The Venezuelan Outcry - FAQs

Tachira won't surrender
Tachira won't surrender
Tachira won’t surrender

When did these protests start?

On February 5th, students from Universidad de los Andes in San Cristobal went out into the streets. Due to the heavy-handed response by the authorities, the protests quickly gained support from students elsewhere and now have spread to many other parts of civil society especially – but not only – in the middle class. Many large and several smaller cities are now seeing protests every day.

Why did college students start protesting?

Venezuela has one of the world’s highest levels of crime. After over a year of asking the state government for improved security measures to curb rampant crime on campus, a freshman at ULA’s Táchira campus was sexually assaulted.

This attempted rape caused a wave of local protests, with students and civil society groups taking to the streets to demand justice. The government’s response was heavy handed from the start: five students were detained following a protest and sent to a jail hundreds of miles away in Coro, stoking anger even further. Students in other universities joined the protests in solidarity, demanding the original five be released, only to be repressed in their turn.

As the protest movement gained steam, the protests have become as much about civil rights and the Right to Protest itself – rejecting the government’s criminalization of all dissent – as about the original goals. Later still, they took on the tone of a general anti-government rebellion, with streets being blocked and running battles with security forces taking place night after night.

Is all this a coup?

There is no indication that any component of the armed forces is attempting or planning a coup. Many allegations have been made but none have been backed with evidence.

What are the colectivos?

The colectivos are a kind of tropical Basij. They are gangs of armed civilians broadly aligned with the government, who coordinate with the Security Forces to put down the protests. They have their roots in neighborhood organizations and self-help committees, and were often originally set up to keep poor neighborhoods safe from crime in the absence of an effective police, but they’ve increasingly come to be used as paramilitary organizations willing to do the government’s dirty work.  The extent to which they are really controlled by the government is a subject of much controversy – it’s clear that they are sympathetic to the government, but they’re not part of a unified line of command, don’t follow any kind of formal rules of engagement, and have been filmed firing live rounds into protestors. What’s sure is that they infuse the crisis with a dangerous new element.

Why isn’t the Venezuelan media covering this?

Coverage in Venezuelan radio and TV has been very sparse, and largely pro-government. The government systematically intimidates outlets that cover stories in ways that make it look bad. While there’s no explicit prior censorship, stations that “cross the line” are quickly taken off the air. Even foreign stations, like Colombia’s NTN24 and CNN en Español, have been pulled from Venezuelan Cable Grids in retaliation for giving too much coverage to the protests.

As a result, Venezuelans find it easier to get information about what’s going on on Twitter or on foreign media than by watching their own newscasts. This media blackout has led to waves of rumors and disinformation, adding another volatile element to the crisis.

What’s #LaSalida about?

As the student movement gained altitude, opposition politicians joined the fray. Political leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado started to hold citizen assemblies to discuss what the called #LaSalida (#TheExit). The discussions were oriented to have a grassroot level debate on how to transition to a different government. The government sees #LaSalida as a clear call to a coup.

Who is Leopoldo Lopez?

Leopoldo Lopez is a charismatic young Venezuelan economist and politician trained at the Harvard-Kennedy School of Government. He is the former mayor from the Caracas municipality of Chacao. He was banned from participating in elections in 2008 due to allegations of corruption although he has never been tried for this or any other crime.

In 2011, the OAS issued an order to the Venezuelan government to drop the ban since Lopez had not been proven guilty. He founded the opposition party Voluntad Popular (Popular Will). He has been a major supporter of the protest movement. Maduro, on live TV said that Lopez was guilty of murder and terrorism and that he must be arrested. Lopez in return turned himself in. He’s perceived as part of the more radical section of the opposition, which see street protests as a key pressure point to set off a transition to democracy.

Who is Maria Corina Machado?

Maria Corina Machado is an industrial engineer graduated and longtime Civil Society activist turned politician. In 2010 she ran as an independent as was elected deputy (Congresswoman) to the Venezuelan National Assembly for a 5-year term. 

She was one of the key promoters of #LaSalida. She has been under attack from chavismo on threats of removing her Parliamentary immunity. A charismatic speaker, she’s also the second most prominent leader of the more radical wing of the opposition. 

Why was Leopoldo Lopez arrested?

