What The Hell Is Happening In Venezuela?

One week into a battle between opposition and pro-government demonstrators, things appear to be escalating:

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López came out of hiding on Tuesday, as promised, and surrendered to the authorities to face charges of terrorism. Mr. López, a Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy section of Caracas, is the political face of ongoing demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

The protests began last Wednesday and turned violent almost immediately. Three people were killed on the first day, and on Thursday the government issued an arrest warrant for Mr. López. One more protester died and several were gravely injured since.

What the protests are about:

Venezuela is faced by economic, social, and political challenges: Inflation is at 56 percent, the currency is rapidly devaluing, shortages of staples like toilet paper and sugar are plaguing the nation, and the murder rate is one of the worst in the world.

What started out as roughly two weeks of small, student-led protests against the Maduro administration has turned into opposition-organized marches that involve stone-throwing and taunting met by tear gas and water cannons.

“These are legitimate issues that do need a popular voice and channel for expression,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society in New York. “What makes the protests particularly volatile is that other avenues to express these demands have been closed down,” Mr. Sabatini says, referring to the closure of opposition media over the past several years and the shuttering of multiple newspapers nationwide more recently due to paper shortages.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo warns of a bloodbath:

People who fear the breakout of a civil war in Venezuela don’t understand that only one side is armed: the government and its supporters. The Maduro regime, whose security apparatus is closely controlled by Cuba’s secret services, has already engaged in brutish repression of protestors. The army and the National Guard are firmly aligned with the government and there is little or no chance that they might balk at exercising unrestrained violence against unarmed civilians. Moreover, armed gangs of government supporters, called “tupamaros,” act freely with the complicity of the security services and were supposedly behind the killings of a couple of protesters last week. It’s hard to have a civil war when only one side is armed.

Greg Weeks notes that “neither side seems interested in dialogue”:

The military has already declared itself on the government’s side, which makes this a very different situation from Honduras in 2009 or even Venezuela in 2002. Chávez worked for years to transform the military, and in the absence of any obvious splits (of course, plenty is going on that we don’t know about) a coup is unlikely. If there is no dialogue, then it seems the country waits for the protests to peter out. Even if there is financing top keep it going and organized, people get tired of having their lives disrupted. Will they tire out?

James Bloodworth thinks it’s time for the left to abandon its love affair with Chávez:

Between 2007 and 2011 there was a reduction in extreme poverty in Venezuela by some 38 per cent. Impressive no doubt. But the percentage of people who escaped extreme poverty in Brazil during the same period was 44 per cent, in Peru 41 per cent and in Uruguay 63 per cent. None of these countries possess anything like Venezuela’s vast oil wealth, yet all managed to lift their poorest citizens out of penury without the human rights abuses which have characterised the governments of Chavez and Maduro. Boring social democracy may be less romantic, but it has been far more successful at tackling poverty than the Chavez/Maduro model.