Anti-government protests in Venezuela that were billed as “The Mother of All Marches” have left at least two people dead on Wednesday and many more injured. Empty supermarket shelves and rocketing unemployment levels had led the people of Venezuela out onto the streets of Caracas to call for a positive democratic reaction.
Instead, the protestors have been met by the full force of the government’s military. The military had been strategically deployed around Venezuela at the weekend to carry out an unprecedented military exercise. The defence minister claimed this was ordered in response to an external threat following the declaration from the U.S. that Venezuela was being considered a “national security threat.”
“Venezuela is threatened. This is the first time we are carrying out an exercise of this nature in the country…it’s going to be in every strategic region.”
Why Is Venezuela Protesting?
Venezuela was one of the most prosperous in Latin America as recently as 2013. These protests arrive within the context of a frighteningly sudden economic decline over recent years. These protests reflect a disquiet among the populace that President Nicolas Maduro can no longer ignore.
The former president, Hugo Chavez, died in 2013 leading Maduro, then vice president, to be promoted into power. Under Chavez, prosperity arrived via the country’s oil reserves, which he used to reduce poverty and economic inequality, with some significant successes. However, other sources counter this, suggesting Chavez left the economy hanging on by a thread, leaving Maduro to cut the last strands.
However, any economy built on something as volatile as oil prices cannot stay prosperous forever. It is, after all, a finite resource and an unpredictable market.
The value of a barrel of oil has more than halved since 2014 and, as a result, the economy in Venezuela has suffered greatly. They registered the highest inflation in the Americas at the end of 2014 and entered a deep recession that Venezuela is yet to escape.
By mid-2016, food shortages were common during the country’s worst economic crisis in its history, according to The Guardian. In June, a state of emergency was called, with Maduro blaming the U.S. and neighboring Colombia for having caused the crisis.
But this week’s protests are more immediately a response to recent government action. Protesters claim that Maduro is attempting to move the country away from democracy towards a dictatorship.
Maduro continues to delay overdue presidential elections after losing his majority in parliament in 2015. This year, on March 29, Venezuela’s Supreme Court took a more blatant step for total power. They dissolved the sitting parliament and passed all legislative powers to itself and, therefore, to Maduro. The opposition called the action a coup, as it brought all the governing power under Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party.
This decision was reversed three days later after international condemnation forced its hand. “This controversy is over,” Maduro said at this U-turn, yet the touch paper of widespread protest had already been lit.
The tensions were further provoked when Venezuela’s opposition party’s leader received a 15-year ban from all political work. Henrique Capriles, who has run twice for president in the past, refused to be silenced by this move.
“This is repression. This is a crime. They’re committing crimes and violating human rights by stepping on the rights of people. The government has staged a self-coup and what they’re now doing to me is part of it.”
Venezuela’s Protest History
Since the start of the recent protests, at least six people have died and many others injured. In the last days, two students were killed amid the roaming street battles between protesters and government forces.
Carlos Moreno, 17, was struck in the head while marching and died later in a hospital. Paola Ramirez was shot dead crossing the street in plaza San Carlos. Gruesome images and even a video of Ramirez’s shooting have been trending on social media as Venezuela’s protesters attempt to show the true horror of the situation.
Maduro has remained defiant, however, referring to the protesters as “vandals and terrorists.” Conspiracy theories run through many of his public statements, such as this comment from a TV interview in Venezuela from the weekend.
“We’re after and will capture the very last of the attackers. You all know that I don’t fool around. When I go after criminals, I get them and I will capture all of these criminals who are getting their orders from the right-wingers.”
These protests are far from an isolated incident in Venezuela’s recent history.
Maduro has faced protests in Venezuela since 2014. Nationwide student protests in February 2014 called for freedom of speech, an end to shortages of goods, and improved security for Venezuela. Instead, several protesters were killed and the protest leader arrested under charges that changed several times (initially he was charged with murder, later arson).
This ongoing protest, which has run for over a week, has clear parallels with the calls for freedom seen during the Arab Spring. Even the use of social media is similar, with hashtags trending to spread the reality of the country’s situation to the wider world.
But with the military currently on Maduro’s side, it is hard to see a way that democracy can return to Venezuela through protest without further tragedy and bloodshed.
[Featured Image by John Moore/Getty Images]