Protesters raise their hands in a sign of peace after the Bolivarian National Guard cut the march in two parts, not allowing part of the march to continue, Caracas, March 4, 2013.
Protesters raise their hands in a sign of peace after the Bolivarian National Guard cut the march in two parts, not allowing part of the march to continue, Caracas, March 4, 2013.  Eduardo Leal—Polaris

3 Reasons Venezuela's Protesters Won't Win

Mar 06, 2014

A day after Venezuela commemorated the one-year death anniversary of its charismatic and demagogic former President Hugo Chavez, the clashes and protests that have roiled the country for weeks showed no sign of abating. At least two people died Thursday in Caracas during a confrontation between demonstrators barricading a street and paramilitary and National Guard forces attempting to disperse them. That brings the death toll to 20 in less than a month of unrest.

What began as student protests animated by the disastrous state of the country’s economy—wracked, as it is, by record inflation and food and goods shortages—has morphed into perhaps the greatest challenge facing the regime that Chavez built, which in recent years has been mired in allegations of corruption and incompetence. The opposition accuses Chavez’s handpicked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, of brutally cracking down on dissent and stifling freedom of speech. Maduro has rounded angrily on his domestic opponents as well as critics overseas, most recently breaking diplomatic ties with nearby Panama. But despite the upheaval, those seeking the collapse of the Chavista state are likely to be disappointed. Here’s why:

Venezuela is not Ukraine. Ever since the country’s unrest began, it has been obscured from global attention by the crisis in Ukraine. The standoff in Kiev, followed by the political chaos that prompted Russia’s power play in the Crimea, is a narrative more urgent to outside observers, staged on a Cold War landscape familiar to the West. Venezuela, in comparison, seems a Caribbean pantomime. A leftist leader fumes against mythical fascist plots and yanqui imperialism; his enemies mutter darkly about the reach of Cuban agents. But Maduro does not straddle as precarious a geopolitical faultline as Ukraine’s now ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. To be sure, the events have many in the region concerned, not least as Venezuela sits atop some of the world's largest oil reserves. But Maduro retains considerable popular support among a whole section of society uplifted, or at least persuaded, by Chavez’s socialist populism. And while he appears to have unleashed both government forces and paramilitary groups—motorcycle gangs known as colectivos—to vicious effect on the demonstrations, even those who are angry and galvanized among the protesters seem doubtful of winning real, revolutionary gains.

The opposition is weak. Despite his best efforts to publicly bind himself to Chavez’s legacy, Maduro clearly lacks his predecessor’s force of personality. Yet opposition politicians have been unable to capitalize on the former bus driver’s political frailties. Some seem stigmatized by their connections to the country’s traditional elite—whose corruption and abuse of power in earlier decades gave rise to Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. U.S.-educated Leopoldo Lopez, the now jailed opposition leader who rose to the fore during the protests, made a valiant effort to whip up popular support. But his uncompromising anti-government stance appears to have irked the other prominent opposition figure, Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in elections last year and was slowly, carefully broadening his base in the hope of electoral success down the road. The Chavista camp has too strong a hold on the organs of the state to be toppled by the protests, at least in their present form. And, as TIME contributor Girish Gupta reported last month, many of those massing at the barricades have little love for the opposition either.

If Maduro falls, it’ll likely be at the hands of a Chavista rival. Indeed, perhaps the real political story underlying Maduro’s woeful year in power is that of the machinations of the man who almost won his post—Diosdado Cabello, Chavez’s other favored lieutenant. Cabello now helms Venezuela’s main legislature and is seen as something of a master manipulator behind the scenes, a bullying schemer deeply invested in the survival of the Chavista state and its possession of vast oil reserves. But in recent weeks, there are signs that the tacit struggle between him and Maduro has become "more pronounced," writes Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a columnist for the Venezuelan daily El Universal. As Maduro's reputation plummeted, Cabello started to play a more public, outsized role—launching even his own weekly TV show in the style of Chavez. He is believed to command the backing of much of the army as well as wealthy pro-government businessmen. Even if he didn't replace Maduro, suggests Lansberg-Rodriguez in the Atlantic, he would be Venezuela's kingmaker: "If Maduro falls, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Cabello does not play an integral role in deciding who and what succeeds him." That's a prospect unlikely to excite the anguished crowds now braving tear gas and birdshot on Venezuela's streets.

