What are the protests about?
A broken economy, crime, shortages of basic goods, and political repression. When the populist President Hugo Chávez died last year, he left Venezuela's economy and civil society in shambles. Chávez's handpicked successor, President Nicolás Maduro, has none of Chávez's charisma, but essentially the same socialist policies and autocratic governing style, and the country has quickly deteriorated. Its murder rate of 25,000 per year is among the world's highest, with a Venezuelan killed every 20 minutes. Crime is so bad that the government stopped tracking it, claiming the data was being "politicized." Kidnappings and robberies are rampant, and the police have been corrupted by criminal gangs. Venezuela exports oil and imports nearly everything else, so when global oil prices stalled this year, it triggered a runaway annual inflation rate of 57 percent, as the bolivar currency lost much of its value. Families have been unable to buy toilet paper, flour, cooking oil, and other staples. "We are in a critical situation," says Caracas pollster Luis Vicente León, who warns that much of the country is near open revolt.
Who is leading the protests?
Protests started among students but quickly morphed into a general anti-government movement. Political opponents of Maduro, including opposition leader Leopoldo López, called for major demonstrations on Feb. 12, the bicentennial of the Battle of La Victoria, a pivotal moment in Venezuela's war of independence when students and youth joined the fight. Those marches were largely peaceful except in Caracas, where three people were killed. Maduro blamed López for the violence and ordered his arrest, and that touched off a wave of further demonstrations in cities across the country. The more harshly police cracked down on protests, the angrier people got. "The Venezuelan government has openly embraced the classic tactics of an authoritarian regime, jailing its opponents, muzzling the media, and intimidating civil society," says José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.
How did the protests turn violent?
Mostly, it's the result of a crackdown by armed pro-government militants known as colectivos. These groups have long been active in community service work in poor neighborhoods, but they also act as enforcer gangs, and now they have descended on protest camps, beating demonstrators. A subgroup of these, the motorizados, have rampaged through crowds on motorcycles and are believed to have shot and killed some of the student protest leaders. The protesters, too, have responded with violence, but less lethally — throwing rocks or stringing up wire across the streets to knock riders from their motorcycles. Maduro's security forces also have beaten protesters and may have fired live ammunition; dozens of the more than 1,500 people arrested say they were tortured in prison.
What does the government say?
Maduro's government contends that the protests are the work of fascists supported by U.S. agitators. A week after the first protest, his government kicked out three U.S. diplomats, saying they had been "training, financing, and creating youth organizations to promote violence in Venezuela." Just last week, Maduro wrote an op-ed in The New York Times taking issue with the American media narrative of repressive police versus peaceful protesters. The U.S., he said, is "on the side of the 1 percent who wish to drag our country back to when the 99 percent were shut out of political life and only the few — including American companies — benefited from Venezuela's oil." He claimed that the majority of Venezuelans, the poor, support his government.
Do the poor support Maduro?
Their support is waning. Maduro, elected last year in a disputed vote, benefits from residual loyalty to Chávez, who led the country from his election in 1999 until his death from cancer last year. Chávez was a disciple of Cuba's Fidel Castro, and he created a largely state-run, socialist economy, using Venezuela's oil wealth to fund schools and health clinics for the rural poor. The policy lifted many out of desperate poverty, and the beneficiaries are grateful, but it also strangled the economy and left the urban middle class very frustrated. December's local elections split on a rural/urban divide, with the ruling United Socialist Party taking 49 percent, and the opposition 43 percent. But in a recent poll, nearly two thirds of Venezuelans said they wanted a change of government. That's an astonishing figure considering that most rural dwellers have little access to information about the brutality of Maduro's crackdown: State television won't cover it, and international media are blocked.
How will this end?
Both sides have called for mediation, but have also used inflammatory language that could lead to more violence. Maduro has been snide and insulting, calling the protesters fascists, terrorists, and "Chuckys," after the psycho doll from the horror movies. Protest leaders, for their part, have described the elected government as a dictatorship engaged in "genocide," and have demanded that Maduro resign. And the two sides cannot agree on who should mediate. For now, with protests mainly confined in the urban middle class, the government has the upper hand. But if food shortages worsen and the barrios rise up, that could change. "People will take to the streets," says activist José Quintero, "and they won't be going home."
Silencing the opposition
The Maduro government's crackdown on dissent has ensnared some of the country's most prominent opposition leaders. Leopoldo López, a Harvard-educated former mayor, has been in jail for more than a month and is pleading for international help. Another leader, María Corina Machado, was stripped of her parliamentary seat while traveling abroad to speak about repression in Venezuela, and she has been threatened with arrest if she returns. That leaves Henrique Capriles, who ran against Maduro in the 2013 election. More moderate than the others, he has refrained from calling on Maduro to resign and says Venezuela's poor must become part of the protest movement. "What has to happen is to force the government to dialogue," Capriles says.