Is Venezuela The New Arab Spring? Why The Movement Resembles Egypt More Than Brazil

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Venezuela riots
A demonstrator with a Venezuelan flag draped around himself protests against the government of Venezuela's President Maduro, in front of a riot police line in Caracas, Venezuela.

MEXICO CITY -- Janeth Frías saw her son for the last time on February 12. Bassil Alejandro Da Costa Frías, the youngest of her three children, left that morning to attend a protest march through the streets of Caracas. Just like thousands of other Venezuelan students, Dacosta Frías wanted change -- individual freedom, a transparent government, a free and reliable press -- and was not afraid to take part in street demonstrations against president Nicolás Maduro and his administration.

“Before he left he told me, ‘I will either bring democracy, or disappear with it’,” she recalled a couple of days later. He was grimly prescient: he was hit by the stray bullet of a policeman, and died instantly in the street.

Dacosta Frías was the first martyr of a social upheaval the likes of which have never been seen in Venezuela. In fact, turmoil of the sort the country is currently experiencing, now in its second month and with at least 25 dead, is largely unknown in Latin America. Even huge movements like the student protests in Chile of 2011 and the Brazilian mass demonstrations of 2012 were fundamentally different from Venezuela in duration, attendance and scope.

For many analysts and international activists, the closest match to what Venezuela is going through occurred three years ago and a continent away: the Arab Spring.

Egypt, he world’s ninth-largest oil producer and the most populous Arab nation, may be very different in language, culture and geographic position than Venezuela, but the two countries have much in common: economies in deep crisis and repressive governments.

“The government pushed their people to the streets to demand change, freedom and democracy,” wrote Venezuelan columnist Miguel Aparicio.

In Egypt, the face of repression was President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for more than 30 years. In Venezuela, it is Chavismo, the socialist regime founded by late President Hugo Chávez and perpetuated by his right-hand man and successor, Maduro, when Chávez died in March 2013.

Unlike the functioning democracies of Brazil and Chile, both were authoritarian regimes, suppressing individual freedoms and the press while cracking down brutally on the opposition and blaming international enemies, particularly the U.S.

“The Venezuelan people have lost the fear of going out and demanding changes,” Venezuelan political analyst Orlando Gonçalves said. “And Maduro has exhausted who to point the finger at.”

So far, Maduro has blamed opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom he beat in the April 2013 elections and has been accusing since of trying to destabilize the country. Then he blamed the U.S. for meddling in Venezuelan affairs, although that is far from being proven. Once the protests began, he pointed to Leopoldo López, leader of the Voluntad Popular (People’s Will) party and one of the initial organizers of the movement, who was arrested in February and is still awaiting trial.

He has even blamed the Venezuelan students, the main participants in the movement, calling them “fascists” and “materialistic,” even accusing them of organizing a coup, completely ignoring the fact that these are people who grew up immersed in Chavismo.

“We represent the change Venezuela needs,” replied Daniel Martínez, a 23-year-old student of architecture and president of the student association at the Universidad Simón Bolívar. “We do not seek a coup, we are not aligned with the opposition. We just are against most of what this government stands for.”

Gabriela Arellano, a member of the student council at the Universidad de Los Andes, told BBC this tactic is the usual response of the government to any demand from society.

“Every time the people go out to demand a right, the government uses the beaten-down excuse that we are trying to organize a coup or we are fascists against freedom,” she said. “It is a classic strategy to destabilize and scare the Venezuelan people. Fear is stronger than hunger.”

“I am not a fascist. I am not part of the bourgeoisie,” she added. “I just want to make my life in my country and I want to stop seeing my classmates die in front of my eyes due to the insecurity in Venezuela.” 

Arellano was referring to the increase in crime in Venezuela, one of the country’s core problems, but not one that featured prominently in either Chávez’s or Maduro’s agendas. With 45 violent crime victims per 100,000 residents, Venezuela ranks fifth in the United Nation’s world list of most dangerous countries.

Violence was one of the central themes of the protests, together with economic precariousness: Venezuela has suffered from commodity shortages for over a year, inflation reached 56 percent annually in 2013, and the local currency, the bolivar, has dropped 88 percent against the U.S. dollar since January. 

The young age of the Venezuelan protesters, just like in the Arab Spring, was epitomized in the way the protesters organized themselves: social media. In countries like Egypt and Libya, were the local press was forbidden to cover the protests, demonstrators took to the Internet to spread the word.

“We used every possible way,” veteran Egyptian activist Ahmed Salah told Newsweek back in 2011. “We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to follow them and YouTube to show the world.”

Similarly, Venezuela took to Twitter to show the images the local TV channels were not showing. The protesters also took advantage of a new app, Zello, which works like a walkie-talkie and allowed activists in different cities to stay in touch and organize.

Both governments tried to prevent communications by shutting down the Internet, as in Egypt, or in Venezuela, blocking access to Zello.

Beyond Venezuela, is it possible to talk about a Latin American Spring? In the last two years, several countries have seen mass demonstrations, most notably Brazil and Chile. Chilean students have been organized since 2011, demanding quality public education. Brazil saw its own movement a year later, when citizens took to the streets to demand more public spending on education and health care, and less spending on transitional events like the 2014 soccer world cup.

But protesters in Chile and Brazil were engaged in a specific demand for public services; they weren’t trying to topple a regime. In Venezuela, on the other hand, the protests are about a fundamental change, the end of the current system that Chávez christened “the Bolivarian revolution” and the start of a new era -- just like in Egypt and Libya.

“The crisis in Venezuela is institutional,” wrote in his blog local political analyst Rodrigo Linares. “The rock-bottom basic institutions a modern country needs, like courts and the press, have just plain stopped operating in anything like a recognizable form.”

The Venezuelan protesters’ demands are echoing outside of the country, too, and sometimes among the left wing that should be, in theory, aligned with the socialist government in Caracas. Brazilian congressman Jean Wyllys, from the Socialism and Freedom party, wrote on the website Carta Capital: “The Bolivarian revolution has serious problems, and sometimes I gasp when I see how politicians, who consider themselves progressive and left wing, can yell ‘Long live Maduro!’ without even questioning what they are saying.”

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