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It is near impossible for people outside of Venezuela to know what’s really going on, on a day-to-day basis, with the recent protests. It is probably difficult for people in Venezuela to know for sure. Media coverage, on both sides, is disgracefully partial. Social networks are teeming with outright lies and fake photographs picked up, without any prior verification, by local and international media.
However certain things, such as longer-term trends, can be more easily analysed from afar. A question that can be asked by those attempting to understand what is happening in Venezuela is: what is the opposition trying to do?
If one thing is clear, is that at one point the opposition changed the strategy it had been applying during the first half of the chavista cycle. After a failed coup (2002), an economic sabotage (2003-2004), a lost recall referendum (2004), and a misguided legislative boycott (2005), the Venezuelan opposition understood they needed two things: to join forces, and to play by the rules.
Squeaky clean Henrique Capriles won the opposition’s primary elections to become the face, and the leader, of this new stage in Venezuelan politics. He represented an opposition united under the MUD banner (Mesa de Unidad Democrática) and whilst he was extremely critical of the government of the late Hugo Chávez – there is no room for grey areas in Venezuelan politics – he toned down the aggressive, destructive rhetoric significantly.
During this period, the opposition did as well as they ever would under chavismo. Last April, barely a month after Chávez’s death, Capriles came extremely close to becoming Venezuela’s president, and to ending a 15-year hegemony. However, the local elections held in December showed an important loss of support for MUD, which only managed to win in 75 districts (out of 317), and whose national vote fell from 49.1% -in April- to 39.3%.
These disappointing results seem to have put a dent in the consensus that held the MUD together, prompting more radicalised groups within it to take matters into their own hands. A recent encounter between President Nicolás Maduro and Capriles -who is governor of Miranda state-, which could have anticipated the beginning of a more civilised cohabitation between government and opposition, was possibly the last straw for these groups.
The protagonist of the last few days has not been Capriles, but Leopoldo López, who has been explicitly calling for the “exit” of Maduro. National deputy Maria Corina Machado has also become quite prominent. Both of them were actively involved in 2002’s failed coup against Hugo Chávez, have close ties with the US, and López has been linked to former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.
What the opposition had in economic power and support from the elites, it lacked in street presence. Here’s where the students come in. As Dr. Julia Buxton points out in a recent article, students from private universities in Venezuela have been trained and financially supported by the opposition’s traditional ally – the US – since as early as 2008. Since, a number of protests have served as a build-up to last week’s Youth Day demonstrations, in which they colluded with members of the political opposition such as López and Machado.
Indeed, US support of Venezuelan opposition is a story on its own. It is nothing new, and the government is very aware of this, as this week’s expulsion of three US diplomats from Venezuela shows. Back in 2002, George W. Bush’s administration was quick to justify the illegitimate and short-lived government of Pedro Carmona that resulted from a military coup, and it has been alleged that, at the very least, it knew about -if not cooperated directly with- the coup. Buxton estimates the combined financial support from US institutions to Venezuelan opposition groups since 2002 in as much as US$45m, much of it aimed at ‘youth outreach programmes’, whilst researcher Mark Weisbrot mentions the US$5m earmarked in the federal budget “for funding opposition activities inside Venezuela”.
Existing everyday problems faced by Venezuelan society, such as insecurity, high inflation, and shortages -probably caused by a mix of economic sabotage and the ineffectiveness of an increasingly hypertrophied and corrupt state- were used as excuses for the students’ mobilisations. However, these are situations that have existed for some time now, that have not lost the government any elections, and where no significant changes have been verified in recent times. The most recent objective change in Venezuela’s situation seems to be within the opposition, rather than the government.
So, what are López and company trying to achieve? Whilst they talk about pushing for Maduro’s “exit”, it has been profusely pointed out that the opposition does not have the support of the armed forces, so attempting a traditional coup d’êtat or a strategy based on street violence can only result in a -probably ineffective- bloodbath.
They have definitely appealed to the international public opinion by intensifying the smear campaign the international press has been waging on the Venezuelan government for years. However, it’s uncertain how this could have an immediate impact on the local situation, especially since regional organisations and neighbouring governments have closed ranks behind the defence of institutional stability in Venezuela.
Chris Gilbert, professor at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, seems to hit the nail in the head when he explains that the opposition is thinking in the medium-to-long term, as they face an “electoral plateau”, i.e., a period of almost two years without elections, where the government can focus on governing rather than campaigning. Talking about López and Machado, Gilbert points out that they “are not mistaken in thinking that, through violent street actions, they could salvage the opposition as some kind of political reference, nationally and internationally, and perhaps enhance their own leadership within its files”, looking out to the elections in late 2015.
The constant tension would wear down not just the public opinion, but also the government, already weakened since Chávez’s death by factional struggles and doubts over the leadership of Maduro. It could also backfire, and strengthen the government’s grassroots support.
In any case, and as the five victims left by the conflict in the past week show, this destabilisation attempt is certainly a very expensive way to try to win an election.