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Can Venezuela’s Protesters Stay the Course?

Can Venezuela’s Protesters Stay the Course?

"Whoever gets tired loses!" The slogan has been the mantra of Venezuela’s protest movement, which has rocked the South American nation for more than a month now. As the protests begin to lose energy, the slogan is also one that rings true, reflecting the real fear that if the opposition protests die down, President Nicolás Maduro will consolidate his power, perhaps irreversibly.

After more than a month of intense protests, Venezuela’s opposition continues to hit the streets. The barricades are now less common than they used to be, and the opposition is girding for the long haul by changing their tactics, protesting in a more peaceful, less violent manner. This means fewer barricades and more massive marches that are less likely to be attacked by government forces. (The photo above shows medical students protesting in Caracas.)

The last few weeks have seen the protests decrease in intensity in Caracas and in other cities. But while the barricades and the tear-gas battles that raged in eastern sections of the capital have ebbed somewhat, they are still happening in other cities. This Monday, for example, a TV personality was shot dead when descending from a bus in the city of Los Teques, 23 kilometers south of the capital.

The violence in the western states continues to rage. Also on Monday, a National Guardsmen was shot in the neck while fighting protesters in Mérida, the capital of Mérida state and an epicenter of the protest movement. The death toll now stands at 36, but reporters say that inhabitants of San Cristóbal continue to hunker down.

In Caracas, however, the protests have taken a turn away from barricades and back to large, peaceful marches. One such march was held last Saturday, when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched in support of the students. These marches were matched in other cities around the country.

One of the main reasons why the protests seem to have lost their zeal is the uptick in government repression. Hundreds of student leaders, including many of the organizers of the barricades, have been detained amid allegations of abuse. While the government continues to use both police and paramilitary gangs known as colectivos,  it is now also infiltrating college campuses and even apartment buildings where suspected protesters are believed to be hiding out.

More importantly, the government is also going after local leaders who have not fought the protest movement. Last week, the government arrested the mayor of San Cristóbal (who belongs to the same political party as the imprisoned Leopoldo López) for failing to clamp down on the protests. It did the same with the mayor of a Valencia suburb; in a fast-track trial, he received a 10-month jail sentence, and the Electoral Council has already announced an election will take place to replace him. The government is also threatening the mayors of some of the Caracas boroughs where the protests have been particularly intense.

President Nicolás Maduro himself has said several times that the mayor of Chacao municipality, which is the epicenter of the protests in Caracas, will end up in prison if he does not act against protesters. The pressure shows on the mayor, who seems ambivalent about the protest movement, defending their rights while at the same time clearly wishing they would move somewhere else. As a result of the pressure, the mayor has shown a renewed willingness to do what he can to stop them. The government has instilled a feeling of doubt and fear among local leaders and protesters, and it seems to be working.

In spite of the crackdown, opposition politicians vow to continue pressing the government. For example, opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado travelled to the Organization of American States last week to make the case for Venezuela’s dissidents, only to have her efforts quashed by the Venezuelan government and its hemispheric allies. Machado was promptly punished by being stripped of her seat in parliament on questionable grounds. She will likely face jail time, which could inflame the protests anew.

The opposition’s case is made easier by the ongoing economic crisis. This Monday, the government began selling currency under a new market-based scheme. The exchange rate under the new system was eight times the official rate applied to imports, which will likely cause a significant spike in inflation.

The combination of repression, deepening economic crisis, and an unabated political conflict spells turmoil for Venezuela in the next few months. Venezuela’s protests may have dimmed, but their underlying caue burns brightly still.