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.