Venezuela’s Long-suffering Opposition Finally Gets a Win

This week's large and peaceful protest in Venezuela shows that the momentum is finally behind the chavista government's opponents.

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Venezuela’s opposition movement has a long history of underachievement. Despite widespread discontent with the shaky government of President Nicolás Maduro, the opposition coalition has rarely managed to successfully capitalize on it. It’s like a hydra, the mythical creature with a myriad of heads — except the heads spend most of the time attacking one another. On Thursday, however, the lumbering beast finally showed what it can do. Many hundreds of thousands — and perhaps as many as a million — Venezuelans marched in the streets of Caracas, the capital city, to demand that Maduro allow them a chance to vote for new national leadership.

Over the past two years, soaring crime, inflation, and food shortages have led to repeated spasms of large-scale political protest that were violently suppressed by government forces. The most dramatic of these was a rash of relatively small but chaotic protests and riots in 2014 which paralyzed the country for months as protesters clashed with security forces through clouds of teargas and set up makeshift roadblocks known as guarimbas. While eventually put down, the 2014 unrest resulted in over 30 deaths and led to the arrest of several opposition leaders, including Leopoldo López, whose Voluntad Popular party was blamed for the turmoil. Since then the Venezuelan opposition has frequently attempted more subdued mass mobilizations, but the multitudes have often failed to materialize.

Not so on Thursday. This time around, the demonstration was not only large but also strikingly diverse. In 2014, most of the guarimba protesters hailed from the traditionally counterrevolutionary middle class. This time, by contrast, the mass protest was far more representative, fueled as much by the ongoing deprivation of Venezuela’s collapsing economy as by the old concerns of political rights. It seemed to draw many of its participants from the lower classes, the traditional constituency of the ruling Socialist Party. Nor was the impressive scale of the turnout the only surprise. Observers on both sides of Venezuela’s political chasm cited the fact that the immense crowd remained overwhelmingly peaceful, given that mass rallies in Venezuela have a tendency to tip over into civil strife. What’s more, the protesters managed to stick with their non-violent agenda despite repeated provocations.

In the weeks leading up to the march, for example, the government steadily ramped up its invective. On August 29, the Foreign Ministry issued an statement denouncing a “coup being planned for September 1, 2016, in Venezuela, in collusion with the anti-democratic opposition and international right” and claiming that “in its final days, Barack Obama’s government is seeking to destabilize Venezuela and the region to legitimize its imperial plans against peace and the development of the people.”

By my own count, the number of outlandish coup claims Maduro has made since 2013, when he first took power after the death of his predecessor Hugo Chávez, currently stands at around two dozen. While Maduro and other officials have sometimes used these declarations as a pretense to justify the arrests of opposition leaders, more often they’ve simply made the claims to great fanfare and then quietly allowed them to sink into oblivion. This latest one, however, signaled an unprecedented crackdown on high-profile opposition leaders.

Yon Goicoechea, once Venezuela’s most celebrated student movement opposition leader, was seized by armed agents of the Cuban-trained secret police during a trip to a furniture store on Monday morning. He’s been in jail since. A few hours after his arrest, in a broadcast on state TV, Diosdado Cabello, one of the chavista government’s most powerful leaders, explained that Goicoechea, while a jovial lawyer by day, was actually one of those provocateurs who, after training by U.S. special forces, take C-4 detonation devices with them on shopping excursions. (We’ve all seen them.) Around the country, the secret police has been shuffling high-profile political prisoners around, moving them from house arrest to jails and from smaller prisons to larger and more dangerous ones.

The government media also announced that weapons caches had been found in the Andres Bello Catholic University, a leading private college well-known for its robust opposition student movements (one of which eventually became Voluntad Popular). The announcement raised fears that officials might use the claims to crack down on the college’s independence. Secret police agents showed up unannounced at the Caracas headquarters of Voluntad Popular in a show of intimidation, and soon after the government issued a flurry of arrest warrants and televised denunciations against a who’s who of party notables, including several current mayors and political candidates, some of whom have since gone into hiding.

Some observers saw the targeting of the University and Voluntad Popular (whose support base includes many young activists and student movements) as an attempt to provoke young dissidents into ill-considered actions that the government could then use to justify harsh measures. If so, happily, the intended targets didn’t take the bait, anymore than the masses were intimidated into staying home

Since none of these provocations bore the desired fruit, the Maduro government has tried to use its dominance of the national media to reshape the narrative. When a government counter-protest, scheduled at the same time as the opposition’s, failed to attract any significant support, national TV aired stock footage from a Hugo Chávez-era rally as if it was taking place in real time. Telesur, an international outlet primarily financed by the Venezuelan government, aired a report with the headline “Right-Wing Protesters Try to Provoke Violence in Venezuela.” As the protest peaked on Thursday, Maduro mocked the opposition in a televised speech for failing to mobilize, quipping that he and the first lady might head downtown that day to take in a movie. Officials also did their best to intimidate local journalists and barred foreign ones — including crews from Al Jazeera, Le Monde, National Public Radio, and the Miami Herald — from entering the country. Drones and flyovers that could have shown the size of the crowds were banned, ostensibly for security reasons, but photos taken from local buildings show downtown Caracas packed — there was simply no hiding it.

Hoping to capitalize on this success, the opposition umbrella group has announced a robust schedule of future mass protests in the hope of maintaining momentum. If successful, they hope to pressure Maduro’s embattled government to allow an opposition-led drive to collect signatures for a referendum to recall the president. Under the arcane rules set by the current constitution, a failure to persuade the government to allow the recall vote this year would mean that Maduro will be allowed to handpick his successor rather than allowing Venezuelans to vote in a new one. Considering that recent polls place his personal popularity at 19 percent, a vote would almost certainly bring the opposition to power.

The Maduro government has so far managed to forestall the recall initiative through increasingly brazen delay tactics. Meanwhile, though last year’s parliamentary election gave the opposition a solid majority, their legislators’ efforts to bring about change have had little effect: The courts, which are packed with government sympathizers, have consistently struck down the laws they’ve proposed. So now, denied institutional relevance, and with a growing majority of Venezuelans yearning for reprieve from its broken revolution, the opposition is taking matters to the streets, laying bare the undeniable will of the people — and doing so without bloodshed or mayhem, despite ample provocations. This is a great start, but the road will be long and Maduro’s government will continue throwing up every possible impediment. No matter. If the hydra can manage to stay out of its own way, there won’t be a packed court, corrupt bureaucrat, or jail cell in the country that will be able contain it.

Photo credit: JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.