In the past few years, Venezuela has constantly been in the news and not for good reasons.
Since early 2013, standards of living deteriorated to historical lows because of the economic situation. Shortages of essential products like milk, sugar, meat and even toilet paper, and rampant inflation are but a few indicators of the terrible situation Venezuelans face daily. Officially, the rate of inflation is 56.2 percent, but Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University, recently calculated the real inflation rate to be around 302 percent In addition to the economic disaster, Venezuelans face unimaginable levels of violence. In the year 2013 alone, there were 24,763 homicides (200,509 since 1999). Ninety-two percent of these homicides go unpunished. Venezuelan citizens have had more than enough reasons to take to the streets these last couple of years. So why is it happening now?
There are two main reasons for the recent eruption of countrywide protests. The first is that there are no upcoming elections in Venezuela. In 2013, two important electoral procedures took place in Venezuela: a presidential election on April 14, following the death of Hugo Chavez, and a municipal election held on December 8. In 2012, the opposition held primary elections in mid-February to select a candidate to represent their party in the presidential election scheduled for the following October. Shortly after the October 7 election, the country held regional elections on December 16.
For the past two years, the Venezuelan people have constantly been in campaign mode, using all their political energy to help their preferred candidate achieve the necessary votes. Some even placed their hopes for change in the less meaningful elections: The opposition tried to interpret the municipal elections as a plebiscite. The results of the elections would prove this strategy a mistake.
However, there are no elections scheduled for 2014; the next ones will be the parliamentary elections in 2015. The opposition’s strategic message, to wait for a recall referendum in three years, has fallen on deaf ears. The reality of daily life is no longer tolerable and the people perceive the protests as the only way to achieve the changes that are so desperately needed.
The student movement, attuned to the desire for change, decided to lead the resistance against an oppressive government and began a call for spontaneous local protests. While the people once had faith in the electoral system to bring about change, that hope for change has transformed into unrestrained criticism of the economic policies President Maduro’s government has implemented and the social issues the government has avoided addressing.
For Venezuelan citizens, the protests have become the only way to express their discontent.
The second reason protesters are motivated to stay on the streets is more complicated. It is the combination of the brutal repression from the Venezuelan National Guard and the national police force and the media blackout imposed by the government. As an example of the impact of this blackout, very few people know that the protests began when students in Tachira (an Andean state bordering Colombia) went to the regional police to protest the mishandling of the rape case of a fellow student.
The response from the officials was to imprison the protesters without due process. Students across the country demonstrated in solidarity with their jailed compatriots. On February 12, while massive protests were held in many cities, the first casualties of the protest movement were reported. Two students, Bassil da Costa and Robert Redman, and a government supporter, Juan Montoya, were shot and killed. By March 13, twenty-eight were dead, there were forty-four alleged torture cases, and over one thousand detentions.
On top of the repression, the government has done everything in its power to keep the media from covering the news. Venezuelan media outlets have been bought by wealthy pro-government businessmen, bribed to keep silent, or coerced, through legal procedures and sanctions, to self-censor their news coverage. No TV station has covered the protests. The government also banned NTN24, a Colombian-based news channel, from Venezuela, and has constantly threatened to do the same to CNN Español.
The Venezuelan citizens therefore feel that, without a voice in the media, and with no upcoming elections, they need to protest everyday as loudly and as visibly as possible for their demands to be heard and their situation to be known outside the country.
The protests in Venezuela do not seem likely to stop in the near future. The brutality of the government’s reaction revealed a weakness never before encountered in fifteen years of socialist rule. The nervousness with which President Nicolas Maduro speaks about the protests, the unjustified and violent repression and the constant harassment to the freedom of speech all point to an uneasy government. The economic situation had weakened their resolve, and in order to appear strong, they hastily decided to attack the non-violent group of protesters. They failed to understand that the repression continues to fuel the sentiments of the students opposing this regime. Instead of appearing strong, the Venezuelan government seems totalitarian. The students feel the only way to achieve their goals is to unmask a repressive government that has, for too long, shielded itself behind the label of “democracy.” The unrest continues, and no one is sure how will this conflict end.