Venezuela isn't going to be another Ukraine
But that doesn't mean Nicolas Maduro will be able to stay in power...
The similarities between the protests in Ukraine and Venezuela are pretty striking, from impromptu barricades to protesters wielding Molotov cocktails and stones fighting riot police armed with guns and tear gas. In both countries, protesters have died in the past week, though Venezuela's confirmed tally of 13 deaths is smaller than the 88 confirmed killed in the Kiev protests.
There are other similarities, too. Each protest has a jailed prominent opposition figure — former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine, freed Saturday, and Venezuela's Leopoldo Lopez, arrested last week. And both of the targeted governments — deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Venezuela's Socialist government, now headed by President Nicolás Maduro — returned to power after being ousted in the mid-2000s following large protests. Neither Yanukovych or Maduro (or the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro's predecessor) is very popular in Washington.
These parallels between Kiev and Caracas may sound ominous for Maduro, who was only narrowly elected a year ago and is presiding over a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world, inflation of 56 percent, and shortages of such staples as milk, flour, and toilet paper. A member of Maduro's party, Tachira state Gov. Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, took the very unusual step Monday of criticizing Maduro's crackdown on the protests as "a grave error" and an "unacceptable excess."
Maduro seems to see the parallels, too. With the protests spreading, he is now calling for a "peace conference" with opposition leaders like Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles, who said he won't attend "amid the repression, amid the violation of human rights" by the Maduro government. Peace talks aren't risk-free, even when successful. Yanukovych was sacked by parliament shortly after reaching a peace deal with his opponents.
But Venezuela is not Ukraine, and beneath the similarities in the protest movements are significant differences.
The first is time: The Kiev protesters started their demonstration in November after Yanukovych reneged on a European Union trade pact, and they gradually built up a tent fortress in the central Maidan Square. In Venezuela, the protests started on Feb. 4 at the university in San Cristóbal, with students showing their anger over the lack of police response to an attempted rape and crime in general.
The "brutal police crackdown" on the student protesters in San Cristóbal led to similar protests at other universities, which were also violently suppressed, says Francisco Toro in The New York Times. "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." Toro continues:
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 student 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. [The New York Times]
Time also plays a big part in the Venezuelan opposition's lack of friendly media outlets. Yanukovych was elected in 2010, and governed with a healthy opposition bloc in parliament. His antagonists at Maidan Square had newspapers and TV stations on their side. On the other hand, Maduro's predecessor Chávez was first elected in 1998, and he consolidated power after a brief 2002 coup left his political opponents divided and discredited. He used that power to undermine unfavorable news coverage. The last TV station critical of the government, Globovision, was sold to government-friendly investors last year.
At the same time, Maduro has money at his disposal from Venezuela's vast oil reserves. Yanukovych appears to have lost a desperate game to play Moscow and the EU against each other to get the best financial lifeline for his bankrupt government.
Finally, the sharp divisions in Ukraine are largely regional, with the western part of the country against Yanukovych and Russian affiliation and the eastern and southern parts skeptical of Western Europe and comfortable with Russia's embrace. In Venezuela, the split is more along economic and class lines. This photo (doctored or real) captures the sentiment of the Maduro sympathizers pretty well:
Maduro is still being given the benefit of the doubt by Venezuela's poor, who were generally loyal to Chávez. It's not just that Chávez subsidized their food and health care: He courted them, paid attention to them, and even took it upon himself to teach them history and geography during his famously long TV appearances, using a chalkboard and other props. Imagine Glenn Beck as president, with very different politics.
But the divide isn't as simple as rich versus poor. Maduro talks up the conflict as "a textbook case of class struggle, pitting this oil-rich country's wealthy elite, its professional ranks, and its midlevel wage-earners against the bulging and impoverished legions of Venezuela's long-neglected poor," says Oakland Ross at The Toronto Star. But the reality is much more complicated, with plenty of wealthy Venezuelans supportive of the government and plenty of poor fed up with the crime and shortages.
Protest movements have a life of their own, and Venezuela's demonstrations could escalate or fizzle out. Maduro isn't as talented or intuitive a politician as Chávez, but in many ways he's in better shape than Yanukovych was. So maybe he will have better fortune than his ousted Ukrainian counterpart. Still, this photo op, from Monday...
...doesn't exactly scream "winning":
On the other hand, Cuba — one of Chávez's prominent role models — has survived its succession from Fidel Castro to less popular brother Raul, after more than 50 years with far fewer resources and stronger opposition from the U.S. As long as the oil flows in Venezuela and prices stay high, Maduro may hold on to power.