Anti-government rallies in Venezuela gain steam and support

The World
An opposition supporter sits on a wall as protesters block a street at Altamira square in Caracas February 20, 2014.

An opposition supporter sits on a wall as protesters block a street at Altamira square in Caracas on February 20, 2014.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

It's been almost a year since influential Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died, leaving his hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, to deal with a mounting opposition movement.   

Recent clashes between anti-government protestors and police over economic and social issues have had deadly results.

"The protestors are mainly middle-class university students," says Caracas-based journalist Andrew Rosati, who has been on the streets during some of the clashes with authorities. 

After several weeks of rallies and marches across the country, the students recently gained key support from prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. "Since his backing, scores of critics of the government have joined, but the motor of all the protest movements are the students," Rosati says.

Earlier this week, Lopez turned himself into police after a warrant was issued for his arrest, but he continues to inspire the opposition.  

"What [Lopez] has done, that other opposition leaders haven't done, is he has said it is necessary to go to the streets in peaceful protest," Rosati says.    

But the protests have not been peaceful. Rosati explains what may be driving protestors to the point of violence:  

"A lot of people are very fed up with the situation in the counrty. There's over 56 percent inflation. Last year, the country saw almost 25,000 murders — making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world. And there's rampant shortages of basic foods like sugar, milk, and even toilet paper is hard to find here," he says.   

With such a range of issues, Rosati calls the protestors' demands "nebulous ... More than anything they are upset with the soaring crime in the country ... but they also are stating grievances about the shortages, spiralling inflation, and the lack of better options in their future."  

None of these problems are new to Venezuelans, but the protests have been gaining momentum. 

Chavez won all his elections by huge margins, but "Maduro won [elections in April] by a very, very slim margin — less than two percentage points — so a lot of the protestors feel they have a really good chance of seeking change now," Rosati says.  

"They are trying to send a message to the president, Nicolas Maduro, that the only way out of this is for them — the government, that is — is to recognize that they are the cause of this and many want them to stand down."  

Along with sending out police to control protestors on the streets, the government has reportedly been shutting down the Internet and even electricity in western Venezuela.   

"Venezuelans are very active on social media. They are very active on the Internet," Rosati says. "Since a lot of major news networks have been silenced over the years under Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans have been getting in touch and getting the word out through things like Twitter ... So they're saying this is a way for the governement to silence the opposition."