Demonstrators prepare to throw molotov bombs against Bolivarian National Police officers during clashes in Caracas, March 6, 2014.
Demonstrators prepare to throw molotov bombs against Bolivarian National Police officers during clashes in Caracas, March 6, 2014.Fernando Llano—AP
Demonstrators prepare to throw molotov bombs against Bolivarian National Police officers during clashes in Caracas, March 6, 2014.
Cardboard cutouts in shapes of headstones and crosses and tied to a fence, bear anti-government protest slogans and names of those who have died in recent protests, in Caracas, March 5, 2014.
Protesters raise their hands in a sign of peace after the Bolivarian National Guard cut the march in two parts, not allowing part of the march to continue, Caracas, March 4, 2013.
Opposition demonstrators set a fire by a barricade as they protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on March 4, 2014.
Masked demonstrators throw stones at Bolivarian National Police during clashes in Caracas, March 3, 2014.
A protester hurls a molotov cocktail at National Guard troops in one of the largest anti-government demonstrations yet on March 2, 2014 in Caracas.
Demonstrators use a giant slingshot to launch stones at Bolivarian National Guards during clashes in Caracas, March 2, 2014.
A demonstrator shouts slogans against Bolivarian National Guards during clashes in Caracas, March 2, 2014.
Members of the National Guard shoot during a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on March 2, 2014.
Anti-government protesters run away from tear gas during clashes with the national guard at Altamira square in Caracas, Feb. 28, 2014.
Anti-government demonstrators take cover from a police water cannon in Caracas, Feb. 28, 2014.
Demonstrators roll a water pipe in an attempt to block a major highway during clashes with the Bolivarian National Guard in Caracas, Feb. 27, 2014.
A demonstrator throws an incendiary device during clashes with Venezuelan National Bolivarian Guard during a protest against president Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 27, 2014.
Riot police clash with opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro during an anti-government protest in Caracas on Feb. 27, 2014.
A motorcyclist rides through burning debris after an anti-government demonstration on Feb. 27, 2014 in Caracas.
A couple stand next to their car trapped between barricades set up by anti-government protesters, in Valencia, Venezuela, Feb. 27, 2014.
Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and opposition deputy Maria Corina Machado take part in a women's rally against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas Feb. 26, 2014.
Protesters build a barrier in the Las Pilas area of San Cristobal, Feb. 24, 2014. The capital of Tachira State, bordering Colombia, is the site of the some of the fiercest protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Protesters on a rooftop light Molotov cocktails to throw at police below in San Cristobal, Venezuela, in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 24, 2014.
Carmen Gonzalez cries over the body of her son Jimmy Vargas Gonzalez, who was killed in clashes with national police in San Cristobal, Venezuela.
Community members hold mass to pray for the end to violence against protesters in a barricaded area in San Cristobal, Feb. 23, 2014.
A man carries a woman affected by tear gas launched by riot police at anti-government protesters in Caracas, Feb. 22, 2014.
Supporters of the Venezuelan opposition rally on a street in Caracas, Feb. 22, 2014.
Riot police advance towards demonstrators during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Feb. 22, 2014.
Objects placed by opposition protesters block a road in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Feb. 20, 2014.
A demonstrator raises his arms toward the Bolivarian National Police firing tear gas and a water canon in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Feb. 19, 2014.
Lopez supporters clash with riot police in effort to block the path of the armored vehicle carrying Leopoldo Lopez after he surrendered to the police, in Caracas, Feb. 18, 2014.
Opposition leader Leopoldo López arrives to the march in a swarm of supporters, Feb. 18, 2014. Thousands of people took to the streets today to support López as he surrendered to police during a peaceful march in Caracas.
Riot police guard the armored vehicle with Leopoldo Lopez inside, in Caracas, Feb. 18, 2014.
A mother yells at the riot police during a student protest against the Venezuelan government, in Caracas, Feb. 17, 2014.
Demonstrators prepare to throw molotov bombs against Bolivarian National Police officers during clashes in Caracas, Marc
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Fernando Llano—AP
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