A new wave of protests is ripping through Venezuela. Members of the country’s population, having lived for years with hyperinflation, food shortages, violence and oppression, are taking to the streets today to try to oust President Nicolas Maduro. It’s a familiar scene – similar demonstrations have rocked Venezuela many times before. But compared with previous episodes of unrest, including mass protests in the spring of 2017 that seemed to portend a change, the current demonstrations are more organized and more sophisticated. In and beyond Venezuela, politicians, risk analysts, think tanks and ordinary citizens alike believe that the country’s opposition has a unique but fleeting opportunity to overthrow the Maduro government once and for all.
A More United Front
One factor setting the current protests apart from previous ones is the opposition’s level of cohesion. A lack of unity and organization has dogged the opposition in the past and kept it from effectively mobilizing against Maduro. This time around, though, the opposition has been planning for months and has strategically timed its protests. Demonstrating after Maduro’s inauguration for a second term and the National Assembly’s swearing-in earlier this month will give the opposition a chance to make a fresh start with a new leader, Juan Guaido, who became president of the parliament Jan. 5. In addition, the date the opposition chose for the protests – Jan. 23 – is the 61st anniversary of a civilian-military coup that ousted Marcos Perez Jimenez.
A week before the protests, opposition members of the National Assembly held town hall meetings in their jurisdictions to mobilize the local populations. (At least 328 municipalities held such meetings in the Caracas area alone.) During the events, they explained the protests’ goal – to effect a political transition in the country that would lead to free and open elections – and instructed the public on how to join. Universities across Venezuela also have banded together to encourage participation in the marches, and 22 different countries have planned to hold solidarity marches Jan. 23. All in all, the opposition has made a much more concerted effort to prepare for the current protests than it has for past events, including the 2017 demonstrations, which relied on social media to generate crowds that then lacked direction.
As part of its planning, the opposition has reached out to the Venezuelan military. The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD, has been calling on the security forces to join in its protests for weeks – a contrast to 2017, when it made an attempt to draw junior servicemen to the movement through a haphazard barrage of tweets. And this time, the MUD has made a personal as well as a political appeal, recognizing that members of the armed forces are suffering the same economic hardships that are afflicting civilian protesters. Guaido promised active military members amnesty under a new government in exchange for their support and framed the protests as an opportunity to unite with the rest of the country, rather than to divide the security forces. His wife joined the cause, too, seeking support from military spouses and families in a video. At the same time, retired members of the security apparatus have issued statements reminding the military that its job is to defend Venezuela, not necessarily its leaders. Compared with its previous attempts at an uprising, the opposition’s latest protest movement has taken a more sympathetic and inclusive view of the military, and it seems to be paying off: Dozens of members of the national guard were arrested Jan. 21 after attempting a mutiny.
The discontent in the military only added to organized campaigns that played out in the media to support the opposition. Since Maduro’s inauguration day, U.S. outlets such as The Washington Post and the Miami Herald have been publishing accounts from Venezuelan sources of cracks in the government. Stories of Venezuelan military officials fleeing the country and disavowing Maduro followed, along with an op-ed by Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer calling for change in Venezuela. In South America, meanwhile, a Colombian TV news channel broadcast footage of Venezuelan soldiers in Peru and Colombia denouncing Maduro and declaring their support for the protests. Social media, too, has given the international community a venue to boost the Venezuelan opposition. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has taken to Twitter to criticize the Maduro government, expressing support for the protests and for the arrested mutineers. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has also used Twitter to condemn the Venezuelan government. It’s part of an active campaign to bring attention to the protests – which differentiates them from those that occurred in 2017.
Furthermore, the U.S. support goes beyond tweets and news stories – a change for the Venezuelan opposition. The United States has long disapproved of Maduro, but until recently, it didn’t launch a concerted campaign for regime change, beyond making statements condemning the government and issuing sanctions against it. Today, by contrast, it’s clear that the U.S. is fully behind the Venezuelan opposition and ready to support a transitional government. Washington has redoubled its efforts to break the Maduro administration, intensifying its sanctions, repeatedly affirming its recognition of the National Assembly as Venezuela’s legitimate governing body, and coordinating its stance with Brazil and Colombia. In fact, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez and former Colombian President Andres Pastrana Arango recently met with two leaders of the Venezuelan opposition.
Under mounting pressure, the Maduro government has responded as best it can. It suppressed the alleged mutiny in the national guard, for example, and the military has consistently rejected reports of dissent or chain of command problems. Community groups allied with the government, known as colectivos, have increased their presence on the streets, while Maduro’s supporters have called their own town hall meetings to counter those of the opposition. Still, the government’s opponents far outnumber its defenders. As the opposition puts its months of planning and organization to the test in today’s protests, the Maduro administration will be on the defensive, relying on security operations to maintain order and cling to power.