By Diego Loyo Rosales (University Chicago)
In the past few years, Venezuela has constantly been in the news, and not precisely for good reasons. Since early 2013, the economic situation has deteriorated the standards of living to historical lows. Shortage of essential products like milk, sugar, meat and even toilette paper and a rampant inflation (officially 56.2%, even though professor Steve Hanke from John Hopkins University recently calculated the real inflation rate to be around 302%) are but a few indicators of the terrible situation Venezuelans have to face daily. On top of the economic disaster, Venezuelans face unimaginable levels of violence. In 2013 alone there were 24,763 homicides (200,509 since 1999). Impunity just makes the picture worse: 92 out of 100 of these homicides go unpunished. The Venezuelan citizens have had more than enough reasons to take to the streets these last couple of years. So why now? Why do students keep protesting, day in, day out?
There are two main reasons why the protests all across Venezuela have continued constantly. The first is simple: there are no upcoming elections in Venezuela. In 2013 there were two big electoral procedures in Venezuela. A presidential election took place on April 14th (following Hugo Chavez death), and the municipal elections held on December 8th. The year before, 2012, the opposition had held primary elections on February 12th, in order to select the candidate who would represent them in the presidential elections of October 7th. Shortly afterwards, regional elections were held on December 16th. Therefore, for the past two years the Venezuelan people have constantly been on campaign, using all their political energy to help their candidate achieve the necessary votes. Some of them even placed their hopes for change in the less meaningful of elections: the opposition tried to interpret the municipal elections as a plebiscite (the results of the elections would prove this strategy a mistake).
However, in 2014 there are no elections scheduled (the next ones would be Parliamentary elections in 2015), and the communication strategy of parts of the opposition (waiting for a recall referendum in three years) has fallen on deaf ears. The unlivable situation is not tolerable anymore, and the protests are perceived as the only way to achieve a necessary immediate change. The student movement, understanding the desire for change the people have, decided to lead the resistance against an oppressive government, and started to call for sporadic and localized protest. Thus, the hopes that were once placed on an electoral procedure, have transformed into unconstrained dissent against the economic policies Maduro’s government has implemented and the social issues the government has avoided addressing. For the Venezuelan citizens, the protests have become the only way to express their discontent.
The second reason that motivates protesters to continue on the streets is twofold: the brutal repression from the Venezuelan National Guard and National police, accompanied with the media blackout imposed by the government. Very few know that the protests began on February 4th, when students in Tachira (Andean southwestern state of Venezuela) went to the regional police to protest against the impunity of a rape case that affected a fellow student. The response from the officials was to imprison the protesters without due process, making students in different cities in Venezuela to complain in solidarity. On February 12th, while massive protests were held in many cities of Venezuela, the first casualties came: Bassil da Costa and Juan Montoya (the latter a pro-government criminal who was attacking the students as well and was caught in the crossfire) were assassinated by members of the national police, while Robert Redman was shot in the head by members of pro-government armed criminal groups called “colectivos”. By March 13th, there had been 28 killed during the protests, 44 alleged torture cases, and over 1,000 detentions.
On top of the repression, the government has done everything in their power to forbid the media to cover the news. Venezuelan media outlets have either been bought into silence or coerced, through legal procedures and sanctions, to self-censor their coverage of news: no TV station has covered the protests. The government then proceeded to ban NTN24 (a Colombian based news channel) from Venezuela, and has constantly threatened CNN Español with the same procedure. The Venezuelan citizens therefore feel that, without a voice in the media, and with no upcoming elections, they need to protest everyday and as massively 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 government’s brutal reaction has signaled a weakness never encountered in 15 years of socialist regime: the nervousness in which Nicolas Maduro has talked about the protests, the unjustified brutal repression and the constant harassment to the freedom of speech denote a uncomfortable 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 is fueling the sentiments of the students opposing this regime, and instead of appearing strong, the Venezuelan government is portraying a totalitarian image. The students feel the only way to achieve their goals is to unmask a repressive government who has for too long shielded themselves behind the label of “democracy”. As the protests continue and the unrest expands, no one is sure how will this conflict be solved without a major change in government – whether it be a change of policies, or a change of the regime. Some protesters say they will not stop until achieving the latter.
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