Venezuela’s Protests Shake the Regime Chávez Built

Venezuela has been rocked by three weeks of mass student protests, but it's unlikely they'll be able to unseat the country's entrenched regime

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Rodrigo Abd / AP

Objects placed by opposition protesters block a road in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.

The protesters have a nickname for the water cannons used by the National Guard against them. They call them ballenas, or whales. “This one is Shamu and the other one is Willy,” says Luna, a 24-year-old student wearing a small gas mask and bandana. On Wednesday night, she points towards the water cannons just off Plaza Altamira, long a focal point for opposition unrest here. Flames from burning trash and exploded petrol bombs surround her and tear gas stings her eyes; those around her pelt security forces with stones.

The scene is a familiar one across Venezuela. For three weeks, protests have gathered momentum throughout the country, building on widespread anger at a crumbling economy and the country’s out-of-control crime epidemic. Though a major opposition leader is behind bars — and police forces are cracking down — President Nicolás Maduro faces his biggest test since coming to power after the death last year of Hugo Chávez, the leftist populist leader whose 14-year-long rule has reshaped the country.

(PHOTOS: Anti-Government Protests Rock Venezuela)

Tens of thousands have taken to Venezuela’s streets, leaving at least eight people, including a local beauty queen, dead in clashes with authorities. The protesters are young and idealistic, but their ability to effect change remains in doubt.

“We don’t have a clear objective,” admits Rita Moreno, 19-year-old dentistry student. “But we have to do something.” Many don’t even back Leopoldo López, the opposition leader who is now behind bars after surrendering to authorities for instigating the unrest earlier this week. They don’t care about any politician, in fact. “Whomever, it doesn’t matter,” says José Pérez, 34, as he joined protesters at the square. All they know is that Venezuela’s status quo, ingrained by over a decade of Chavismo, must go.

Economically, the country is falling apart. Venezuela’s inflation rate is one of the world’s highest—leading to shortages of the most basic goods. And then there’s the crime: according to local NGOs, some 70 people were killed across the country every day last year — a figure that makes the number killed during the protests themselves seem negligible.

Unrest began in the country’s volatile west early this month. The attempted rape of a student in the city of San Christóbal, Táchira state, sparked protests by fellow students irate at the country’s permanent climate of insecurity. After authorities detained and allegedly beat some of the student protesters, their peers there and in nearby cities held similar protests and the unrest snowballed. Meanwhile, López and fellow hardline opposition figure María Corina Machado launched La Salida, The Exit—a call for the opposition to take to the streets.

Soon after the protests hit Caracas last week, a warrant was put out for López’s arrest on charges of murder and terrorism. After a few days in hiding, the 42-year-old called on supporters to march with him to the state prosecutor’s office where he would hand himself in. “If they put me in prison, it will wake up the people,” he said through a megaphone minutes before being arrested by the country’s security forces.

But Maduro has also made his own political capital from the protests and violence. His government has organized its own marches, which, in number, dwarf those of the opposition. Seas of socialist red flowed through the city as counterweights to opposition protests during the week, promising that the Bolivarian Revolution—the leftist movement led by Chávez and named for Latin American independent hero Simón Bolívar—was a synonym for peace and love. “We have to celebrate the revolution,” said 16-year-old Kaina Lovera at one rally. “The opposition is spreading nothing but hate.”

Maduro accuses protesters of trying to oust him in a coup. In April 2002, Chávez was himself briefly unseated in a coup lasting around 36 hours that began with similar, though much larger, protests. In 2007, tens of thousands of students took to Caracas’ streets in much more peaceful protests. “One difference is that Chávez is dead,” says Yon Goicoechea, who led the marches back in 2007, suggesting that the absence of the charismatic demagogue makes tangible gains for the opposition more plausible. “They’re fighting now against a very weak government so that also makes a huge difference to what they can achieve.”

Goicoechea also points to the scale of government repression now, which he claims is worse than it was seven years ago. Critics of the government are alleging heavy-handed tactics by authorities. “Protesters were hurt or jailed and that brought a lot of people into the streets,” says David Smilde, a local sociology professor. “If the security forces stop repressing the protests they will likely fizzle out.”

Juan Requesens, 24, is the Student’ Union leader leading the protests now. One of his major aims is to “stop police repression,” he says. “We go to the streets to scream to the world that our students are in jail.”

Some ministers have taken pride in the government’s response. Tourism Minister Andrés Izarra tweeted this week that students in Altamira would “suck up the good gas,” referring to the tear gas used by authorities here. Governor of Carabobo state Francisco Ameliach said that protesters should “prepare [themselves] for a severe counterattack.” There is also fear within protesting groups of colectivos, armed pro-government gangs known to ride around on motorbikes and attack opposition supporters.

“The government has taken off its mask in terms of what it’s willing to do in order to silence its citizens,” Machado, the opposition leader, told TIME. “But even though those threats are there, citizens are coming out.” They indeed are coming out but it is tough to see to what end. López told Reuters just before the protests began that he was not looking for a coup but to force Maduro’s resignation. There is little chance of that. “I’m not giving up a single millimeter of the power invested in me by the Venezuelan people,” Maduro said.

Divisions appear to exist within the Maduro government, more so now than ever after the death of its unifying figurehead. Chávez came into power in 1999 after decades of rule by corrupt elite. His aim was to channel oil money to the poor, create new social programs and give the most marginalized in his country a voice. As the years wore on, however, Chávez became more of a demagogue. Maduro, who lacks Chávez’s charisma and unifying power, has parroted Chavista rhetoric, sometimes to greater extremes than Chávez himself. Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, is thought to be Maduro’s main rival for power. However, the pair has shown a united front, even appearing side-by-side on state television.

