What the Heck Is Going on in Venezuela? (Could the Maduro Regime Fall?)

Leopoldo Lopez, an ardent opponent of Venezuela's socialist government facing an arrest warrant, surrounded by supporters in Caracas on Feb. 18 Photograph by Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

“I’m telling you, you’re a coward, Maduro. You won’t break either me or my family.”

So Leopoldo López tweeted on Feb. 15 after Venezuelan police raided his home. The unofficial head of Venezuela’s newly active opposition movement, López, 42, was addressing President Nicolas Maduro, who has been in office since April 2013, following the cancer-related death of his mentor, Hugo Chávez. Three days before, Maduro issued an arrest warrant for López, charging him with terrorism and murder after gunmen opened fire on a thousands-strong antigovernment demonstration as it was dispersing in Caracas. Maduro’s people say protesters, led by López, initiated the violence. The demonstrators say the authorities opened fire to scatter the crowd, and killed three. After that, López went into hiding and took to Twitter and YouTube to rally Venezuelans fed up with shortages of basic goods, from toilet paper to cooking oil. Then, on Tuesday, he reemerged to lead another opposition march in Caracas, and was arrested. Before he was detained, López tweeted again: “The change we want is in every one of us. Let us not surrender. I will not!”

Something more serious than material shortages has been prompting Venezuelans to take to the streets; they also resent the mounting repression of any who dare speak out. The three protesters shot during the demonstration were young students, and died on Venezuela’s Youth Day. The vast majority of those in attendance were between 18 and 25 years old. Most came of age when Chavismo, the ideology espoused by Chávez, was already in crisis, and its leader ailing and increasingly unpopular. For many, Chávez’s choice of Maduro, a lackluster National Assembly deputy, was an insult. And now the question is being asked: Can Maduro be thrown out? Is López aiming for a coup? He and another fast-rising opposition leader, María Corina Machado, have tried it before.

Maduro won the presidency in 2013, but the election left Venezuela more politically divided than it’s been in years. When Maduro took to the campaign trail in March, he had a double-digit lead on his rival, Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles, a centrist. But Maduro soon squandered it, defeating Capriles with 50.7 percent of the vote—a margin-of-error “victory” that Capriles, alleging fraud, contested to no effect in Chavista-stacked courts. With new presidential polls not scheduled until 2019, it looked as if Maduro’s grip on power was secure. But then the shortages started, possibly owing to shortages in hard currency. Almost everything in Venezuela except oil is now imported.

Maduro and his entourage took to blaming them on U.S.-backed “fascists” and a “parasitic bourgeoisie” plotting to overthrow him. (On Feb. 17, Maduro’s government demanded that three American officials working in the U.S. embassy leave the country because they had been recruiting students to take part in protests.) The economy began crumbling, with inflation hitting 56 percent, the budget deficit soaring by almost 50 percent, China cutting back on its lifeline $20 billion loan, and Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s downgrading Venezuelan bonds to junk status. The bolivar fuerte (or “strong bolivar,” as Chávez had the currency renamed) weakened precipitously against the U.S. dollar, and dropped, on the black market, from roughly 8 to 1 (at Chávez’s death) to now 87 to 1. Maduro’s response? State intervention that has worsened matters, making it harder and harder for the private sector, on which Venezuelans rely for food, to operate.

Sporadic protests have plagued Maduro’s government from the beginning, but the murder, in January, of a beloved television star and beauty queen, Monica Spear (along with her British husband), proved a turning point, highlighting Venezuela’s status as one of the most homicide-afflicted countries on earth and sparking demands that the government protect its citizens. “I want to live in a normal country. We’ve got to get these locos out of power,” said Nelvis, a former state employee now active in opposition marches who did not want her last name published.

As the demonstrations gathered steam this winter, Capriles did the unthinkable and shook Maduro’s hand, a gesture that cost him support and helped propel López back into the spotlight, which he now shares with Machado. López and Machado, 46, backed a failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, and both have since suffered violent assault. López’s aunt was shot at an otherwise peaceful rally, and his bodyguard was shot to death. Machado has been the target of repeated assaults by thugs reputedly linked to the Chávez regime.

Can these two succeed where they failed in 2002? They are both highly educated—López completed a master’s degree at Harvard, Machado was a fellow at Yale. According to a classified cable published by WikiLeaks, an officer of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Robin Meyer, in 2009 wrote that López “is often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry—but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma and talent as an organizer.” No matter, at least for Venezuelans: The way to their heart may be that López can claim a bloodline link to Simón Bolívar.

After the student deaths of Feb. 12, crowds began flooding the streets, demanding that Maduro step down, but lacked clear organization. Capriles has responded cautiously just as Lopez has urged bold confrontation. The army has rolled into Caracas in armored personnel carriers and met the demonstrators with beatings, detentions, and, so it is claimed, torture, which has only provoked more demonstrations and outrage. Maduro’s regime has also further clamped down on the media, neutering coverage of the unrest, blocking Twitter at times, and leaving the opposition to circulate calls for action via Facebook and video clips.

The opposition, consisting of 30 parties and famously fractious, has largely rallied behind Lopez and Machado. In advance of Tuesday’s march, Lopez issued a call on YouTube. The destination: the Ministry of Justice, a place that, he said, “has been converted into a symbol of repression, torture, and lies.” He demanded that the government clarify the circumstances surrounding the students’ deaths on Feb. 12 and abolish the Chávez-founded paramilitary groups “responsible for homicides and intimidating our people … with impunity granted by the Venezuelan state.” He also announced that he would turn himself in and “accept the persecution” if the government chose to arrest him at the march for a crime he did not commit.

The government ruled the gathering illegal. “They will not pass,” thundered Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, in a televised address. “They can call on the gringos and the marines, but they will not pass!”

They may not—at least this time. But it’s clear that Venezuela has entered a period of instability not seen since the 1989 Caracazo riots over fuel-price increases that led to regime change. That set the stage for Hugo Chávez’s rise to power.

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