Protests have rocked Venezuela in recent weeks, but no one seems to agree on why huge numbers of people have suddenly taken to the streets. Some observers see the demonstrations as a verdict on food and medicine shortages, inflation and economic stagnation. Others see them as the tantrum of a retrograde former elite bent on nullifying the results of the last election. The government, for its part, is sticking to the old script: Venezuela is falling victim to a fascist conspiracy cooked up by American officials who are terrified of its revolutionary aspirations.
Yet none of these competing explanations capture what’s unique about this latest outpouring of anger. Venezuela’s protests are, in a way, self-referential: Faced with a government that systematically equates protest with treason, people have been protesting in defense of the very right to protest.
The crisis started on Feb. 4, when a group of student activists in the Andean city of San Cristóbal took to the streets to protest the crime wave ravaging their campus. The Police Department’s failure to respond to the sexual assault of a first-year student sent students out en masse to demand that the state protect them.
The government’s response was a brutal police crackdown, not against the rape suspect, but against the student protesters. The security forces sprayed the protesters with tear gas; two students were arrested. The next day, a larger demonstration hit the streets of San Cristóbal to protest the previous day’s violence, and student activists in a second city, Maracaibo, joined them in solidarity, only to be harshly beaten and tear-gassed by the National Guard in return. Fifty students were wounded on Day 2.
As the cycle of protests, repression and protests-against-repression spread, the focus of protest began to morph. What was at stake, the students realized, was the right to free assembly.
Repression, in Venezuela, comes not only in the form of tear gas and rubber bullets. The government has also mobilized its sprawling propaganda apparatus — newspapers and radio stations, half a dozen TV stations, hundreds of websites — in a concerted campaign of vilification to demonize the protest leaders as a shadowy fascist cabal in cahoots with American imperialists.
The claim is outlandish, yet its ceaseless repetition reveals that to the Venezuelan government, all dissent is treason. Such a regime has little trouble justifying the use of violence against its opponents.
It’s striking that the government has now settled on “fascists” as the favored epithet to attack dissenters. It seems as if President Nicolás Maduro can’t finish a sentence without denouncing a fascist. The irony appears to be lost on Mr. Maduro, who seems to have forgotten that one of the cornerstones of actual fascism is the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of dissenting opinions.
It’s this intolerance of opposing views, and violent repression, that Venezuela’s students are now mobilized against. Today, after 13 deaths, 18 alleged cases of torture and over 500 arrests, the protest movement has snowballed into a nationwide paroxysm of anger that puts the government’s stability in question.
The protests’ lack of structure has given them resilience, but also an anarchic edge. There is no single leader in a position to give the movement strategic direction. Its favored protest tactic — the improvised barricade to isolate given neighborhoods from the outside world — appears self-defeating at best, as some of these barricades have led to violence.
The government’s response, however, has been grossly disproportionate — ranging from an almost inexhaustible supply of tear gas and plastic bullets to the use of armored personnel carriers, tanks and paramilitary shock troops on motorcycles. At one point, the Venezuelan Air Force had its Russian-built Sukhoi fighter jets circle above San Cristóbal to cow rock-throwing kids.
The challenge now is to mold the great indignation of the last few weeks into a coherent, nimble, organized political organization able to stand up for all Venezuelans’ basic rights. Henrique Capriles, the leader of Venezuela’s moderate opposition, has made his pitch. In a speech to a large rally in Caracas last Saturday, Mr. Capriles, flanked by high-profile student leaders, made an impassioned call for an end to nighttime protests, roadblocks and other tactics liable to court violence.
Few outside the rally heard him, however, because government pressure ensured that no broadcast media carried coverage of the event: one more reason to believe the government is invested in a strategy of escalation.
Hugo Chávez was never shy about goading the opposition into a fight. He understood that confrontation was the best way to rally his hard-core supporters while consolidating autocratic control over society. Mr. Maduro, his chosen successor, certainly absorbed that lesson.
But Mr. Chávez also had an instinctive feel for the limits of such tactics and never engaged in repression on this scale. It’s that politician’s grasp of the pitfalls of going too far, too fast that seems lacking in Mr. Maduro. What’s clear, though, is that Venezuela’s students will not stand by passively while basic human rights are flouted. As their protest chant has it:
“No way! No way!
I’m not going to take
The Cuban-style dictatorship
You’re shoving in my face.”
Francisco Toro is the founder of the political website Caracas Chronicles.