The wave of protests over Venezuela started in early February. We may reach a full two months period if what happened Sunday serves us of guide. As a public service I have replied to some questions that I would ask if I were a casual observer wondering about such a phenomenon.
Why the protest?
Usually such massive protest movements have deep and diffuse roots, though the fuse can be obvious. Here, contrary to appearances, things are actually simpler than what you may think though the fuse is not as material as one may wish.
Since 2001, there has been a constant state of protest in Venezuela. The first paroxysm came in 2002-2003 and this blog carries still two pictures from those days: the log flag and a rally in 2003 at the bottom of the page. The government, turned into a "regime", never tried to do anything about the roots of these protests, only assuaging them with liberal distribution of cash that have resulted in the economic collapse currently in progress. Thus after ten years of empty promises where the only steady process has been to establish a Cuban like system social control, people simply realized that with such a regime there is no future. Or rather more explicitly, their future had been stolen by a ruthless political "elite" of thugs and drug lords. Even law suits in the US acknowledge that fact of life in Venezuela.
Future stolen? Aren't those big words?
No, they are accurate. In Venezuela today private enterprise, reduced to its minimum sense of personal project, is nearly impossible. The aim of the state is to control all aspects of the individual's live. From the excessive and discretionary controls on private enterprise to the ongoing battle of ideological imposition in schools, from the difficulty to sustain an independent NGO to the imposed system of "consejos comunales" to control your neighborhood, all is following an increasing totalitarian bent, inspired on fascist methods even if the discourse and motivation are officially socialists.
The message is clear: outside of sticking close to the regime's message and groups there is no hope of betterment for you, the more so when you realize that there are no jobs out there that can free you from state dependence, that the education you receive is sub-par to deal with the complexities of a globalized word, and that even forming a hippie commune will not let you escape the system. Truly, the feel of most, if not all people in the protests is that there is no future.
Shouldn't that "stolen future" also send supporters of the regime to protest?
Tricky question, and a complex one to answer.
You need to understand that original supporters of Chavez also sensed that their future had been lost, or taken or was simply nonexistent. Just acknowledging that fact was enough to generate sympathy among enough people to get elected in 1998. Then, some spending with social programs necessary but solely designed for electoral purposes was enough to give the illusion that there was a future. It is only now, that inflation is eating fast the few social gains made, that it starts becoming apparent that whatever could offer social programs has been used in full, that the regime supporters start having their own doubts.
You also need to understand that many, many regime supporters have been actively protesting for years because all that was promised was not fulfilled, or given for a short while only as new elections required new promises to be fulfilled at the expense of old promises. But these protests were for self interest and the existence of a Messianic figure like Chavez was enough to make sure they would not crystallize into a national movement. This is not the case anymore and the transition has started.
There are two additional explanations. One is psychological: after so many years to vote blindly for whatever Chavez sent your way it is difficult to accept that one may have been wrong all these years. The other is of a repressive nature: the regime has been successful in one aspect, to create a paramilitary and bureaucratic structure to control lower classes neighborhoods. It is thus difficult to organize a systemic protest movement in those areas and for the time being "defectors" prefer to take the bus or subway to meet in areas where the opposition can protest with more freedom and where they are not likely to be easily recognized by the control structure. That regime's "areas" have less support than they used to be is not disputed by any serious observer: the problem is to quantify it, though we know for sure that discontent is bound to grow as long as the economy is not fixed.
If protest could "contaminate" pro regime areas how come the regime is not cracking down further in opposition areas, or making a gesture to stop protests altogether before they spread further?
The answer is simple: the regime is unable to deal with the economic crisis unraveling. Thus the regime needs a distraction, a scapegoat. The more so that the economic crisis will slowly but surely start being associated with the regime corruption.
It is too long to enter into the details of the economic crisis so suffice to say that the regime is a "political" coalition where any given group interests will be affected by any rational measure that may be taken. That coalition could suddenly unravel if, say, price of gas is increased making the regime simply collapse. And even if a sub-coalition within the regime would be strong enough to take over, the measures required mean that the Chavez model would be disbanded fast which ideologically is still to early to demand from the regime.
