Protests in Venezuela rage on: your questions answered
    Photo by Manuel Dos Santos

    Protests in Venezuela continue to result in clashes between government forces and the opposition, resulting in 39 deaths of supporters of both sides and security forces since dissenters began crowding streets in February. 

    The biggest challenge to President Nicolas Maduro since his election in 2013 – a close, contested victory over Henrique Capriles – began with student protests over an alleged rape. Since then, protests have spread from the states of Tachira and Merida to the capital city of Caracas, fueled by frustration with crime and economic woes. 

    But frustration and conflict in Venezuela runs deeper than the contested election, shortages of goods and security issues. Northwestern political science department chair Professor Edward Gibson described the protests as “a continuation of a long resistance to the Bolivarian Revolution,” the socialist government program led by Hugo Chávez and now his successor, Maduro.

    How is Venezuela divided?

    Political divisions for and against the government are still drawn largely along class lines, polarizing the country. Class divisions are so large that “If you are in the middle to upper class, the political reality you interpret has nothing to do with what is being interpreted by poor people,” Gibson said. Around 60 percent of Venezuelan households are poor, according to the BBC. Chávez’s socialist policies, which Gibson describes as radically redistributive, changed the political and economic situation for Venezuela’s poor, who felt excluded and marginalized by the democracy before Chávez. “And then came Chávez…suddenly the poor become the center of a movement. To them he’s a deliverer,” Gibson said.

    Why was the 2013 election contested? Who is Maduro?

    The election results were very close, with Maduro winning by a 1.49 percentage point margin over Capriles. Maduro is the handpicked successor of Hugo Chavez, who was in power for 14 years and died on March 5, 2013.

    Capriles and his supporters called for a vote-by-vote recount after alleging the government pressured its employees to vote for Maduro, citing irregularities in voting and the use of Venezuela’s well-worn electoral machine to get the vote out for Maduro.

    What is the state of security and the economy and politics in Venezuela?

    Violent crime in Venezuela received increased attention in January when beauty queen Monica Spear was killed by armed robbers. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an NGO, places the homicide rate at nearly 80 deaths per 100,000 people, while the government reports 39 deaths per 100,000. The Associated Press reported that while the Venezuelan Violence Observatory reports the homicide rate has quadrupled in the past 15 years, the government has gradually blocked access to murder statistics.

    Venezuela has one of the world's highest rates of inflation at around 56 percent, compared to a rate of 1.5 percent in the U.S. Venezuela also suffers from record shortages of imports, including food. 

    The regime type can be classified as competitive authoritarianism. In this system, the government exercises authoritarianism through democratic institutions, Gibson said. The government monopolizes branches of government, run referenda and make it “virtually impossible” for the opposition to win.

    Yet, they have elections and they win them. Chavismo has said, "we've been re-elected so many times and they still don't get it. We are the choice of the people,” Gibson explained. "Well the opposition would say no, you've rigged the system."

    Who is leading the opposition in the protests?

    Leopoldo López, a political activist, former mayor and Harvard alumni, leads the Popular Will opposition party. After a February 12 protest, Maduro ordered López's arrest on charges of arson and conspiracy. The original additional charges of murder and terrorism were dropped. López turned himself in on February 18, encouraging supporters to embrace the right to peaceful protest.

    A statement by Amnesty International on the original charges took the position that, "These charges appear to be politically motivated because of his leadership in the recent anti-government protests. Currently, Amnesty International has not seen evidence to substantiate these charges. This is an affront to justice and free assembly."

    Critics say López is a radical and Maduro has said he is a "fascist"plotting to overthrow the government. Human Rights Watch counters that "taking advantage of the lack of judicial independence in the country, efforts to attribute criminal responsibility for the violence to the political opposition have advanced at remarkable speed."

    Maria Corina Machado, an opposition lawmaker in the Venezuelan National Assembly, spoke about the Venezuelan protests with the invitation of Panama at the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting. The National Assembly revoked her mandate and Maduro has called her former congresswoman,” stating she had acted as a diplomat of a foreign country. Machado was greeted by supporters when she returned to the Caracas airport.

    The Democratic Unity Table (MUD) is an umbrella coalition of opposition groups, which Capriles represented in the 2013 election.

    What is the current status of López?

    López is currently in a military prison outside of Caracas, communicating messages to supporters through colleagues and most recently, The New York Times' opinion section. In his March 25th editorial, he cited the lack of evidence presented against him, writing: "What started as a peaceful march against crime on a university campus has exposed the depth of this government's criminalization of dissent."

