Photos: Victor Drax
January street protests have been unprecedented. First, shantytowns and working class areas in Caracas and other main cities have risen up in earnest against the regime, prompting a brutal crackdown that has already taken dozens of lives and forced people into silence. Even simple acts like pot-banging from homes have been met with lethal force, leaving 35 dead and over 700 arbitrary detentions since Tuesday, January 22.
Second, middle-class areas have taken to the streets peacefully, with remarkable discipline under strong leadership with a clear plan, and have been left virtually untouched by security forces, compared to previous years.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2014, thousands demanded Maduro’s resignation, most of them in middle-class areas. Months of blocked streets and burning barricades ensued. The real crisis was barely starting and the regime’s security apparatus was much stronger. Painful casualties and stagnant political response deflated coordinated action. The main bodies of repression were the National Guard (GNB) and the National Police (PNB), aided by colectivos. Over 40 people were killed and more than 3,500 arrested.
2015 didn’t see a mass protest movement. As the crisis worsened, all eyes were set on legislative elections for December 6, where the opposition won a sweeping majority that attempted to leverage public dissent, to promote the recall referendum against Maduro (it would be shut down by the weaponized Electoral Council and Supreme Tribunal). There was a spike in high-profile lynchings and mass lootings all over the country. Repression was again carried out mostly by the GNB, the PNB and colectivos, aided by SEBIN.
Protests picked up again in 2017, after the TSJ issued the infamous 155 and 156 rulings, stripping the Assembly of its authority. Lawmakers and other political leaders took the reins of almost daily mass demonstrations, which were much more focused, organized and lasting than in 2014, but also more prone to vandalism and radicalization. The regime reacted with swift and fierce repression, with GNB, PNB, colectivos, SEBIN and other security bodies laying siege on dissident hotspots, attacking middle-class residential areas, carrying out illegal and often destructive raids, and using excessive fire power for crowd control. Over 160 citizens were murdered and nearly 3,000 were detained.
With Parliament weakened and many opposition leaders jailed or exiled, there were no mass, politically-driven protests in 2018, but sparse yet frequent protests for water, electricity and food, both in low-income areas and in towns across the nation. 2018 saw a record-breaking 12,715 demonstrations. Although leaderless and unarticulated, they evidenced the crisis and the State’s inability (and unwillingness) to solve people’s basic problems.
As protests have matured through trial and error, and the crises became untenable, more people are willing to express their dissatisfaction publicly and peacefully against the government.
Official response has been much more violent against the most vulnerable populations, but as FAES death squads take the lead on repression, ditching tear gas and pellets for live rounds, other security bodies, especially the GNB, are conspicuously inactive. Even colectivos seem to have little taste for conflict.
The stark contrast between citizens demanding freedom in non-violent demonstrations and Maduro’s criminal, entrenched government is now clearer than ever. The road has been long, hundreds have died and there may still be more suffering ahead, but we’ve learned from the past; protests have grown and the regime only has one card left.