By Jon Jen
The smell of ashes and gas lingers in the air in cities across Venezuela, and occasionally the various sounds of shouts and footsteps break the night silence. At times, entire city squares fill up with enraged and frenetic people, expressing their disapproval for the government. Indeed, these signs are all proof of “La Salida”— a movement against President Nicolas Maduro and the current party in power. An unstable economy, claims of corruption, and rampant crime have all contributed to the sudden outburst of protests that have commenced roughly a month ago in Venezuela. But why have the demonstrations become so chaotic and deadly? As the nation with the 5thhighest murder rate in the world and an inflation percentage rate in the 50’s, Venezuela’s fragile domestic situation has actually been brewing undercover for years. Indeed, there have been shortages of goods and multifarious instances of fraud and crime throughout 2013, and the murder of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and a case of rape in the January of 2014 sparked cries of lax police control. Soon, students in western districts started to demonstrate and take note of additional problems, such as security issues and censorship, and forced them into the spotlight. Called upon by opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez and by messages disseminated through social media, the protests grew and grew in size, and police intervention seemed imminent. President Nicolas Maduro, who was the target of much criticism, tried to shift the blame off from himself, and accused the uninvolved US of trying to destabilize Venezuela by plotting a coup with dissidents. He has reportedly stated that, “”If they (the protesters) don’t retreat, I’m going to liberate those spaces with the security forces…They have a few hours to go home … [remaining protesters] get ready, we’re coming for you.” The government subsequently arrested Lopez, and sent armed troops who fired shots and used tear gas on the throngs of the so-called “fascist” protesters. Soon, the first blood was spilled, and all hell broke loose.
The first 3 deaths of the protests occurred in February 12, when gunmen started shooting at a peaceful group of demonstrators. Since then, 25 people, including both protesters and government forces, have been killed in various riots. Some of the victims were never even involved in the protests, but were randomly shot by militias amidst the confusion. These militia groups, called “colectivos”, consist of gun-owners and gang members who have banded together in support of the government, and they regularly harass and threaten protesters and bystanders. Additionally, hundreds of activists have been arrested and jailed. These actions have prompted increasingly physical tactics among opposition demonstrators, who have resorted to throwing stones and makeshift bombs at militias and police, a far cry from the once peaceful marches. So far, Human Rights Watch has counted 33 cases of human rights violations, and has noticed the “excessive and unlawful force against protesters on multiple occasions”. Public transportation and businesses have been closed at times due to the worsening riots. Accusations and finger pointing for who should bear the blame for the deaths continue as both sides become increasingly polarized and belligerent.
The goal and preferred outcome of the protests remain unclear, and are not by any means uniform throughout the ranks of demonstrators. However, many Venezuelans are in support of a policy shift, although most do not wish for a coup as government officials claim. “A change of government as soon as possible: that is what we are proposing, very clearly,” said Maria Corina Machado, an opposition legislator. Additionally, protesters are demanding the release of those incarcerated who were involved in the demonstrations. There exists allegations of torture, but President Maduro strongly denies them. However, an investigation has already been filed, and will soon be underway. A few more extreme protesters have also pushed for the resignation of President Maduro, but that seems unlikely to happen. In other viewpoints, many protesters also demand more media freedom, a crackdown on “colectivos”, and multifarious other requests that involve the government. On the other hand, some of the citizens have continued to support Madero’s administration. In fact, various workers in the oil and motor industry have actually backed his previous policies.
The turmoil in Venezuela seems partially overshadowed by other more visible issues such as the Ukraine crisis, but nonetheless has captured the attention of the media and several prominent figures. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has voiced his “sadness at continuing reports of violence and loss of life amid protests in Venezuela, and urged that all efforts be urgently made to lower the tensions and prevent further violence”. Pope Francis has also worried about the recent unrest, and said that he wished that “violence and hostility will cease as soon as possible”. The rest of the world can only wait and watch as the events unfold day by day, and hope that the event does not spiral out of control into anarchy, which may forever rip to shreds the basis of the Venezuelan political arena.