The Cable

Internal Splits, Immolations, and Burning Houses: Venezuela Gets Worse

Political turmoil in Venezuela turns deadly — again.

venezuela breaks down

The crisis in Venezuela, which was already awful, is somehow getting worse, with protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro now entering their eighth week and a death toll of at least 49. On Monday, a man on the street — some witnesses identified him as a thief; the government said he was a Maduro supporter — was set on fire. Meanwhile, protesters apparently tired of demolishing statutes of former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez and torched his childhood home.

And while most of the pushback has come from the unrelenting public protests that were triggered by the government’s efforts in March to usurp the National Assembly, they’re not the only ones questioning the government. On Monday, the state prosecutor broke ranks with her fellow Bolivarian socialist over his plans to establish a hand-picked assembly to rewrite the constitution, a last-ditch bid to stay in power even as the political and economic crisis spirals out of control.

Luisa Ortega first shocked the country in March by criticizing the Supreme Court’s decision to assume the functions of the National Assembly, widely seen as the last stronghold of the opposition. The decision was mostly reversed shortly thereafter — but that did not put the genie back in the bottle, and thousands of Venezuelans have been protesting Maduro’s government since.

In many ways, Venezuela resembles a war zone. Heavy vehicles from the National Guard owned the streets of Caracas over the weekend. Meanwhile, news outlets and some social media report that the Maduro government is using snipers to attack protesters. And as if the combustible mix weren’t enough, there is reason to fear what could happen if the whole shaky edifice collapses: Reuters reported Monday that Venezuela has “5,000 Russian-made MANPADS surface-to-air weapons.” The government has used threat of “imperialist” U.S. invasion to justify the stockpile, the largest in Latin America. The Stinger-like weapons could pose a huge threat if they are “liberated” from government arsenals in the current unrest.

Ortega herself may not have taken to the streets, but she did write a letter to decry the “constituent assembly” Maduro is cobbling together in order to rewrite the constitution, delaying elections called for by the Venezuelan opposition and broader international community in the process.

On Monday, Elias Jaua, a Socialist Party official, confirmed Ortega had indeed written to him. Her letter, which was previously leaked on social media, read, “Instead of bringing stability or generating a climate of peace, I think this will accelerate the crisis.” It is a sign that even the core of Maduro’s acolytes are having second thoughts about his dismantling of what was once Latin America’s most vibrant democracy.

Also on Monday, doctors took to the streets of Caracas, marching on the health ministry. The health minister was fired last week after reports that maternal mortality rates increased 66 percent in 2016 were released. They carried signs reading, “Don’t get sick, there’s no medicine.” Like food, medical supplies are in such short supply in the oil-rich nation that patients are meant to scrounge up their own pills and bandages.

Maduro, for his part, decided to call for a march for peace on Tuesday. It’s a safe bet that there will be marchers — but it’s a safer bet they’ll still be insisting on political reform, not ready to peacefully parley with the government.

Update, May 23, 10:31 am ET: This post originally identified the burned house as Chavez’s mother’s home. So as to not give the impression that Chavez’s mother lives there at the present time, the language has been changed to “childhood home.” 

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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