Venezuelans take Holy Week seriously. It’s a time when the entire country seems to shut down, and stressed out Caraqueños flee the city. But this year, Semana Santa brings no respite. Instead of prayer, beaches and boozing, escalating protests over the government of President Nicolás Maduro have devolved into church scuffles, a presidential pelting, looting and sporadic bloodshed.
On Thursday — Maundy on the Catholic calendar — demonstrators once again took to the streets nationwide demanding the removal of judges, the release of political prisoners and new elections.
“This isn’t the time to go on vacation to the countryside or the beach. During this Semana Santa, our duty is to demonstrate and protest,” Manuel Quiroz, with the opposition Voluntad Popular party, said in a statement. “Otherwise this could be the last Semana Santa we have in liberty and democracy.”
Despite the government’s efforts to encourage a Holy Week lull by providing additional vacation days, protests are dragging on for a second week and the body count is slowly rising. On Thursday, authorities confirmed that a fifth protester had died after succumbing to gunshot wounds received earlier in the week.
Alfonzo Lopez Porras, 64, came out to demonstrate Thursday despite sporadic rains and the constant threat of being tear gassed by the national guard. He said he could no longer afford basic necessities on his meager pension.
“Those of us who are on our way out of this world have much to protest,” he said. “There’s no bread or medicine. In every corner of Venezuela, this socialist project has failed.”
The beleaguered country hasn’t seen this level of political turmoil since 2014, when weeks of demonstrations left at least 43 dead on both sides of the political divide. That time, the protests fizzled, President Nicolás Maduro emerged emboldened and the opposition was left bruised and deeply divided.
“This time the context is different,” said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, in northern Venezuela.
The country’s economic situation has continued to worsen and the socialist administration is increasingly isolated in a region that has shifted to the right. Gone are the days when Venezuela could count on like-minded leaders in Argentina and Brazil for support.
“There is much more demoralization due to the economic situation in the country and then there’s the political context,” he said. “It’s all providing the opposition with a degree of motivation.”
Critically, this latest wave of protests seem to have spread beyond opposition strongholds, with reports of impromptu blockades and fires in working-class barrios that have traditionally been ruling-party bastions.
Earlier this week, Maduro was pelted with eggs and debris on national television as he visited San Félix in Bolívar state. On Thursday, protesters in Western Caracas marched through low-income neighborhoods where they were sometimes jeered, but also cheered on.
Enrique Méndez, a 71-year-old military retiree from the working class Quebradita II neighborhood, said he voted for the late Hugo Chávez in his first campaign in 1998. But he said the leader’s shift toward “crazy communism” left him alienated. And he accused Maduro — Chávez’s handpicked successor who has been in power since 2013 — of “ruining the country.”
“The moment has come for Venezuela to come together to force Nicolás Maduro to resign,” he said.
That seems unlikely. Maduro accuses the opposition of being in league with foreign powers to try to topple him in a coup. And he’s boasted that he’ll give his foes a “whooping” during presidential elections in 2018 — if they’re held. Regional elections that were constitutionally mandated for last year never took place.
This latest wave of protests comes after the Supreme Court last month dissolved the opposition-controlled legislature before reversing itself amid international pressure. Days later, the comptroller’s office barred Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles from office for 15 years.
Sidelining Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate who is seen as one of Maduro’s primary electoral threats, has only added fuel to the protests.
“If democratic avenues are blocked, people lose their patience,” Capriles said Wednesday. “Venezuelans are patient but they also have their limits.”
Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst, said these demonstrations feel “fundamentally” different from previous marches. The opposition is more unified, their demands are more specific and they seem to have broad-based support, he said. There’s also the sense that demonstrations are one of the few avenues for real change.
“People seem more determined to put up a fight than they were in 2014,” he said. “And I think we may see more results.”
The administration will undoubtedly hit back. On Thursday, the government held a counter-protest in downtown Caracas as a show of force. And in recent days, security forces have stepped up their attacks on demonstrators, shooting metal canisters of tear gas directly into crowds and, at least in one case, dropping them from helicopters.
And analysts say much will depend on whether the demonstrations can be sustained over time.
“I see these marches like a battle,” said Carlos Herrera, 31, who had brought his snare drum Thursday to encourage protesters. “As the security forces attack us with everything they have like we were criminals, we just have our will to fight and pull Venezuela out of this.”
On Wednesday, April 19, Maduro begins his fifth year in power. But he may not get a chance to enjoy the moment. The opposition has called for another nationwide protest that day, labeling it “the mother of all demonstrations.”