Is Venezuela at another crossroads similar to April 2002 when former president Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted by the military following protests by a massively mobilized opposition on the verge of taking over Miraflores Palace?
It’s too early to tell, but the events of this past Wednesday, in which three were killed in clashes between students and the National Guard and vigilante groups, are the closest to “coup” that the current government of Nicolas Maduro has faced in its shaky 11-month rule.
Students infuriated over the deaths of their comrades on Student Day kept up the pace of protest late Thursday, blocking principal highways and staging sit-down demonstrations at major Caracas city squares and eight other cities nationwide.
El Nacional newspaper reported early Friday that 125 students had been jailed in total and held without outside communication.
Though Maduro had pledged to carry out the “revolution” set forth by Chavez, the odds of following successfully in the footsteps of his charismatic mentor were slim from the start.
Maduro won the presidency in April 2013 by a razon-thin margin over challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski.
The result was variously labeled as electoral fraud, yet Maduro persevered even as the floundering socialist economy inherited from Chavez went further south, with unabated shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation, and an escalation in homicidal crime.
That toll includes the recent – and still unexplained – murder of Miami soap opera star and former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear on a highway between the port city of Puerto Cabello and Valencia.
New opposition leader?
Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of Chacao municipality and a John Kennedy seem-alike, spearheaded Wednesday’s protest intended to be pacific but which turned violent once pro-government motorcyclists attacked students who had remained on the scene after the majority of the 10,000 demonstrators had gone home.
Similar to the larger mass rally and more numerous murders in 2002, it is unclear at this juncture who is responsible for the deaths.
Maduro attributed them immediately to “fascist” groups eager to topple his government, echoing Chavez, who relished in talking about assassination plots against his person being concocted by the ‘evil empire,’ the United States.
Lame duck president?
Lacking Chavez’s personality and ability to weather public outrage over the failings of his stewardship, Maduro is considered altogether inept and vilified as such by his constituents.
“This is the worst Venezuelan government on record,” said Jose, 25, a taxi driver in Maracay.
But the rally on Wednesday – and its bloody outcome – was unpredicted by the majority of the public, whether in the opposition or government camps.
“I didn’t go to work on Wednesday because I had heard about the protest but still thought nothing would happen. But then everything broke loose,” said Maria Eugenia, 45, a Caracas Internet graphic designer who works in the center of town where the protests took place.
Going after the troublemaker
Taking the initiative, on Thursday the Maduro government issued an arrest warrant for Lopez for inciting violence, among other indictments. According to recent reports the former presidential aspirant remains at large.
Still, the fact that the de facto leader of the opposition, Capriles Radonski, did not partake nor endorse Wednesday’s protest, underscores the opposition’s lack of cohesion and strength in trying to depose Maduro.
“United we stand, divided we fall,” as the saying goes.