest order demonstrates, the Maduro government retains significant power and will attempt to ensure that the protests remain manageable. Under Chavez's leadership the Venezuelan government frequently used corruption charges to marginalize or exile politicians. In 2008, the government suspended 272 opposition politicians, including Lopez, from holding political office for between three and five years. In 2009, former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales chose exile rather than face corruption charges. These are the tools that Maduro will likely use to marginalize those who will not cooperate with the government.
Physical intimidation will play a role as well. Pro-government motorcycle gangs, called "colectivos," have frequently attacked groups of protesters in recent days, according to reports. These attacks will probably continue, but in the interest of maintaining a semblance of order their deployment will remain limited. The government risks delegitimizing itself if it allows too many civilians to be targeted. Protest is an important form of political participation in Venezuela, and Maduro must be careful to limit their scope to avoid sparking a wider backlash by being perceived as cracking down too harshly.
In the next few weeks we can expect the government to aggressively use legal tools to target opposition leaders. Protests in Caracas and other cities will probably continue. Unless the government makes a major mistake and draws widespread condemnation, these actions are unlikely to unseat the government. However, there is no mistaking the rising challenges facing the young Maduro government — challenges that will make it more difficult to focus state resources on solving persistent inflation, food shortages and crime.