Protests in Abundance, Wisdom in Short Supply

Ángel Álvarez

I understand the rage. I understand how many expectations have been dashed by so many electoral campaigns. I understand the frustrations that have accumulated in a country that is divided into two parts that do not understand or communicate with each other.

This frustration and anguish have been worsened by a severe economic crisis–shortages of basic consumer goods and one of the highest inflation rates on the planet. The government blames this crisis on an “economic war” waged by merchants. The opposition blames the government’s economic policy for driving the country into a severe fiscal crisis, with high inflation and signs of recession, in a context of high oil prices.

The crisis is so severe that basic medicines for chronic diseases are hard to find. The world is amazed and amused by the fact that toilet paper is in short supply.

I understand that people in Venezuela are desperate and want to do something. That “something” has recently become an unstoppable wave of protests; some peaceful, some violent.

I also understand that the government has to ensure public order, and that, therefore, it must control the protests, especially the violent ones. But the way in which the government has attempted to frame the discontent, as something akin to a civil war, and the way in which it has repressed the protests violates human rights standards and is so violent that it can only generate more indignation and more protests.

Today Venezuela seems like an airliner experiencing a strong turbulence and in peril of falling into the sea. The passengers are in distress, they scream and act desperately. But the passengers can do very little if the plane is out of control. The pilots are responsible for controlling the plane and are responsible for seeing it to a safe landing.

The leaders that now call for peace will pay a high political price. No doubt about it. But a courageous leader does not fear the criticism of allies, and should be ready to risk his reputation to guarantee the well-being of his followers.

Before the protests of February 12, Venezuela’s youth day, the opposition had a clear and politically legitimate leadership that was attempting to stem the explosion which seemed eminent, and to construct an effective and non-insurrectionist path.

The government had tried for its part, somewhat clumsily, to open a dialogue with the recently elected opposition mayors and governors. At the same time President Maduro had been cautiously and discretely distancing himself from the most radical wing of the PSUV that even went so far as to question his loyalty to the ideas of Chávez.

Those interested in dialogue, from both sides, were cautious and advanced slowly. This appeared to be the only solution after fifteen years of intense polarization and mutual distrust. As recent events have shown, the situation indeed merited extreme caution and care.

This caution was seen as an opportunity by three political leaders who were not part of these dialogues: a mayor who had not been invited to the dialogue, a political leader who had been inhabilitado (disqualified for holding public office) until 2017, and a National Assembly representative.

These three found in street actions a prominence they could not find through dialogue. The tensions of these political leaders with the opposition coalition—Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, or MUD–went far back and were well known because they claimed a prominence they could not back up with votes. The MUD is a political association in which participation is won by having received votes, not through gestures or words. It is a political organization, not a concert.

The first secessionist action by the three was the creation of a parliamentary group called la movida (“the move”) which effectively divided the MUD representation in the National Assembly. Their second initiative was la calle (“the street”) which they enacted on their own, and into which they tried, with all their might, to drag Capriles and the MUD.

Maduro felt threatened by the intensity of the protests and the violent expressions of discontent. As a result he seems to have again embraced the most radical groups that present themselves as the last stop guarantee of stability for his government.

What was initially presented in social media as “#lacalle” and “#lasalida” has become a dark and smoky alley with several dead. It’s not easy to predict how all this will end, but if there is any exit, it lays in part in the hands of those who provoked all this. If they are responsible politicians, they should assume the costs and call for the end to these protests, because they are leading down a terrible path.

The MUD and Capriles have tried to stop the violence, but have been unable to do so since they were against violence from the start and therefore do not have contact with the radicals that now seem willing to do anything. These violent protestors will perhaps only listen to those leaders that originally called them to the streets. But one of those leaders is already in jail, and it is not clear that at this point they will listen to anyone.  

Angel Alvarez is a Professor of Political Science at the Universidad Central de Venezuela

Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde