On 12 February 2014, a bullet to the head killed the young student Bassil da Costa. Two more people died that day; one student and one Chavista. At the “mother of all marches”, the first victim, Carlos Moreno, was also a young student shot straight to the head. Again, two more people died; one student, one Chavista.
In 2014, these events spurred months of violent protests and clashes between supporters of the opposition, the National Guard and civil militias, so-called colectivos. By 8 May, the death toll had reached 41 people, hundreds of injured and thousands detained. During the first six months of 2014, the Venezuelan observatory of social conflict logged 6,369 protests in the country. That’s an average of 35 a day with the bulk taking place in February and March. Still, nothing came of it.
“El que se cansa pierde” (He who tires loses), said opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was blamed for inciting violence and who staked his liberty on the belief that people would remain in the streets. Draped in a Venezuelan flag, fashioned as a superhero cape, and carrying a bouquet of oxeye daisies, he handed himself over to the National Guard shouting: “If my imprisonment helps awaken our people, it will have been worth it!” Simply put, it didn’t. The demonstrations petered out as the world soccer championship in Brazil kicked off in June 2014, and Lopez remains behind bars. This was not the first wave of protests, nor would it be the last.
For years now, we’ve heard international media predict that Maduro’s days in power are numbered and the country’s collapse is imminent. For years, they’ve been wrong. So is there anything to suggest it might be different this time? Perhaps.
This wave of protests has the ubiquitous support of the entire opposition. In 2014, this was not the case. Henrique Capriles, the most prominent opposition leader who narrowly lost to Maduro in the election of 2013, condemned the protests arguing that they would only incite violence. Instead, he thought the opposition should focus on governing well in the areas they had in fact won. Now, Capriles and the other leaders of the opposition, including all the disenfranchised MPs, are aligned in their urge for people to take to the streets.
Meanwhile, Maduro’s popularity is at an all-time low. Recent approval ratings show that a mere 22 per cent of the population supports him.
The international community is also increasingly speaking up against recent setbacks for democracy in Venezuela. Regional elections due to take place in December 2016 were postponed and a recall referendum against the president cancelled. Tensions peaked a few weeks ago when the Supreme Court (made up of government loyalists) assumed legislative powers over the opposition-led congress. The stunt was largely reversed a few days later, but lawmakers were still left essentially powerless. This has prompted reactions from around the world. Eleven countries from the Organisation of American States have urged the government to call new elections, and the political shift to the right in countries such as Argentina and Brazil has served to increase the pressure on Venezuela.
But will it be enough?
As the subtitle of my book suggests (also the title of this piece), I believe that Venezuela is caught in a vicious circle of perpetual liberation. For nearly two hundred years, the country’s political leaders have evoked the legacy of their liberator, Simón Bolívar, to stir popular support for their positions. While Bolívar’s heroic struggle helped free a continent, his eventual affinity for dictatorial rule spawned a vicious cycle of liberation and tyranny that has always haunted Venezuela.
Since Chávez’s death, the battle for the country’s future has intensified. Amidst a collapsing economy, escalating violence, and shortages of basic goods, there are increasing calls for a change of leadership. Rivals for power compete in their efforts to demonstrate to the masses that they are the new, true, Venezuelan hero come to set them free.
Recognizing the people’s desire for a hero, the current government has cunningly barred all potential “heroes” from holding office, an effective way of neutralizing the competition. Leopoldo López was the first to be barred and just days ago, Maduro’s main rival Henrique Capriles was handed a 15-year-ban from holding public office. If all legal ways for leaders of the opposition to assume power become exhausted, things are likely to turn ugly. The stage is set for yet another turn in Venezuela’s cycle of perpetual liberation.
Kajsa Norman is a London-based investigative journalist and author focused on dictatorships and conflict zones. She has previously published books on Cuba, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She has also served as a press and information officer for the Swedish Armed Forces in Afghanistan and Mali. Her most recent books are Bridge Over Blood River: The Rise and Fall of the Afrikaners (2016) and A Hero’s Curse: The Perpetual Liberation of Venezuela (2017), both published by Hurst.