Guest blogger Rubens Yanes writes for Venezuela’s El Universal where he also directs web content. He is my dear friend from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs where we both got our master’s and shared some good times.
Warning: Graphic videos.
The last eight days in Venezuela have surfaced on the radar of international media and governments for a wave of political events that has shown the authoritarian hand of President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
The late president Hugo Chavez appointed Maduro as his successor. The “dauphin” went through an election in April 2013 and won with only 200K votes over his opponent Henrique Capriles.
During Maduro’s first ten months, government inflation and scarcity of basic products reached record levels in the country. Criminal actions and murders continued to rise and political spaces to narrow.
Following the Cuban model, Maduro imposed a strong set of controls to privately held companies, including restrictions on accessing foreign currency and maximum margin of profits. And at the same time, he promoted expropriations and a growing presence of the State as importer and distributor of goods.
Despite (or perhaps because of) these actions, scarcity reached 28% in January 2014. Inflation for 2013 was 56% and the government announced two devaluations in the last 6 months.
For common citizens, this meant spending a lot of hours – in long lines – to find overpriced basic goods, such as toilet paper, sugar, flour and milk.
Another factor affecting the Venezuelan people is criminality. The year 2013 closed with more than 24K murders. A few weeks ago the country was shocked by the death of Monica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela and a very popular soap-opera actress.
In the political arena, Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, maintain tight control of the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the rest of Public Powers. Maduro also continues with Chavez’s institutional strategy of creating parallel structures to over-ride public policies in regions under control of the opposition, such as CorpoMiranda, an institution created to compete with his opponent Henrique Capriles, the elected governor of Miranda state.
Political opponents of the government are grouped in “la Mesa de la Unidad,” MUD, where political parties and independent organizations shared resources for the last electoral processes. Members of the MUD often disagreed about how to proceed in the near future, considering that there are no elections scheduled for the next two years.
All this was the scenario that led to the protests, called by three independent leaders of the MUD: Leopoldo López, a charismatic Harvard graduate; Maria Corina Machado, an independent member of the National Assembly; and Caracas Major, Antonio Ledezma.
López, Machado, and Ledezma called people to protest as a way to defeat Maduro’s government. They named their proposal “#LaSalida.”
#LaSalida aimed for protests to continue until the people had collectively reached one of the following three scenarios: 1) Maduro’s resignation; 2) a call for a constitutional reform; 3) a call for a Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution.
In a very modest demonstration in Caracas first, and then using Twitter, the independent wing of the MUD asked for a major concentration to be held on February 12th. But surprisingly, the response was almost immediate.
In the Andean states of Táchira and Merida, hundreds of young students began to protest on the streets. Two events made the situation tense: the wife of Táchira’s governor denounced that students attacked her residence. And almost simultaneously, the national government denounced that Leopoldo Lopez’s followers attacked the Cuban baseball team attending the “Serie del Caribe.”
Several students were imprisoned in both places, and the students’ demonstrations began to spread throughout the country.
On February12th, thousands of people gathered in Caracas to protest against repression and claiming for Maduro’s resignation. The government also called their followers to go to the streets and participate in different events, such as the Youth Day Parade which was held that night.
But while the government celebrated the Youth Day Parade, three people died while at different demonstrations. Basil Da Costa and Juan “Juancho” Montoya were shot in downtown Caracas, under the fire of Intelligence agents and members of the “colectivos” – paramilitary organizations armed by the government. Later, Roberto Redman was killed in Chacao by unknown “sicarios,” hired killers. Redman was one of the young guys who took Da Costa to a hospital.
Juancho’s murder was extremely strange: Juancho was a member of the “colectivos,” and was reportedly shot by the National Police. His was the only death recognized by the government that day.
Immediately following these events, the government ordered Lopez’s imprisonment. The protests continue in more than 10 cities: Maracaibo, Mérida, Táchira, Barquisimeto, Caracas, Puerto Ordaz, Puerto La Cruz, Maracay, Valencia, Maturin, San Antonio, among others.
The Murder of Basil Da Costa:
Student Protests on February 12: