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The "Street Strategy" Deepening Venezuela's Troubles

Published by The National Interest.

On this first anniversary of Hugo Chávez's death and in the wake of the sudden collapse of the Ukrainian government, predictions are swirling that Venezuela's Maduro government could be toppled either by an aggressive protest movement, or by an internal coup within the chavista movement. Neither is likely in the short term. Nevertheless, the state's heavy-handed response, over a dozen deaths and hundreds of wounded, evoke fearful memories of violent events in Venezuela's not-too-distant past — social unrest over economic austerity measures during the 1989 Caracazo and the firefight during 2002's short-lived coup against Hugo Chávez.

In many ways, the current tensions and uncertainty are no surprise. When larger-than-life leaders like Chávez pass away, political mobilization loses its central rallying point for government and opposition. Governments struggle to define and assert their leaderships and opposition parties experiment with different strategies for adapting. This is the structural overlay behind the recent episode of political conflict in Venezuela, where clashes have taken place between opposition movements and the Maduro government.

Still, Venezuela has important differences from the episodes of revolution and counterrevolution in the Middle East and Ukraine. Venezuelans have fifty years of experience electing their leaders, as well as constitutional mechanisms to remove them early if they become exceedingly unpopular. Public support for electoral solutions, notwithstanding strong criticisms of electoral fairness, provides alternatives to street pressure to bring about change. Further, Venezuela isn't subject to foreign pressures like Ukraine (scene of a Cold War relic of a struggle between Russia and the West) or in the Islamic "cold war" vying to influence transitions of the Middle East. Venezuela's crisis has been mainly up to Venezuelans to resolve.

Elected to office April 2013 by a very slim margin, Nicolas Maduro started out as Chávez's anointed successor. But his influence within the chavista movement was unclear, and the opposition rejected the very legitimacy of his electoral victory. His government struggled to correct the excesses of his predecessor, and as municipal elections approached last December, it opted for a short burst of extreme economic populism to shore up waning support and delay hard decisions to address 55 percent inflation, a ten-fold disparity between the official and unofficial exchange rates, and severe economic shortages.

The opposition likewise struggled to define a strategy. After losing their self-declared "plebiscite" on Maduro's rule in the municipal elections, divisions emerged and some openly questioned the leadership of twice-failed presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. One group, led by Popular Will party leader Leopoldo López, representative Maria Corina Machado, and Metro Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, seemed impatient for change and opted for street pressure to challenge the government and perhaps even lead to its premature removal. They initiated a street protest campaign around the slogan 'la salida'-the exit, and spoke of the need for change to end the "catastrophe" the chavista government had wrought on Venezuela. Although López in particular spoke of constitutional means such as a constituent assembly or recall referendum, the goal was an early end to the Maduro government. The government interpreted this as a thinly veiled effort to promote a premature change of power by extra-constitutional means if necessary, calling it a slow-motion coup.

Another wing of the opposition led by Governor Capriles and officials of the MUD (Democratic Unity) appeared to favor a longer-term approach building support among the chavista base as dissatisfaction with the economic and security problems of the country grew. The dilemma for the opposition, as Capriles has consistently pointed out, is that the demonstration of passion needs to be complemented by evidence of a strategic vision for connecting with those persons who cannot sacrifice a day of work to attend rallies about civil and political rights.

The death of a popular actress in early January 2014 united the country momentarily against the out-of-control crime rate and spurred an unusual collaboration between the government and opposition governors, including Capriles, and mayors to begin to address the problem. Collaboration was soon derailed, however, as the government failed to peacefully contain student protests in Andean states Táchira and Merida over citizen insecurity and mounting economic problems. The circulation of images of a restive student movement and detentions in the Andes influenced other student groups to view López's 'la salida' as a campaign that could bring into relief the depth of the country's problems and shock the government into taking these issues more seriously.

The subsequent rallies, marches and highly disruptive street closures, along with the repressive response by security forces and armed civilians, polarized the country again around the familiar narratives of the past fifteen years: the opposition blaming the government's security forces and allied radical groups (los colectivos) for turning the peaceful protests violent, and the government blaming a U.S.-backed strategy by opposition groups to provoke violence and bring down the government.

The Maduro government made what looked like a tactical mistake in arresting López and turning him into a hero for a wide sector of the opposition. His arrest on February 15 was negotiated with National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello and resulted in the curious scenario of Cabello personally driving López, accompanied by his wife, to a prison just outside of Caracas. The arrest spurred further marches and brought the full opposition leadership behind them, along with international condemnation.

The protests initially remained concentrated in opposition sectors of Caracas and other large cities. But their recent continuation during the Carnival vacation is suggestive of a resurgent anti-government student movement. The long-term organizational effect of the student movement's re-mobilization (it played a large role in 2007) on the opposition is the big question facing the opposition leadership.

The endurance of the protests has surprised the government, which is loath to be seen on the wrong side of university student movements, where many chavistas first earned their political spurs. Yet, despite high levels of frustration within chavismo, and new questions about the mobilization capacity of the government party-the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the initial signs are that the student movement and the street strategy of the López wing of the opposition appeared to unite chavistas behind Maduro, as in past cases of polarization, rather than split them off.

To build a solid majority, a sine qua non for stability in Venezuela, both the government and the opposition should distinguish between short-term needs to provide outlets for each base to express their grievances, and the strategic need to convince the median voter of why it can govern better than the other. Currently, that is difficult since there is no electoral contest on the horizon and the tactical maneuvering makes it difficult to isolate radical positions.

The tactics of street pressure and oppressive reaction are highly risky, with unpredictable and potentially tragic consequences. Recent government-convoked meetings with business leaders, civil-society sectors, and some opposition politicians may be a first signal, however, that Venezuela could pull back from the brink and jointly address the economic and security problems. If not, the protest cycle is likely to return and deepen when economic problems worsen, as most predict will happen. The game changer then will be if and when the chavista base expresses its frustration in the streets or through the ballot box.

Jennifer McCoy is Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and author of International Mediation in Venezuela. Michael McCarthy is Lecturer, Latin American Politics, Johns Hopkins SAIS.

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