In a country known for tense, bitter politics, this is the loudest things have gotten in a decade. For three weeks and counting, university students in Venezuela have staged somewhat chaotic yet determined street protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The government has responded with repression, and at least 15 people have died, with many others wounded or arrested.
The students are inspired and ready to press on. The government shows no signs of ceding ground. Yet in this stalemate, the students have already achieved two significant victories. First, they have delivered a message to the government that the formal opposition has failed to convey. Second, and more important, the protesters have revealed to the world the true nature of Venezuela’s regime.
In recent years, the Venezuelan government has been driving its economy into the ground. Despite a huge windfall in oil revenue, unsustainable and ill-advised policies — such as deficit spending along with price and exchange-rate controls — have brought the nation to economic ruin, with consumer goods scarce and inflation rising. The government has refused to admit any wrongdoing and instead blames the country’s business community for these economic ills.
Worse, the regime had grown certain that the Venezuelan people blindly accepted official policy, boosting its self-perception as inevitable and permanent. Maduro, succeeding his political patron Hugo Chavez, has stated that the purpose of his administration is to carry on the work done by Chavez and to "deepen the revolution."
The student protest, however, is the first grass-roots movement in Venezuela to succeed in showing the government that staying the course is unacceptable — that the government itself is to blame for the country’s multiple crises. Rampant crime exists not because of capitalism but because of state policies that engender impunity. The scarcity of goods exists not because of greed but because of state-imposed price controls and monopolies that discourage production. Inflation exists not because retailers want to cheat the public but because of irresponsible fiscal and exchange-rate policies.
The Venezuelan opposition has transmitted this very same message, repeatedly, to the government’s deaf ears. Despite sophisticated tactics by the government to repress the vote and to outspend rivals, the opposition has achieved impressive electoral showings. Maduro came close to losing the presidential election in April. And while the opposition did not perform as well in the December 2013 regional elections, it still managed to win in the all-important urban areas. But this did nothing to show the government that it needed to change course or even listen to opposition perspectives. Maduro’s response to the rather unimpressive elections in 2013, for instance, was to pledge more of the same.
The students have ended this complacency. They have reminded the government that sectarianism in Venezuela is no longer acceptable in a country where half the population has major objections to government policy — that there is a price to pay for ignoring alternative views.
I suspect that most of the protesters would like to see regime change in Venezuela, but that is not their tactical objective. They are not so naive as to believe that one of the most entrenched regimes in Latin America would fall simply because of student demonstrations.
Rather than changing the regime, the students have focused on unmasking it. They have succeeding in showing the world that the government’s natural instinct is to repress. Once the protests got underway, the students realized that their acts offered the government a stark choice: negotiate or repress. The protests thus became an opportunity to test the government’s rhetoric, started in 2012, that the Chavista revolution is all about the love between the people and its leaders.
But rather than negotiate, the government increased repression in ways that are emblematic of the rule that has taken hold of Venezuela since the mid-2000s. The days when ordinary citizens would go out into the street to defend this government are gone. Instead, Maduro has deployed disproportionate coercive force against the students, relying on official military groups as well as unofficial, non-uniformed paramilitaries who ride around on motorcycles intimidating protesters and bystanders.
The state also intensified the country’s media blackout, even briefly expelling reporters from CNN en Espanol, proving to the world that this government has little regard for freedom of information. It has made no cabinet or policy changes, but rather simply dug in.
Finally, the government made a fool of itself by labeling the student movement with disparaging and ill-fitting language — it called the protesters "fascists" — demonstrating that even at the level of discourse, it remains disconnected from reality. Yes, Maduro is offering to hold "peace dialogues," but so far has shown little sign of making any concessions, rendering his overture to the opposition less than credible.
It could very well be that this is as far as the protests in Venezuela will go. Maduro’s government may survive. Unlike what happened to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 and to Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine this past week, Maduro has not seen major defections from his military and leading legislators. Only one governor from the ruling party has publicly distanced himself from the repression. Such cohesion at the top is generally a good sign for the survival of a regime. Maduro might get away with leaving his cabinet, and his policy positions, intact.
But this does not mean the protests have failed. Rather, they have succeeded in showing the world what kind of creature this revolution really is, revealing its true instincts. With that alone, the Venezuelan protests have done their nation a great favour — even if the students feel they have not accomplished much at all.
Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College, is writing a second edition of his co-authored book Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela.