Venezuela braces for the 'mother of all protests'

As Venezuela braces for the “mother of all protests” on Wednesday, opposition figurehead Henrique Capriles needs no reminder of the risks involved in inflaming an already febrile national mood.

The walls of his office building are still blackened from the fire that blazed here last week after security forces lobbed a gas canister during an anti-government demonstration.

That clash was fuelled by the comptroller general’s decision on 7 April to bar the 44-year-old from running for public office until 2032 for allegedly misusing public funds.

Capriles – who narrowly lost the last presidential election – denies the charges and accuses president Nicolás Maduro of being a dictator, which has raised tensions in this violently divided nation.

At least six people have been killed and 200 injured since the end of March, when the supreme court briefly assumed the legislative duties of the opposition-controlled Congress. With both sides calling for huge rallies on Wednesday, it is feared this toll could rise.

Maduro has described his opponents as “rightwing fascists” and talked of “terrorism” aimed at ousting him from power. Alarmingly, he has also provided guns this week to the 40,000-strong civilian militias.

Despite concerns of a repeat of the deadly clashes that killed 43 in 2014 (with victims on both sides), the governor of Miranda state said he was determined to maintain the pressure on the administration.

“I cannot just sit by and watch a government that is increasingly authoritarian. I feel it is my duty to stand up,” he told The Guardian. “I have given this fight the best years of my life, and I am not going to stop now.”

Capriles, who lost by a narrow margin against Maduro in presidential elections in 2013, has committed to bringing about change through peaceful means. He spearheaded last year’s thwarted efforts to launch a recall referendum and accepted Vatican-sponsored talks aimed at finding a resolution when that campaign was denied by the electoral council.

Now, he says, his approach remains democratic but his mood is increasingly defiant.

“We cannot build a new government that begins in an illegitimate manner. Political change must necessarily come through elections where the people have a voice. I will not rest until I can say that we achieved a change,” he said.

For seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics, this may sound familiar. In the 18 years since Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez assumed power, Venezuelans have grown accustomed to giant rallies for and against the government. Several have turned violent, but none have spurred significant change. Although the opposition won control of congress in the 2015 legislative election, they are divided and have failed to galvanize popular discontent.

But there are differences from the past. The economy is deteriorating, with the IMF predicting this week that Venezuelan unemployment will surpass 25% this year as the country suffers a third year of recession.

There is also less regional support for Maduro, following the rightward shift of governments in Argentina and Brazil. Although Venezuela continues to have the backing of Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua, 11 other nations in the Organisation of Americas have called on Maduro to allow new elections and condemned last month’s supreme court decision to assume the legislative powers of the Congress (which was subsequently reversed).

The Venezuelan foreign minister has rejected this “meddling” in the country’s internal affairs. Maduro has repeatedly said he is the target of a US-backed plot aimed at gaining control of the world’s largest oil supplies. On Sunday, Maduro broadcast videos of protesters setting fire to public buildings as well as the testimony of a protester alleging he was paid less than $100 (at the widely used black market rate) by Capriles’s party, Justice First, for wreaking havoc during the protests.

Maduro has also deployed the army to the streets, and police have jailed close to 500 protesters. Of these, more than 200 remain behind bars, according to Foro Penal, an NGO that tracks human rights abuses.

The mood is becoming more confrontational. Several legislators have been tear-gassed and beaten during the protests, but unlike other times, they have fought back by grabbing tear gas canisters from the ground and lurching them back at the national guard.

Whereas in previous marches people wore white shirts and baseball caps with Venezuela’s tricolor flag, this time protesters on the frontline hide their identity behind masks and hoodies.

Banners and flags have given way to sling shots and rocks, an office of the magistrate in the opposition stronghold of Chacao was burnt down, an opposition legislator was beaten up by security forces and even Maduro was pelted with objects in the eastern city of San Félix, traditionally a bastion of government support.

Shortages of food, medicine and other basics have eroded support for the government in poor neighbourhoods. Most will not go as far as joining the traditional middle-class marches, but people are angry and they barricaded streets and blocked traffic.

According to the Observatory of Social Conflict, there were close to 5,000 incidents of protests in 2016 – 15% more than in the previous year.

“This is no longer people chanting and taking selfies. People are indignant, and they are resolute,” Capriles said.