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Venezuela's Political Crisis Hits the Streets

Venezuela's students, along with its opposition leaders, took to the streets on Feb. 12 to demand changes from the country's leadership. The nationwide protests ended with bloodshed. On Wednesday, three demonstrators were killed, prompting the government and opposition to accuse each other of responsibility.

Students have been protesting against the government for several weeks. Their causes are numerous: Venezuela is suffering rampant crime, soaring inflation, and record-setting shortages of basic staples. A new "Law of Fair Prices" sets a maximum profit rate of 30 percent for all goods and services and imposes a penalty of immediate expropriation for all companies failing to comply. Needless to say, this will only aggravate the shortages.

Until recently, the protests were relatively constrained. They were concentrated primarily in the western bastions of San Cristóbal and Mérida, two medium-sized cities that sit high in the Andes, close to the border with Colombia. Both cities are opposition bastions. But on Feb. 12, a day when Venezuelans commemorate a battle in the War of Independence led by young people, the protests grew in size, taking place simultaneously in most Venezuelan cities, including in Caracas, the capital.

The local media has largely ignored the story. Most TV and radio channels are either owned by the government or subject to self-censorship. Reporters claiming to be from some of these outlets even have anonymous Twitter accounts that enable them to skirt corporate guidelines on what can be reported. As for newspapers, many continue to take editorial lines against the government, but now the administration is retaliating by refusing to give them currency to import paper. Many papers have stopped circulating, while some of the most influential ones are warning that they might be shut down at any moment. Meanwhile, President Nicolás Maduro has hinted of impending new rules that will regulate newspaper ownership and content.

As in many places around the world, social media has largely done the job traditional media refuse to do. Pictures of beaten-up students circulate on Twitter and Facebook. Social media has also carried the story of their detention by military authorities.

Interestingly, the protests haven't only expressed discontent with the government -- they've also shone a spotlight on the conflicts within the opposition. Henrique Capriles, the former opposition presidential candidate and purported leader, has publicly distanced himself from the protests. The opposition's main organizers, legislator María Corina Machado and the leader of opposition party Voluntad Popular, Leopoldo López, are widely viewed as the main rivals to Capriles's leadership. In spite of their differences, Machado, López, and Capriles have shown restraint in their public comments, but there are deep divisions on how the opposition should respond to a rapidly deteriorating economic and political climate.

It's tempting to draw comparisons between the situation in Venezuela and the ones in Ukraine or Thailand. However, there are sharp differences.

Venezuelans have endured 15 years of Chavismo, a period that has seen mass street protests. Most of them focused on the late Hugo Chávez. In 2002, protesters demanded that he resign; in 2007, they wanted him to reopen a TV station he had just shut down. The crowds lost in both cases. Chávez survived, and the station never reopened; today, indeed, the government controls all broadcast media.

The failure to effect change left a bitter taste in the mouths of many in the opposition. The general feeling among opposition leaders and activists was that protesting against an authoritarian government with a fat petro-checkbook accomplishes little to nothing.

Why are they taking the streets now? What has changed? In a word: demographics.

The students currently protesting were too young to do so in 2002. They have not lived through the disappointment experienced by their parents and relatives back then. This poses some serious challenges: Though the protests have been spirited, they are also disorganized.

While all protesters want the Maduro government to go away, they have no clear vision of how to accomplish that. They don't believe fair elections can take place in Venezuela, since the government has a tight grip on all public institutions, and yet they also claim that they don't want a "coup." The startling lack of focus of the protest movement is the main reason people such as Capriles remain skeptical.

On the other side of the proverbial sidewalk, protesters are now confronting a much more heavily armed and less restrained government. Unlike before, the Venezuelan government is now willing to confront protesters with armed gangs similar to Iran's Basij militia, which played a prominent role in quashing the protests there in 2009.

The protest movement faces enormous obstacles, both internal and external, so its staying power is dubious at best. Regardless, Venezuelans appear determined to resolve their disputes in the country's streets, a telling sign of a sick political system.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

Photo: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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