Opposition demonstrators clash with the police during a protest in Caracas, on May 24, 2017. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro formally launched moves to rewrite the constitution on Tuesday, defying opponents who accuse him of clinging to power in a political crisis that has prompted deadly unrest. / AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETO
A young man set ablaze by protesters in Caracas. Looting, destruction and 55 people dead.
Both the Venezuelan government and the opposition admit that waves of violent protests, which have gripped the country for nearly two months, are out of control — and analysts warn they could be a double-edged sword that will trigger even more unrest.
“We condemn violence wherever it comes from,” said Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a traditional ally of socialist President Nicolas Maduro but the highest-profile public official to criticize authorities during the protests against him, on Wednesday.
The government blames its opponents — some armed with stones and Molotov cocktails — for the chaotic clashes. But opposition protesters say they must defend themselves from tear gas, shotguns and even bullets.
“If they let us march, we wouldn’t do anything,” Alejandro, 19, told AFP, a member of a group of hooded youths who oppose Maduro. “But they attack first so we throw rocks and bottles.”
Maduro says that his moves to draft a new constitution will bring “peace” — but his critics say it is little more than a way for him to cling to power despite the deadly unrest.
The burning of 21-year-old Orlando Figuera — who was beaten, doused in petrol and set alight in a recent Caracas protest — highlighted the country’s descent into chaos.
The prosecutor investigating the incident dubbed it “nightmarish” — but also said it was “vulgar that videos appeared that were manipulated to favor one of the sides in the dispute.”
The government said Figuera was attacked for being a Maduro supporter. The opposition, which has also condemned the incident, said members of the crowd had accused him of “stealing.”
– Fears of war –
According to the public prosecution service, the death toll stands at 55 after some eight weeks of demonstrations demanding general elections to remove Maduro.
Protesters brand the socialist president a dictator and blame him for economic turmoil and food shortages. Maduro has resisted those calls, insisting the opposition and the United States are plotting a coup against him.
Analysts warn the violence benefits neither the government, which faces mounting international pressure, nor the opposition, which could lose sight of its aims.
If the opposition becomes “radical and violent,” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, it risks “scaring people away.”
Nicmer Evans, a political scientist ideologically loyal to the socialist leadership but also critical of Maduro, says sectors in both the government and the opposition are driving the violence — but that it has “discredited” the opposition in particular.
“We see hooded warriors, with Molotov bombs, in a stupid confrontation of David versus Goliath that spawns rejection and distracts from goals.”
On the other hand some — like Roberto Briceno Leon, head of Venezuelan Violence Watch — say the government promotes confrontation “because it no longer has popular support.”
The country is divided as locals struggle with shortages of food and medicine, soaring inflation — prices could rise by 720 percent this year, the IMF estimates — and one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime.
And if the violence continues to flare, analysts agree it could skew dangerously close to bordering on “civil war,” as sociologist Francisco Coello puts it.
The only way out is dialogue, they say. “A problem of this type cannot be resolved… without political negotiation,” said Briceno.