As tens of thousands took to the streets in Venezuela Wednesday to express their anger at the government of President Nicolás Maduro, expatriates of the South American country gathered at embassies around the world in solidarity. In Washington D.C., around a hundred Venezuelan-Americans and sympathizers gathered across the street from the Venezuelan embassy, hoisting signs calling President Maduro a dictator and comparing his rule to that of the Castros in Cuba.
“The Venezuelans of Washington D.C. have gathered here to make the same demand that our Venezuelan brothers are making in the streets of Venezuela,” said Carlos Delgado Salas, a representative of the international wing of Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), a Venezuelan opposition party. “Our demand is very simple: democracy and human rights.” Protests have raged across Venezuela for weeks, sparked by the decision last month of the Venezuelan supreme court, dominated by supporters of Maduro, to muzzle the country’s legislature, the one branch of government controlled by the opposition. The decision, which would have given Maduro near-dictatorial powers, was reversed days later after a popular outcry, but by then Venezuelans were already spilling into the streets. Wednesday’s march was billed as “the mother of all protests”, and in the capital of Caracas and other cities, photos and videos showed what appeared to be historically massive crowds clogging streets and freeways and clashing with police. By Wednesday afternoon, multiple deaths had already been reported from the protests in Caracas and around the country.
In Washington, protesters kept one eye on their smartphones for updates on the marches back home in Venezuela. Meanwhile, similar events were held at embassies around the world, for example in Madrid:
The protesters, according to Delgado Salas, have a few basic demands: that Maduro respect the constitutional independence of the legislature, and that he agree to convene new elections. Also at the top of the agenda is the release of the various political prisoners currently held by the Maduro government. At Wednesday’s protest, Salas wore a t-shirt carrying the image of the most famous of those prisoners, Leopoldo López. López was one of the principal leaders of the Venezuelan opposition until 2014, when he was imprisoned on charges of inciting riot.
With López in jail, the most visible face of the opposition has been former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles of the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party. As the present wave of protests was gaining steam on April 5th, the Maduro government announced that Capriles would be barred from holding public office for a period of 15 years, citing “administrative irregularities” during his time as governor of the state of Miranda. Attendees at the embassy protest in Washington expressed universal admiration for Capriles, calling him “a great fighter” and expressing their anger at the decision. “The government is afraid,” said one protester. “They want to get rid of all dissent so that they’ll be the only ones left. But they won’t be able to do it.”
In the past, such measures have been successful in suppressing political opposition, but it’s not clear what the consequences will be this time around, as the opposition appears larger and more energized than at any point since the election of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 1998. During the Chávez era, opposition politicians were caricatured as out-of-touch avatars of the country’s urban middle class. But in recent years Venezuelans have become accustomed to spending hours every week waiting in line for rationed household products like flour, sugar, powdered milk, and even toilet paper. These sorts of daily tribulations, along with the growing murder rate (Caracas is by some measures the world’s most violent city) appear to be breaking down some of the old class boundaries. Maduro, who won the last presidential election by a narrow margin, has seen his approval sink below 25%.
“Nowadays no one supports Maduro,” said Delgado Salas.
“The Tribunal Supremo, the Supreme Court, in taking away the national assembly’s powers, did a big favor to the opposition,” said Emiliana Duarte, managing editor of the Caracas Chronicles, reached by skype in Caracas Wednesday evening. “Had it not been for this dictatorial move on the part of the government, the opposition right now would be meeting behind closed doors… now they’ve all coalesced behind the banner of we want the government to respect the constitution, and asking for elections. Now they’re more united than ever.” Duarte emphasized that while Henrique Capriles is the most visible figure of the opposition, right now it’s opposition to Maduro that unites the protesters rather than allegiance to any one figure. “People don’t talk about Capriles in the streets,” she said. As she spoke, Duarte was interrupted by a spontaneous Cacerolazo, a form of protest traditional throughout South America in which people bang pots and pans to express discontent. The sound of clanging metal could be heard throughout the city on Wednesday night.
The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV) has thus far been unwilling to concede that the country’s economic woes ― chronic shortages of basic goods, the world’s highest rate of inflation ― might be connected to its policies of economic centralization, expropriation, and price and currency controls, instead blaming a conspiracy between opposition parties and the United States. Maduro and his allies make constant reference to the “guerra económica” (economic war) supposedly being waged against the country by the “imperio norteamericano” (North American empire), led by the “imperialistas yanquis” (yankee imperialists).
President Maduro himself has repeatedly likened the current wave of protests to the failed 2002 coup d’etat against then-president Hugo Chávez, still believed by many to have been carried out with the tacit approval of the United States. These comparisons have made it increasingly clear that after years of dominating the Venezuelan political system, Maduro and his allies lack even the basic language to describe internal dissent without reference to a conspiracy of external actors. Recently the president went so far as to call the protests a “golpe de estado terrorista” (a terrorist coup).
“At this point, everything is a parallel reality,” said Emiliana Duarte. “From the president down, if you look at any government official’s social media feed, be it Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook... they would rather ignore what is evident.” State media in Venezuela has chosen not to cover the protests, instead focusing on smaller gatherings of government supporters. Social media has thus become the principal mode of communication for the opposition. By the end of the day, plans were circulating about another march to take place on Thursday. While the movement is clearly gathering steam, it’s difficult to see a resolution that doesn’t involve more violence.
“Whether there’s more violence or not, there has to be a way out,” said a protester at the embassy in Washington D.C. “Because we’re losing our children, our homes, our industries, everything.” Another Venezuelan who attended the event expressed a simple hope for the country’s future. “I hope for a secure Venezuela, one where I can take my son to meet his grandfather.”