This month of February was marked, like always, by the celebration of the Venezuelan National Youth Day, in which we commemorate the sacrifice of all the students that died in February 12, 1814 to stop the Spanish forces of arriving to the capital in the battle of La Victoria. But this year, the celebration had a different taste – a sour one. This year, we were not remembering our heroes, nor celebrating our youth. This year, we were remembering the anniversary of the wave of civic protests that hit Venezuela.
What happened in Venezuela last year?
Last year, Venezuela was hit by a wave of civic protest that started in the Andean region of the country. These protests were started by students of one of Venezuela’s largest universities, the ULA (University of the Andes), when they asked for more security in their town after a female student was almost raped.
The government’s first actions were to attack and repress the students to the extreme of even making the SEBIN (Venezuelan Intelligence Service) arrest some of them. This, of course, did not settle well with the students of other universities, who joined in the fight with their fellow citizens in the protest for a more free and democratic government.
Later on, Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma and Maria Corina Machado (some of the biggest opposition leaders) called for a major civic protest around all the country, and more specifically, the capital. President Maduro did not think twice before letting the National Guard and the “Colectivos” (a series of biker gangs that support the government and are used to doing their dirtiest jobs) repress the protests with all they had.
It did not matter that they gathered hundred of thousands of people, nor did it matter that they were unarmed. Maduro let the National Guard and Colectivos turn the protest in a violent clash when they started firing rubber bullets at the protesters, forcing them to throw stones in return, as their only method of defence. As the protests did not stop, they chose to shoot real bullets at the students, ending the lives of two protestors, Bassil DaCosta and Robert Reddman.
At the same time, none of the news sources were covering the protests because of all the censorship the government makes them go through. When a Colombian news channel, NTN24 (Our TV News 24 Hours), started showing images of the protest, they were immediately cut off, in a movement that lead the government to revoke it’s license. And later, when the international cable news network CNN started broadcasting the protest, they faced the same reaction. However, they managed to get their license back, thanks to public support.
The Venezuelan public was not happy after hearing that their government had just shot dead two young adults and censored two TV channels so people started going out in the streets, in support of the students and politicians. But this did not make the government stop the repression. In fact, this made them strengthen it.
In the following days, they issued a warrant for Leopoldo Lopez, started censoring other news sources and placing even more force on the students, using anti-protest weapons that range from tear gas to water cannon, and to even tankettes to stop them. This just made the matters worse since the students decided to defend themselves through creating “guarimbas” (streets barricades made out of from trash, barbed wire and flaming combustible) to stop the National Guard and Colectivos from reaching them. Also, seeing as how mass media channels were taken over by the government, they decided to move to Twitter to tell everyone in the country what was happening.
This not only created more insecurity, as the students were attacking everyone who were coming to their barricades, but it also divided the neighbourhoods because the students were taking control of entire city zones and furthermore, people who didn’t support them ended up being harassed.
To cope with the amount of protests, the government declared martial law in some cities and even seized the internet connection to stop the students from communicating with each other via Twitter. The most frequently used tactic was to just take the arrested people to jail, in order to stop them from coming back to the student’s territory, making it easier to reclaim the student’s territory, which they managed to recapture after some weeks.
In the end, the government could not cope with the protests and was force to open peace talks with the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable), the coalition of all the opposition parties, in order to find a solution to the crisis. But this was unsuccessful, seeing as how they were used like a playground for the government to ridicule and joke about the opposition and, in my opinion, this was not a real place for dialogue, so of course, the protest just continued along all throughout the country.
Has the government learned something?
The government should have learned that repressing the protest does not lead to anything but to more protest, but it seems as though they have not.
Last year, after they passed a law that forbid the constitutional right to protest, the protests multiplied and the law was met with hard critics from all the major international organizations. Organizations such as The European Union, United Nations, Organization of American States, Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch all condemned the law. But one year later, the government did not think twice before passing another law that is even worse that the one before. This new law allows the Army to shoot firearms charged with real bullets at protesters, as if this is a reasonable way to repress a demonstration. These two laws are not only unconstitutional because no law can overrun the constitution, which dictates that people should protest freely and with no repression whatsoever, but also a clear violation of human rights. And the major problem is that Maduro will get away with this. The regime controls all the five powers of the Venezuelan government so in no way will the Supreme Court declare the laws that the Congress has passed as unconstitutional.
The same happened when they arrested the second most famous opposition leader in the country, Leopoldo López. This not only generated the biggest demonstration the capital has seen in years with statistics that estimate from 1 to 2 million of protesters, but it also resulted in an outright condemnation of the arrest from the governments of Canada, USA, Colombia, Panama, Spain, Germany, etc. So it was a shock to everybody when the president decided to arrest another opposition leader, and in this case, Antonio Ledezma, the current mayor of the capital. The capture was made by more than 150 National Guard officers, an amount that is just outrageous, considering it is just an old man that they were capturing. Are they really so afraid of the opposition that they need to send a complete company just to seize and take control of the offices of the mayor of Caracas?
Time will only show what will happen next, but judging by the looks of this, Maduro’s government will only strengthen his grip on the opposition, seeing as how another wave of protest is arriving. Will this strategy of authoritarian control suppress all insurrections in the country? Or will it just worsen the situation? I prefer to think of the second one as the most likely of both, but Maduro probably disagrees with me.