    As of March 28th, a Caracas court rejected López's bail application and renewed the charges.

    What else is the government doing?

    The government has limited press coverage of the protests, detaining journalists, shutting down Colombian NTN24 broadcast in Venezuela and threatening to tell CNN to leave the country for its "war propaganda against Venezuela".

    López said over 1,500 protestors have been detained since Feb. 4, with alleged reports of torture in police custody. Offici"attempted to forcibly remove several activists after throwing tear gas inside," according to Reuters.

    Venezuela's Supreme Court has sentenced mayors to jail "for failing to remove road barricades put up by anti-government activists," and announced three air force generals have been arrested for planning a coup after allegedly meeting with the opposition.

    However, the Maduro government recently accepted diplomats’ suggestion to create a human rights commission to investigate allegations of abuse by security forces.

    What are the prospects for negotiation?

    Maduro agreed to enter talks with the opposition with the assistance of an outside facilitator. The news follows two days of meetings with a delegation of South American foreign ministers, “held with government officials, student protesters and human rights groups aimed at bringing about dialogue after weeks of deadly unrest,” according to the Associated Press.

    Maduro’s incentive is to stay in power and reverse the trend of increasing instability, which will endanger the regime after a while, Gibson explained.

    How is the international community reacting?

    López chided the lack of engagement from other Latin American countries and the Organization of American States, writing that the organization "has abstained from any real leadership on the current crisis of human rights and the looming specter of a failed state, even though it was formed precisely to address issues like these."

    Students gathered outside of the Caracas United Nations office before the South American diplomatic delegation arrived, protesting that silence by other nations is siding with Maduro.

    Brazil's government, an ally of Maduro, recently reduced support for the Venezuelan government. Reuters reports the shift in policy comes as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff worries Maduro's failure to deal with the crisis and engage the opposition will affect the Venezuelan economy, which would impact Brazilian companies.

    Presenting before the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch expressed disappointment with international reaction, with a few exceptions. The organization "respectfully urge[d]" states in attendance to ask Maduro's government to "uphold its international legal obligations to respect human rights," especially for demonstrators and the detained.

    The Vatican has expressed willingness to help negotiate a solution to the crisis. A majority of Venezuelans identify as Catholic.

    Who is supporting the government?

    While shortages of goods have incited anger among the middle and upper classes, it does not have the same effect on the lower classes. “The lower classes have always had a shortage of goods,” Gibson said. “That’s the definition of poverty.”

    Members of Venezuela’s lower class are more likely to support the Bolivarian politics of the government because of changes Chávez made to their political and economic situation in the country.

    Some may not support the government, but call attention to the violence making both sides victims, arguing the situation is too complicated to characterize protestors as entirely good and peaceful and government supporters inherently bad.

    Foreign minister Elías Jaua said protestors are seeking to portray "generalised chaos and indiscriminate repression to justify a foreign intervention in our internal affairs" by seeking to make the state seem like a human rights violator.

    Who is supporting the opposition?

    Opposition supporters are said to be mostly middle class, with many students. Reuters reported protests in Caracas "have been limited to mostly upscale areas, with little evidence so far that Venezuelans will join the demonstrations en masse across the country."

    Issues with Maduro, who Gibson described as “erratic and incompetent” have strengthened the opposition’s case against the government.

    Why is it violent?

    To quell protests, which Maduro has called a coup, the government has mobilized national guard tanks and troops, with armed supporters moving into the streets. Demonstrators have blocked the streets and have used barricades while protesting. The campaign of demonstrations opposing Maduro's government is known as La Salida (The Exit). Witnesses said troops have fired at protestors with rubber bullets and teargas to break up demonstrators. As clashes continue, arson and shootings rage.

    What is the U.S. doing about it?

    After Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats over accusations that they had met with students involved in violent protests, the State Department officially rejected the accusations and in turn expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in the U.S. Obama called the accusations false, urging Maduro to focus on the "legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people."

    Before Maduro's announcement accepting a facilitator for talks with the opposition, the State Department said it would "consider imposing sanctions if Maduro didn't reconcile with his opponents."

    Maduro said in a New York Times opinion piece on April 2nd “the Obama administration spends at least $5 million annually to support opposition movements in Venezuela,” citing the State Department’s budget allocation for civil society and human rights organizations in the country.

    What happened at the Chicago protests?

    Protestors gathered at Michigan Avenue on February 22nd to call attention to violence and human rights violations in Venezuela. Signs called for a voice for Venezuela and displayed the popular hashtag #SOSVenezuela.


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