Venezuelan Anti-Government Protests Likely To Continue

By Diego Moya-Ocampos

University students and civil society groups are likely to continue staging anti-government protests and roadblocks despite incumbent president Nicolás Maduro's calls for dialogue. The protests, which Maduro has said constitute a "coup in motion", have continued despite heavy use of force by the security forces. A total 18 people have been killed during the protests – most of them protesters – and hundreds of others have been wounded or arrested, amid reports of human rights violations including excessive use of force, the use of live ammunition, shooting rubber bullets at short distance, and even allegations of torture reported by local human rights group Foro Penal Venezolano. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all condemned the violence and both the EU and US have joined calls from human rights groups for the judiciary not to be used to persecute opposition leaders and dissidents.

Isolated events of looting were reported on 24 February in the Líder supermarket in the locality of El Limón and in several retail businesses such as pharmacies and bakeries in Las Delicias Avenue in the city of Maracay, in the northern central Aragua state. Other isolated events of looting were reported last week in the valley of Tuy in northern central Miranda.

Most of the confrontations between security forces and pro-government groups and opposition protestors have taken place as the latter have attempted to stage roadblocks on key arterial routes such as the Autopista Francisco Fajardo in Caracas, which connects eastern and western Venezuela, and other key routes including in Aragua, Bolívar, Carabobo, Falcón, Mérida, and Táchira states.

Opposition leader Leopoldo López, the co-ordinator of the Popular Will (Voluntad Popular, VP) party, has been arrested and remains in custody in a military prison. The authorities have also released arrest orders for Carlos Vecchio, another top VP leader.

The anti-government protests are taking place amid a media blackout, as Colombian RTN24 channel is not allowed to broadcast in Venezuela and an administrative procedure against CNN has been opened by Conatel, the telecoms regulator, to prevent it from broadcasting in Venezuela. Television channels, including Globovisión, which was recently bought by a business group that is government-friendly, are not allowed to broadcast the protests live and have self-censored their coverage of the ongoing events. The government has temporarily blocked use of the Internet, including microblogging site Twitter and Zello, an application students are using to communicate and organise their protests.

Twelve police officers have been arrested, including five members of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN), who were filmed shooting at university students on 12 February, resulting in the deaths of three people, including two protestors and a leader of a pro-government non-state armed group (colectivo). The national prosecutor's office is conducting an investigation into at least 12 cases of alleged human rights violations, out of the 33 incidents recorded by human rights group Foro Penal Venezolano.

Signs of division within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV) appeared on 24 February when José Gregorio Vielma Mora, the governor of the western border state of Táchira, questioned the militarisation of the state and urged the release from jail of arrested opposition leaders, including López. However, Vielma Mora later clarified that he still supported government authorities and the PSUV.

Death and injury risks, particularly among protestors, journalists, and bystanders, are likely to continue at high levels as Venezuelans mark the first anniversary of late president Hugo Chávez's (1999–2013) death on 5 March, and as the opposition calls for rallies. Confrontations between pro- and anti-government protestors are particularly likely over 5–7 March. Confrontations between opposition groups and the security forces are also likely as the authorities continue confronting opposition groups to control the protests and to clear roadblocks, especially on key highways.

Despite the government crackdown, there are no signs of protests abating in Venezuela. On the contrary, demonstrations are likely to continue escalating and intensifying as student and civil society groups rally to demand the resignation of Maduro. Roadblocks are likely to continue in several urban areas in Caracas and nationwide, including the states of Aragua, Bolívar, Carabobo, Falcón, Lara, Mérida and Táchira.

The protests that are taking place nationwide in several places at the same time are still not likely to destabilise the government. Nevertheless, if they spread to shanty towns and turn into widespread events of civil unrest and looting similar to the 1989 Caracazo protests in which several thousand people were killed, they could lead to a more marked division within the ruling PSUV and the armed forces, which could escalate into a direct or indirect military intervention. Such a move would be aimed at guaranteeing political stability, should Maduro prove unable, and preventing confrontations between Venezuelans.

There is a risk of political instability if the death tally continues increasing and if civil unrest extends from urban and residential areas to shanty towns, descending into widespread events of looting in nearby areas. The roadblocks, staged by university students and civil society groups, have the potential to affect supplies in urban centres, but will not necessarily lead to cargo disruption from the Puerto Cabello and La Guiara ports or on the border with Colombia. Oil supplies are unlikely to be affected by the ongoing protests.

The government is likely to use the judiciary to further pressure opposition leaders and dissidents in an effort to dissolve the protests and reaffirm its authority. In particular, opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado is likely to experience attempts by government authorities to have her parliamentarian immunity lifted; like López, she is being held responsible for the student protests by government authorities. It is important to note, however, that the student protests started spontaneously and have taken on a life of their own and are not being co-ordinated or led by opposition political parties from the Table of Democratic Unity (Mesa de la Unidad Demócratica, MUD). Student groups are likely to continue questioning what they perceive as the passive attitude towards the government assumed by opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, a former presidential candidate in the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections. López is gradually overtaking Capriles as the most popular opposition leader and his presidential prospects are likely to increase in the following months.

The street protests are indicative of the Venezuelan political environment in the two-year outlook, amid an economic recession that will continue experiencing record high inflation levels, shortages of food and basic goods, and the economy contracting by 1,7 per cent in 2014 and 0,9 per cent in 2015. These ongoing protests are likely to be the first wave of a political crisis that continues brewing as Maduro's popularity continues to be undermined and no political leader from the government or the ruling PSUV proves capable of fulfilling the political vacuum still left after Chávez's death.


Diego Moya-Ocampos is a Senior Political Risk Analyst for Venezuela for IHS Country Risk. He previously worked as a lawyer for a private firm in Venezuela advising government agencies and private businesses on constitutional, regulatory and environmental issues, and as Chief Secretary at the Venezuelan Attorney-General’s Office. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IHS or any of its employees, associated companies, affiliates or any of its clients.


5 March 2014