Venezuela

Venezuela’s opposition prepares to protest amid fears of divisions in the ranks

A demonstrator wears a box on his head that reads in Spanish "Salary raise now" during a protest by public university professors and students as they prepare to leave the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, May 28, 2015. Teachers are demanding salary raises while students demand improved bus transportation and that their schools' cafeterias and bathrooms be repaired. Students said their bathrooms and cafeterias are unusable due to lack of maintenance. Police blocked the protest from leaving the campus.
A demonstrator wears a box on his head that reads in Spanish "Salary raise now" during a protest by public university professors and students as they prepare to leave the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, May 28, 2015. Teachers are demanding salary raises while students demand improved bus transportation and that their schools' cafeterias and bathrooms be repaired. Students said their bathrooms and cafeterias are unusable due to lack of maintenance. Police blocked the protest from leaving the campus. AP

Demonstrators will be taking to the streets of Venezuela and Miami on Saturday — calling for the release of political prisoners, the end of censorship and for authorities to set a date for legislative elections.

But the protests — called for in a jailhouse video by politician Leopoldo López — have also become the latest test for an opposition that’s struggling to maintain a common front ahead of the critical congressional vote.

In the brief video, which was initially released by state-run television, López announced he was going on a hunger strike and called for a “massive and peaceful” demonstration.

Rather than being a rallying cry for the opposition, however, the call to action seemed to generate hand-wringing.

In a statement, the coalition of 29 opposition parties known as the MUD mildly chastised López’s Voluntad Popular party for not coordinating the activity with the rest of the alliance, and said it could not endorse the protest because some members had concerns about the march “that could have been resolved if we did not have the pressure of a fixed date that was unilaterally set by the organizers.”

The communiqué didn’t go over well, and the MUD has been swamped with accusations that it turned its back on López and fellow prisoners like Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of the restive city of San Cristobal.

“How can they [the MUD] talk about unity when they won’t even come out in defense of political prisoners?” asked Jose Antonio Colina, the head of Miami-based Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile, or Veppex. “All they are doing is confusing the Venezuelan population that thought we were more unified than ever.”

Veppex and 14 other organizations are planning a rally Saturday at 9 a.m. at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami.

The backlash has forced MUD Secretary General Jesús Torrealba to defend the organization’s position.

In an interview with Union Radio, he said that the demonstration was “perfectly legitimate” but that if the opposition ever wants to regain power, it needs to act in lockstep.

“The only way to guarantee that these political prisoners will be released and that we won’t have more political prisoners in the future is by having a government that’s respectful of human rights,” he said. “And to have that government ... the opposition needs to build a culture of working in unison.”

Just a few weeks ago, the spirit of unity was running strong, after the MUD held primaries to find consensus candidates for the legislative race. The opposition hopes to make gains during the congressional vote, but a date for the election has not been set.

In an article for the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, Research Fellow Michael McCarthy questioned whether the opposition could avoid being bogged down in a leadership struggle as the campaign season kicks off.

“Oppositionists had finally found a political middle ground based on prioritizing the elections — and the narrative of ordinary Venezuelans facing daily hardships to find food and other basic necessities,” he wrote. “However legitimate the opposition’s fury at the government’s repression and mismanagement, the call to the streets risks changing that narrative and diminishing prospects of opposition unity going into the election season.”

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) seems grateful for the distraction.

The country is being wracked by food shortages, rampant crime and soaring inflation that has turned the national mood surly. Venezuela hasn’t released inflation data all year, but Bank of America this week said its in-house calculations suggest that year-on-year inflation broke the three-digit mark in April, hitting 101 percent. In addition, the bolivar currency has been plunging as fast as the nation’s foreign reserves.

The calls for a street demonstration have shifted the conversation away from the sputtering economy — at least temporarily.

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a PSUV hardliner, has been warning the nation that Saturday’s marches could get ugly, as he’s accused the opposition of preparing to attack government buildings and engage in acts of “terrorism.”

The Miami Herald’s South America correspondent is based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @jimwyss

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