Though critics can dump a lot of problems on the doorstep of Hugo Chávez’s 14-year reign as president of Venezuela, the one thing that you can’t say about Chávez is that he used state violence (as opposed to expropriation, media censorship or other tactics) to undermine Venezuela’s rule of law, excepting perhaps the aborted April 2002 coup, a complex incident in Venezuelan politics in which neither the Venezuelan military, the Chávez administration nor the Venezuelan opposition was entirely blameless.
It’s hard to extend the same credit to Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, in light of the violence against protestors in Caracas, Valencia and elsewhere across Venezuela last night.
A 22-year-old beauty queen, Génesis Carmona, was shot in the head in central Valencia Tuesday night, the fifth fatality in a series of escalating student protests against the Maduro government — the photo above shows Altamira, a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Caracas that’s seen some of the most tense confrontations of the past 48 hours.
Venezuela’s oil production allowed Chávez to circumvent violent repression by using money to buy and consolidate his support among his natural base — Venezuela’s poorest citizens who hadn’t benefitted from the petrostate’s largesse (and, increasingly, a corrupt ‘boligarchy’ whose continued prosperity depends on the continuity of the chavista regime).
Though the February 2014 protests aren’t as widespread as the ones that led to the 2002 coup against Chávez, economic conditions are much poorer today in Venezuela than they were 12 years ago, when Chávez was just three years into his presidency and the country exported more oil — and other products — than it does today. The fact that five people are dead, with many more injured, is a serious escalation in a country where, though political polarization has been common for the past decade and a half, political killing has not. Maduro’s government is censoring the media even more than usual, putting much of Caracas on lockdown and arresting protestors by the truckload. Most fundamentally, governments in truly liberal democracies do not respond to political protest with lethal violence. Chávez could point to legitimate majoritarian support throughout the entirety of his presidency, even if it obscured the deterioration of the rule of law and public institutions. By contrast, Maduro’s increasingly violent response to protest underlines the fragility (or, perhaps, the illegitimacy) of his political support.
This is new territory, both for Venezuela and for chavismo, and though the armed forces and the rest of the chavista high guard support Maduro today, it’s not certain that they will continue to do so at any cost, especially given Maduro’s political weakness. If the body count increases, it’s not inconceivable that the armed forces or, say, another top chavista figure like Disodado Cabello, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly (who arguably has more power than Maduro), could step in to force Maduro to resign.
But it’s also worth questioning whether the protests have truly crossed the line to appeal beyond the traditional opponents of chavismo, a point that Francisco Toro made earlier this week at Caracas Chronicles:
Middle class protests in middle class areas on middle class themes by middle class people are not a challenge to the chavista power system, they’re part of the chavista power system. This is really painful, but figuring it out is crucial. Chavismo doesn’t thrive despite this type of protest, it thrives because of it.
What’s clear is that Leopoldo López, the former mayor of Chacao municipality, is eclipsing Henrique Capriles as the leader of the opposition. Though Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and two-time presidential challenger who only narrowly lost the April 2013 presidential race to Maduro, remains the titular head of the opposition, it’s López who has been central to the current escalation between chavismo and its opponents. In some ways, López is even more responsible for the current escalation than Maduro because his refusal to back down marks a shift in opposition tactics, goading Maduro into the violent counterattack that Maduro has threatened to unleash on massive political assembly since his election ten months ago. That’s not to place blame for the current political violence on López — after all, a government in a liberal democracy can bear the brunt of popular protest without resorting to violence or arbitrary arrests. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s response to last summer’s protests provides the obvious counterpoint — Rousseff took a political hit, but ultimately revisited the issue of public transportation costs, and she’s favored to win reelection later this year.
But some background on the opposition’s response to the Maduro government goes a long way in explaining why López’s stand was such a transformative moment. Two days after the April 2013 election, Capriles cancelled a planned rally in Caracas after warnings that Maduro and the chavistas would send out armed police to disperse the protests, making clear that they would hold Capriles and the opposition leadership responsible for any violence.
Capriles blinked, and you can trace the opposition’s approach to that moment last spring. Though he maintained that he was the actual winner of the presidential race, Capriles shied away from mobilizing widespread protests on his behalf — even when the chavista-dominated electoral commission repressed a full audit of the vote and even through the demoralizing December 2013 municipal elections, when the opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable), actually lost ground.
Those failures only emboldened López, who advocated a much more forceful confrontation with Maduro and the chavistas. Among the most prominent opposition leaders, López was the quickest to take ownership of the protests, and when the Maduro regime issued a warrant for López’s arrest on a legally dubious basis, López turned himself in earlier this week — and turned it into an immediate photo opportunity.
It’s possible that López has recklessly exacerbated Venezuela’s political cold war into a hot, violent confrontation, and that Capriles will ultimately emerge as somewhat of a statesman for his more cautious approach. But it’s also possible that the opposition will embrace the more caustic approach that López advocates, which takes for granted that the normal tools of democratic opposition are toothless in the face of an authoritarian government — or at least force Capriles and the more hesitant stalwarts of the MUD into a more aggressive posture as the Venezuelan economy sinks further into surrealist decline.
It’s worth repeating, even hours after the world has watched a similar story unfold in Kiev — any government that responds to popular protests by shooting and arresting the protesters is a government that’s losing (or has already lost) its credibility.
Photo credit to Leonardo Rojas / Twitter.