BOGOTA – Venezuela is descending ever deeper into violence, with street protests spreading rapidly across the country. President Nicolás Maduro’s government appears to be losing control – using both a strong hand against protesters and a timid attempt to begin a dialogue with political rivals – while the opposition is divided and appears incapable of taking power. Since the current crisis began in February, more than 40 people have died, roughly 650 have been injured, and some 2,000 have been detained.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s inflation rate is the highest in the world, basic goods are in short supply, and street crime has reached unprecedented levels. And, rather than address these issues, Maduro – who has just completed his first year in office – has denounced the protests as part of an attempted coup.
Maduro’s party controls all three branches of government and most of the major domestic media outlets, and there are no upcoming elections that might break the deadlock and resolve the worsening power struggle. Though there are signs of discontent in the armed forces, the coup scenario seems far-fetched – and certainly hard to prove.
But the government is taking no chances. Three air force generals have been detained, national and foreign news media are being censored, and officials have even cut off supplies of newsprint to all but the government’s supporters.
Venezuelans, unlike much of the international media covering their country, are accustomed to inflammatory rhetoric from their political leaders. But the current crisis is different, for it reflects the painful divide that has become all too apparent since the death last year of Maduro’s charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, narrowly won the April 2013 presidential election over Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young, energetic moderate.
Hopes of change, however, have since dwindled. The government won a larger majority in local and regional elections last December, and Maduro has failed to develop the ideas and policies needed to end the street violence and political paralysis. And, though Maduro has contained infighting within his own party, his position is far from secure. Still new to the job, and facing mounting economic and political problems, he has yet to prove to the party faithful that he is a worthy successor to Chávez.
The opposition, for its part, has learned its lessons from the failed 2002 coup. It has patiently constructed a coalition capable of competing in elections, a field previously dominated by Chávez (helped in no small measure by his government’s unrestrained social spending). As a result, the opposition has been able to score some regional election victories, and mount a credible effort to win the presidency.
But Maduro’s opponents are divided over what direction to take. Capriles wants protesters to play by the constitutional rules, which would take longer, and probably be less effective in unseating the government. By contrast, two protest leaders, Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado, want to bring down the government more quickly. López is now in jail, while Machado has been stripped of her parliamentary seat for speaking against the government before a session of the Organization of American States.
The OAS’s response, like that of other international organizations and foreign governments, has been ineffectual. Venezuela’s government barred a commission of foreign ministers sent by the OAS from entering the country to evaluate the crisis.
The Union of South American Nations, which is more friendly to the Maduro government, has called for dialogue with the opposition, to be mediated by an emissary of Pope Francis (who has met both Maduro and Capriles) and the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador. The first meetings of government and opposition representatives have alleviated tensions, but no one expects a definitive solution to the crisis to emerge.
But no other group or country from the region seems ready to enter the fray. Colombia and the United States have interests to protect, despite their unease with the Maduro government’s growing authoritarianism. Brazil wants to avoid a risky intervention with no clear benefit. Members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, the regional bloc established by Chávez, either benefit from Venezuelan oil or are too close to the government to provide good offices.
That leaves the government and the opposition to fight it out, with all of the political, economic, and human cost that this involves – and with no obvious end in sight.