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Apr 4, 2014 | 16:02 GMT

6 mins read

Venezuela's Protests Are Failing

Venezuela's Protests Are Failing
(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

A delegation of South American foreign ministers will arrive in Venezuela on April 7 to lay the groundwork for a settlement between the government and opposition, but lately the protest situation in the country has been shifting in the government's favor. The wave of protests that began Feb. 12 has so far failed to seriously threaten the administration of President Nicolas Maduro. The frequency of protest marches and barricades has tapered off, and Caracas' law enforcement efforts appear to be effectively disrupting protest activity. The underlying causes of the protests are no closer to being resolved, however, and demonstrations will continue and could even swell to the extent that they could threaten Maduro's hold on power.

After nearly two months of street demonstrations and makeshift barricades across Venezuela, the protesters are no closer to achieving their stated goal of ousting Maduro. The movement's most visible leaders, opposition legislators Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, began calling for protests in November. However, the first major outbreak of protests — which included a gathering of tens of thousands in the capital alone — did not begin until the Venezuelan student movement joined Lopez's Voluntad Popular ("Popular Will") for sustained protests in early February. The deaths of two protesters Feb. 12 in Caracas stoked nationwide unrest, the most frequent and disruptive occurring in Caracas and opposition strongholds such as the states of Tachira, Zulia and Carabobo in the west and north.

An Uphill Battle for the Protest Movement

At this point, however, the protests have settled into a pattern of demonstrations and barricades, both of which are easily contained by police and the national guard, especially since they are mostly occurring in specific neighborhoods. The opposition is divided and, although it can organize major protests, the demonstrations have not overwhelmed the government's capacity to resist them.

One problem for the opposition movement is that its protests have failed to attract the support of a significant amount of the president's followers. As the results of the April 2013 presidential election show, the electoral gap has narrowed between the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, known as the PSUV, and the opposition coalition, Mesa de Unidad. Still, enough Venezuelans have remained loyal to the government — or at least conspicuously absent from the protests.

Venezuela

Venezuela

News reports have emerged of protests in poorer neighborhoods, particularly in Caracas, but that likely is not an indication that the protesters' support base is expanding. Residents in less affluent neighborhoods in the capital, such as Petare and Caricuao, have sporadically protested over food shortages and water service disruptions, but these incidents are distinct from the opposition movement and involved a few hundred protesters at most. The poorer sectors of Venezuela seemingly do not yet intend to join opposition protesters in their goal of ousting Maduro.

Institutions and individuals critical to the government's functioning have also remained loyal throughout the protests. There have been a few incidents: an anonymous person claiming to represent a military faction threatened a coup in February, three national guard colonels reportedly rebelled in Valencia on March 5 and Maduro announced March 25 the arrests of three air force generals accused of plotting a coup. Despite these events, the military high command appears still to be aligned with Maduro, or at least unwilling to challenge him.

State-owned energy firm Petroleos de Venezuela has similarly remained on the government's side, in no small part because of a 90 percent wage increase granted to its labor union in February. The allegiance of these major institutions has left the protest movement politically isolated and with few institutional means to pressure the government into conceding anything.

The administration's relative security is likely influencing its current hesitation when it comes to pursuing a negotiated solution to the unrest. The issue of negotiations with the opposition is linked to political rapprochement with the United States. In March, Washington conditioned the start of this rapprochement on Venezuela's starting a dialogue with all major factions of the opposition. The opposition is divided, however, on whether it even wants to negotiate with the government.

The less conciliatory factions — Lopez's Voluntad Popular party, Maria Corina Machado's supporters and the university students — are demanding that all political prisoners be released, which the government appears unprepared to offer. Without a unified set of demands, the heavily divided PSUV is unlikely to begin negotiations to end the protests and can rely on its security forces to keep disrupting the movement.

No End in Sight

Despite reduced protest activity, Venezuela is far from politically stable. The drivers for further protests remain in place and will likely bring more people out into the streets in coming months.

Inflation in Venezuela

Inflation in Venezuela

The protest movement may have varying demands, but its list of major grievances is the same: high inflation, periodic shortages of food and basic goods, extremely high crime rates and government corruption. The government cannot address any of these issues in the short term. The Maduro administration has started negotiations with the private sector, implementing the Sicad II foreign currency exchange mechanism in an attempt to alleviate some shortages, but these discussions are not a long-term solution.

Besides these seemingly intractable issues, the likelihood of more deaths from street violence makes increased protests very plausible. The government has frequently relied on groups of protest activists, colloquially known as colectivos, to disrupt and harass anti-government protesters. The colectivos have killed at least a dozen demonstrators, though the number is probably higher. Protesters' deaths at the hands of colectivos could further enflame unrest, particularly if several more are killed. The protest networks established by Voluntad Popular and student federations have already proved capable of mobilizing up to tens of thousands of people in Caracas at a time, and these numbers could easily swell in the event of more violence.

Venezuela's high social spending and steadily declining oil production also puts the country on an unsustainable path that could lead to more unrest. The government relies on public support secured by its oil-funded social programs — support that is increasingly threatened by the government's cash flow problems. As a result, Maduro could soon have to secure extra revenue at the expense of political popularity.

Maduro mentioned on March 14 the possibility of increasing the price of heavily subsidized gasoline. Electric Energy Minister Jesse Chacon also announced that the government plans to reduce electricity subsidies. These measures, while necessary for the government's finances, will likely cost Maduro political support and could lead to protests in the poorer areas of the country that directly benefit from the subsidies. Although Maduro has not yet announced a schedule for implementing fuel and electricity price increases, a significant hike in both prices is needed to offset the state's financial losses. He will thus probably avoid implementation as long as possible.

Finally, there could be unforeseen, low-level events that could spark more unrest. For example, Maduro announced April 2 that the government would implement a law at an unspecified date to penalize opposition protests. Such a move would inspire opponents to defy the government's ban. Heavy-handed law enforcement efforts also continue against the protesters, and additional arrests of protesters or political opposition leaders could draw more protesters out.

Venezuela's anti-government demonstrations will continue in some form for a while. Various events can and will keep the protests alive, but overall the Maduro administration can handle the unrest so long as the military, oil workers and other key supporters continue to back it. Nevertheless, Maduro presides over an increasingly unstable post-succession period in which he has few options to alleviate the country's steady economic deterioration. Even beyond this period of unrest, Venezuela will become increasingly unstable as Maduro's presidency progresses and his popularity almost certainly declines. Given Maduro's relative lack of authority inside PSUV compared to Hugo Chavez, the instability could provide opportunities for other party members or the opposition to challenge him for leadership of the country.

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