Venezuela protests: a growing body count but few solutions

Almost two weeks of protests have produced a growing body count, escalating tensions and global headlines but few answers about how Venezuela might escape the morass.

President Nicolás Maduro seems as entrenched as ever — insisting that there’s nothing behind the growing chorus of discontent but a “fascist” attempt to topple him.

And protesters — braving bullets and beatings that have claimed at least eight lives — have failed to communicate a clear set of demands that might illuminate an exit to the crisis.

“The situation is so complicated that I don’t see a way out but for Maduro to call for an honest dialogue and sit down with the half of the country that disagrees with him,” said Saul Cabrera, a political analyst with Consultores 21 polling firm. “But quite honestly, I can’t imagine that happening.”

While Maduro has called a meeting with national governors for Monday, he’s said those reunions are “dialogues, not negotiations.”

And Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, one of the leaders of the opposition, has said the invitation comes “with a gun at our head.”

At the heart of the protests is a deteriorating economic and social situation that has made this oil-rich nation a poster child for dysfunction. Inflation hit a whopping 56 percent last year and the country is in a crime wave that took almost 25,000 lives by some counts.

Caracas — the epicenter of the country’s Bolivarian Revolution — is the most murderous capital on the planet. To complicate matters, draconian currency controls have slammed importers and gutted national production leading to shortages of everything from toilet paper to flour.

“These protests aren’t so much about getting rid of Maduro,” Cabrera said, although some have called for just that. “They’re more about making changes in the economy that both economists, with all their complicated language, and housewives, who wait in line for seven hours to buy food, know are needed.”

But the protests are also being fueled by a frustrated opposition that has been living under the socialist reforms of the “Bolivarian Revolution” for 15 years and is coming off a string of electoral defeats.

Capriles, the head of the opposition coalition known as the MUD, lost the presidential race to the late Hugo Chávez in October and then lost to Maduro in April by 1.5 percent of the vote. The ruling PSUV party also swept 20 out of 23 governor’s posts and then went on to a strong showing in municipal races.

For Maduro’s supporters, the current protests are the ultimate sign of bad faith.

“We’re exhausted from so many elections and after each and every one the opposition returns with its plans for destabilization,” said Salvador Lugo, a student organizer at Caracas’ Central University and a member of the PSUV youth movement. “They want to take to the streets and get rid of a legitimate president that more than 7.5 million of us voted for? That’s not democracy.”

It would be like the U.S. Tea Party marching on the White House and trying to depose Barack Obama after losing an election, Lugo said. Instead, the opposition needs to focus on the municipalities and states it does control “and turn them into a reference for the rest of the country,” he added.

Many in the opposition consider those elections a sham. If not won by outright fraud, they claim, then the playing field was so skewed that the races were lost before they began. In part, that explains the activism of political leaders like Leopoldo López, who was detained on Tuesday, and opposition Deputy Maria Corina Machado.

Internal Divide

While Capriles and most of the opposition leadership have taken a cautious approach to the protests, López and Machado “jumped on the opportunity on the belief that they could force a political crisis that could lead to Maduro’s resignation,” Daniel Kerner, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia group said in a statement to subscribers. “Given the inability of the opposition to defeat Maduro in the polls, this maximalist strategy is probably becoming more appealing to increasingly desperate opposition voters.”

The differing attitudes to the protests are also about a power struggle in the opposition, said Steve Ellner, an economic history professor at the Universidad del Oriente in Puerto la Cruz, who has lived in Venezuela for more than 40 years.

While presidential elections aren’t until 2019, there is the chance of recalling Maduro in about two years.

“Within a short period of time, we’ll be beginning to talk about it [the recall] and it will create a groundswell,” as the move to collect signatures begins, he said. “And at that point, the opposition will want to define who their candidate will be if there was a recall.”

Many feel that Capriles, with his back-to-back losses, has had his chance. And that has López’s star ascendant.

“These are two, dynamic and attractive figures,” Ellner said. “But I think Capriles loses out now that López is the [jailed] hero of the opposition and the slogan now is ‘liberation.’”

López has been sidelined before. In 2008, as he was seen as the front-runner to become the mayor Caracas, he was banned from politics on charges that he claims were trumped up. Now, he’s in jail on a list of charges that include arson, vandalism and “associating for organized crime,” that can carry a 10-year sentence.

Downward Spiral?

In the short run, many analysts see the country stuck in a doom loop of deteriorating economy and rising social unrest.

“The economic situation is extremely challenging and the Maduro administration does not seem to have the will or the capacity to take the necessary measures to seriously address the problems of dollar scarcity, rising inflation and deteriorating fiscal and external accounts,” Kerner wrote. “In fact, these protests could make the Maduro administration even more reluctant to make serious adjustments for fear of generating even more serious unrest.”

What is certain is that the eyes of the region are on Venezuela. The last 15 years of socialist reforms, first under Chávez and now Maduro, have made it a model and a cautionary tale.

“There is a lot at stake,” said Ellner, the author of an upcoming book called Latin America’s Radical Left. “Venezuela continues to be a symbol for a lot of people for the right and the left, so what happens here will be of prime importance.”