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Protests in Venezuela

Interview: Neil King, Jessie Wingard / cdFebruary 28, 2014

At least a dozen Venezuelans have died in recent protests. DW hears from Caracas-based journalist Irene Caselli about why Venezuelans are taking to the street - and whether they'll find success in coming weeks.

A Venezuelan woman raises her arms in front of a line of security officers wearing helmets.
Image: Reuters

After the attempted rape of a student on a campus in San Cristobal, Venezuela, a series of anti-government protests have spread throughout the country. Opposition groups have joined students in their demonstrations against endemic crime, corruption and soaring inflation.

DW: What's the situation on the ground like now?

Irene Caselli: Very tense. People don't really know what will happen on a daily basis. Many shops have had to close early, as a lot of the violence took place in Caracas, mostly at night. At this point, there's still tension in other cities around the country, especially in the city of San Cristobal in the state of Tachira, which borders Colombia. At this point it's very uncertain what will happen next.

It would appear that this was all triggered by the attempted rape of a student. How can such an isolated incident flare into nationwide unrest?

Students had been complaining about a big issue in the country, which is insecurity. Venezuela has the fifth-highest murder rate in the world, according to UN figures. So this is something that affects everyone - that many people recognize as a problem which affects them on a daily basis.

At the same time, there's also the economy, one of the other main concerns that led people into the streets. Venezuela has one of the highest inflation rates in the world - 2013 ended with 56 percent inflation. At the same time, there are shortages of basic goods, not only food staples such as milk and sugar, but even toilet paper, and, more worryingly, medicines. For example, we're hearing that there are very few medicines for cancer patients.

What about Wednesday's so-called peace conference? Why did the opposition boycott it?

The peace conference called by [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro was not attended by the opposition, which said that there was not a climate that could be used for real dialogue. The peace conference was attended by business leaders who used very strong language and spoke directly to Mr. Maduro and said that, as the president, he had to be the one in charge of calming things down.

President Maduro has blamed the unrest on a US-led conspiracy aimed at toppling his government, which is the sort of rhetoric his predecessor Hugo Chavez would have used. How credible is this theory, and just how many Venezuelans are buying it?

Let's not forget in 2002 there was a coup against Hugo Chavez, and in the same year, there were some strong protests. And there was a so-called oil strike for two months where people did not get access to fuel.

There was no clear influence by the United States there, but at the same time, there was a clear sense that people within the opposition wanted to resort to violence to carry out a coup. So many of Mr. Maduro's supporters are worried that the opposition is trying to carry out a similar strategy at this point.

There have also been pro-government protests in response to the unrest. How deep is the division in Venezuelan society and who are the opposing factions?

The divisions are huge. Many people say the society is divided in two. They base that on the latest presidential elections, which President Nicolas Maduro won by a very narrow margin, just 1.5 percent.

Traditionally, people say that the people belonging to the opposition belong to the middle and higher classes. But that would not make up 50 percent of the population, or close to 50. So there are definitely lower classes that now are starting to oppose the government. And that's mainly because they see that there are certain things that aren't working for them.

The recent example of Ukraine shows just how fast a government can be toppled by a determined protest movement. Do you see a similar pattern in Venezuela emerging, or is it a completely different kettle of fish?

I think Venezuela is very different from other situations. For now it seems that protests are limited to a single sector of society, very much to the middle class. And this is something that even the elected leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, has said. And Mr. Capriles himself has actually said that until the protests spread to lower sectors of society, which are usually the stronghold of Chavismo, it will be hard for the government to make any change - it will be hard to put the right pressure on the government, to push them to change their policies.

Given what you're hearing from people in the street, have we seen the worst of the violence or is worse still to come?

It's hard to tell. Next week is Carneval, so many people are waiting to see if that will dismantle the protest - people will take advantage of the holiday to go to the beach - or whether Carneval will actually be used by students to mobilize larger sectors of the society which don't have to go to work during those days.

Many analysts are finding it hard to read. It's hard to tell exactly how many people are still willing to go out on the streets and set up barricades and stronger protests. For now, it will remain tense.