On February 12th, Lopez and Machado summoned a protest to the Fiscalia General (Prosecutor General’s office) to demand that the jailed student be set free. The protest turned violent when pro-government groups as well as the SEBIN started attacking the students. Three people were killed: One paramilitary (colectivo) leader and two students.

Ample footage and evidence shows that the student where killed by the authorities. In spite of that, Maduro accused Lopez for all this. Lopez was arrested on charges of manslaughter, terrorism and destruction of public property. The first two charges seem to have been dismissed.

Are the protests peaceful or violent?

Both. The bulk of the protests have been peaceful. Some of the protesters have resisted the National Guard and the riot police with rocks and in occasions, with molotov cocktails. Barricades have been erected all over the country, often using burning tires.

Is the government’s response proportionate?

The government has shown increased levels of repression every day. So far, we have heard reports that they have deployed the Army (with no riot control training) in San Cristóbal and Barquisimeto. This is a dangerous new escalation.

In San Cristóbal, fighter jets have been overflying the city, presumably to intimidate the students. Overall, the government’s response has been grossly disproportionate, and inflamed the situation far beyond where it needed to be.

Is Maduro a democrat?

Venezuela has seen 19 elections of different kinds since 1999, and chavismo has won all but one of them. The government certainly has many supporters. Yet democracy it’s not only about having elections, especially if they’re neither free nor fair.

For years, elections have been held on a grotesquely uneven playing field in terms of money, media coverage, and use of state power. Opposition candidates increasingly compete amid an almost total media blackout. Serious allegations of electoral fraud from his election last April were never investigated, with the losing candidate even being fined for “offending the state” by challenging the results in court.

Maduro has copied Chavez’s extremist rhetoric against his opponents and keeps calling the leaders of the MUD coalition fascists, and describes dissidents as a disease that needs to be eliminated from the body politic. On early December 2013 after local elections were held for mayors, Mr Maduro invited newly elected or reelected mayors from the opposition at Miraflores Palace to discuss proposals for addressing the country’s woes.

Henrique Capriles, the most prominent moderate leader of the opposition, was summoned after a prominent young actress was murdered on early January 2014 to discuss how to tackle increasing rampant crime in the country. Some people consider these moves by Maduro a ploy to appease part of the opposition, given a worsening economic environment that could lead to social upheaval.

Yet for all the dialogue-pledges, Maduro (and chavismo as a whole) have responded in a draconian and grossly disproportionate way against protesters throughout the country. Students have been detained, tortured, wounded or even murdered by the State’s security apparatus or the so-called “colectivos”.

Was Maduro fairly elected?

No. Maduro’s party, PSUV, relies heavily on  state resources to fund and execute their campaigns. From using petrodollars to state vehicles to state media.

Additionally, many irregularities were reported prior, during and after the election: coercion, threats and manipulation of the voting machines. The CNE, responsible for holding the elections, refused to hold a full audit of the system, particularly, to check for double-voters via fingerprints.

Who are the “Tupamaros”?

The “Tupamaros” are the original “colectivo“. Founded in 1992, with paramilitary underpinnings and pro-chavismo links. They refuse to renounce the use of violence or arms in order to protect communities they fathom “too dangerous even for the police force” according to wikipedia. Some opposition protesters have claimed that the “Tupamaros” have been undertaking the repression against them.

Is the opposition divided?

The opposition is a very diverse coalition from left leaning to conservatives which has only one common attribute: ridding Venezuela of chavismo. Views on how to achieve that diverge. In most major elections the opposition has presented a unique candidate for the contesting districts.

Given the current political crisis in Venezuela, the opposition appears divided. Some members of the opposition wish to defy the government under the criteria based on the Constitution for a regime-change (resignation of the president, recall referendum or presidential elections at the end of the 6-year term); while others refuse to wait until 2019 in order to change the government. New actors, in particular the Student Movement leaders, do not always coordinate effectively with the established political parties. 

Is the US behind all of this?

Following a very old Cuban media-management technique, the Venezuelan regime continues to blame the US and the CIA for all problems occurring in Venezuela. Preposterous conspiracy theories abound. No evidence has ever been provided of such allegations.

The US remains Venezuela’s biggest trade partner.