Maduro expelled three US diplomats earlier in the week for their apparent involvement in the protests, accusing them of recruiting university students for the protests. Many suspect Washington was involved in the 2002 coup against Chávez though no proof has been offered. Venezuelan television networks played a major role in that coup though now are barely covering events. Colombia-based news channel NTN24 was ordered off the airways by Maduro after it broadcast live coverage of the violence here and the president also threatened to expel CNN from the country if it failed to “rectify” its coverage.

The censorship has inspired anger. “I know it sounds radical,” says Angela Trujillo, a 23-year-old beauty therapist angry that more of her friends weren’t taking to the streets, “but we need a coup.” That hushed word is being heard in opposition circles, but it is more of a hope than a realistic strategy. Opposition activists talk of the stars aligning—a critical mass of protesters that would force some change. However, it is as vague as the young students’ ideals.

Francisco Toro took part in opposition protests in 2002 and now is one of the country’s most respected bloggers. As much as he would like to see the opposition succeed, he is not hopeful. “There’s a very high chance that this will fizzle out, leaving a lot of very angry, very embittered kids,” he tells TIME. “The difference is that when I was embittered, I got to be embittered at home, whereas a lot of today’s kids are going to be enjoying their embitterment from behind bars.”

More marches are planned in the coming days, though even some of the most ardent protesters are not fully aware of them. “What time, where?” replied one when asked if she would be there. She may not show, but Shamu and Willy undoubtedly will.


Should criminals be in charge of correcting the wrong they inflicted?

Puerto Ricans vote in elections every 4 years at an 80% level of participation.Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States (US) government for the past 116 years.If the US government has the final say in what happens in Puerto Rico, what is the purpose of these elections?The purpose is to fool the world that Puerto Rico is a democracy.

The United Nations (UN) declared colonialism a crime against humanity in 1960.The UN has asked the US government 33 times to decolonize Puerto Rico immediately.The US government has refused.It says that Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States is none of the UN’s business.The US says that it is a domestic affair.

To appear that the US government wants to decolonize Puerto Rico, it promotes the use of plebiscites to determine what Puerto Ricans want.Doesn’t that sounds innocent and democratic?So what’s the problem?

To begin with, the international community already rendered its verdict and determined that colonialism is illegal.So to have a political status option in a plebiscite that favors maintaining Puerto Rico a colony of the United States is not permitted.To have a political status option of Puerto Rico becoming a state of the United States is also not permitted under international law.The problem goes back to the beginning of this article.In order to have free elections, the country must be free.So before these elections and plebiscite could be valid, Puerto Rico would have to first be an independent nation.

What people must realize is that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US because the US government wants it that way.That is why it has used terrorism to keep it that way.That is why it refuses to release the Puerto Rican political prisoner of 33 years Oscar López Rivera.That is also why it is ridiculous to believe that decolonization is a US internal matter in which the UN has no jurisdiction over.If we allow the US government to decolonize Puerto Rico, she will remain a colony of the United States forever!

José M López Sierra


This letter is in response to the articles covering the civil unrest occurring in Venezuela.

As a citizen of and believer in democracy, I applaud the efforts of the Venezuelan people. Their efforts are similar to what is happening in many other parts of the world.

Believe it or not, one thing that trumps capitalism and political correctness in the United States is the right to have one's voice heard. This is the foundation of which our democracy is built on. The Venezuelan people should continue to defy Nicolas Maduro's powerful ecurity forces so that Venezuelan democracy can begin to thrive. It is unfortunate that the United States compromised on one of its most fundamental values in order to protect its economic interests in South America; something that happens all too often domestically as well. It is not the Venezuelan people that are attempting to seize power but rather it is those currently in power who have engaged in intimidation to prevent the will of the people from being heard. Why else would they stoop to such underhanded tactics to block various means of communication among the citizens of Venezuela? Why is the government in power utilizing such political strong-arm tactics as the use of violence?

Nicolas Maduro, you have had almost one year to lead Venezuela and have failed them by your own choosing. The days of the despotic regime are finally coming to an end as it appears the desire for freedom will continue to sweep among the South American nations. Accordingly, let the call go forth among all citizens of Venezuela that your brothers and sisters of democracy from all over the world are with you during every trial and tribulation you may encounter during this crisis. To the people of Venezuela, the trumpet of freedom beckons you to rise in protest and ensure your voice to preserve your sacred heritage, promote your children's future and obtain the blessings of liberty we all cherish.

Venezuela, the hour of your redemption is at hand. As you the rightful citizens move forward to reclaim your own country, rise and strike! In the name of those who were murdered fighting for everyone's rights, rise and strike! To end the rule of this evil regime, rise and strike! Let no one continue to fear this man. Let every Venezuelan be strong and fight on for their freedom. Rise and strike!

Nicolas Maduro, let the people go!

Cleveland, OH USA

"Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric." Bertrand Russell


Student protesters were unarmed and marching in peace. Venezuelan civilians are under absolute gun control, while police, paid thugs with red shirts and armed with guns, including machine guns, act with impunity. This is what Democide looks like when they think nobody is watching.


Oh don't worry, I'm sure the party of Chavez can solve real world problems with anti-imperialism.


Protests in Russia, in the Ukraine, in Venezuela, maybe the last remnants of the Cold War are finally collapsing?


Thank you TIME. We need this kind of coverage so the world may know what is occurring in Venezuela.