The regime is thus interested in a violent confrontation that justify tighter control over the society, a control that it needs more to control its own political bases than the opposition bases but which excuse is provided by the "need" to control opposition political bases.
There are increasing verified reports that actually the regime sends covert agents to stir protests. Also, the recent arrest and illegal destitution of mayors without real cause is a way to try to make the huge pacific protests angrier and maybe more violent as the "guarimbas" start to recede, not for lack of will but because the protest is evolving naturally towards other forms of expression than guarimabas barricades.
In short, the regime has the means to crush protest more bloodily than what has happened so far, or can stop it whenever it wants. If neither one is happening it is certainly because the current nature of protests fits the political needs of the regime. At least, in the short term.
If I follow you that means there is a chance that protest will lead nowhere, or to hell. Should we not try other approaches such as dialogue or truth commission?
If we were in a normal democracy where conflicts may be aggravated by given unusual circumstances, you would be right to suggest such options. The problem here is that the political power and "institutions" of the state have been hijacked by a group of people who have no intentions of releasing them. Not that they could release power if they wanted because too many of them would meet jail terms for all sorts of crimes, from outrageous corruption to sponsoring international drug trafficking.
Even if we assumed that indeed the regime is intent on some form of "negotiation" or "dialogue" to reach a modus operandi that would allow them to finish their political term, the appearances are against such an idea. The truth commission named includes only radical members of the regime apparatus. More opposition politicians are arrested without proper right to trial. The dialogue called is with either the sectors the regime wants to call or with everyone and their brother to dilute possibilities of real dialogue. Furthermore, for a dialogue to be possible the regime is the only one that can give guarantees since it controls everything in the country. Simple measures, such as releasing political prisoners, are denied outright and explain why the opposition refuses to participate in what they justifiably call propaganda masquerades.
In short, under current regime attitude dialogue is impossible, the more so when the president muses about ways "to force" the opposition to sit to the table. That is right, they want to force the opposition to dialogue...
This is quite a mess. How come it got this way? Is there anything that can be done?
The problem is that the regime upper ranks are divided in two: the ones deeply involved in organized crime and the revolutionary radicals that know their historical chance is gone. Why did the regime evolved into such a fascist monstrosity? (I am sorry to say that here is really no other way to qualify the current regime).
The reason is quite simple: Hugo Chavez bought from the Castro brothers the recipe to hold office forever. This requires a divided society of us against them. An enemy at every corner. A moral corruption of people with access to privilege and power so that their crimes make them forced to serve the regime. This was made possible by the abundant oil money and by the geographical situation crucial for drug trafficking. It was easy thus to promote organized crime, corruption violence, social dependency, etc. all held in place through a sophisticated blackmailing network.
What can be done? Well, what should be done is to remove the top echelons of the regime, to jail at least a couple hundred individuals. After all the regime followers are not necessarily as bad as their leadership and once they get informed of the reality they could rebuild their movement along healthier lines. But to do that you would need an army that is not as dysfunctional and corrupt as the Venezuelan army is today.
An international outcome is not possible either because the countries that could effect such "peace conference" are in the hands of leftist governments that cannot accept that their life model failed so dismally in Venezuela (Brazil) or are blackmailed by the regime (Colombia) or simply do not care enough (the US, Mexico). Only through pressure on Cuba, maybe through the European Union together with less powerful LatAm countries like Peru or Chile, could we see some positive results.
Otherwise we can only wait for the economy to finish to bottom out, for repression to become worse, for bloody divisions to appear inside chavismo and other unpalatable events that may take years. Meanwhile the opposition needs to keep the heat up. Harping the incompetence of the regime at managing food scarcity will help.
The only example that comes to mind is the one of Burma, all perspectives guarded. Only when the utterly corrupt raw military power realizes that it cannot hold much longer and that the opposition understands that it needs to give them time to sort out their safe exit will we see a light in the distance. Before we become a failed state.