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Thousands of Venezuelans demonstrate in eastern Caracas on 27 February to denounce alleged dictatorial actions of the government.THIS much is known: at least 33 people are dead and 461 have been wounded. The rest – questions of who, why and what next for Venezuela – has largely been a matter of speculation.

Earlier this month, a group of United Nations independent experts asked the government of Nicolás Maduro to clarify allegations of arbitrary arrests, intimidation of journalists and the abuse of dissidents in what experts say is the country's worst political turmoil in over 10 years.

Beginning in early February as sporadic student demonstrations, protests are now a daily occurrence, drawing anywhere from 500 to 5,000 people who say they have taken to the streets against perennial food shortages, soaring inflation and a steep rise in crime, including 21,000 homicides in 2012 alone according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, representing one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Although initially peaceful, the protests recently turned deadly, with civilians firing bullets from behind their barricades and the National Guard dispatching units decked out in full riot gear to meet them.

For several weeks the media has portrayed the situation as a democratic struggle for human rights, including the rights to freedom of speech and political assembly.

In an 18 March statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Maduro's government to "uphold its international legal obligations to respect human rights, and, specifically, to end abuses against demonstrators."

Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at HRW, told IPS the situation is "grave", particularly the "abuses being committed by security forces, including excessive use of force against demonstrators."

But other rights groups in and around Caracas, as well as some commentators in the U.S. and beyond, say the violence in Venezuela is neither democratic nor spontaneous, but a carefully orchestrated effort by the middle- and upper-classes to destabilise the revolutionary process set in motion by former President Hugo Chávez, which has long been a thorn in the side of the wealthy.

Silence in the barrios

A 25 March statement signed by over 30 independent Venezuelan human rights activists says protests have largely been confined to affluent sectors in eight of the country's 335 municipalities.

These neighbourhoods, home to mostly upper- and middle-class Venezuelans who constitute an electoral minority, are now the sites of makeshift barricades where "cables, barbed wire, felled trees, rocks, and spilt grease oil... mix with disused furniture, tires and rubbish that are lit on fire," according to a recent study.

"The covers of public drains have been lifted, leaving holes in which at least two motorcyclists have died," added the study.

Contrary to news reports that most of the 33 deaths have occurred at the hands of security forces, the study found that 17 of the victims died at the street barricades, including a pregnant woman who was shot Monday when the bus she was riding in was halted by protesters and its passengers forced to disembark.

"The people you are seeing on the streets constitute the hard-line of the right-wing opposition who decided that they did not want to wait till the next election to get rid of the government," Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington DC-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, told IPS over the phone from Lima.

Regardless of their political affiliation, the protesters' demands seem perfectly reasonable on paper: a reduction of the inflation rate that has nearly doubled to 57.3 per cent since Maduro took the helm last April, and access to basic supplies and groceries.

Economic growth slowed from 5.6 per cent in 2012 to one per cent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund, partly accounting for the bare shelves around the country.

But Weisbrot says the protesters are more sheltered from such scarcities than their counterparts in the sprawling barrios of Caracas, home to 50 per cent of the city's 3.8 million inhabitants.

Indeed, economic analysts have suggested that the protesters are more aggrieved by the 4.1 per cent jump in monthly recreational costs, and the 3.9 per cent spike in hotel and restaurant prices, than by inflated healthcare expenses or the cost of flour.

Some sources say the above analysis is borne out by protesters' systematic targeting of public welfare institutions, utilised by the country's most destitute and marginalised groups, in a deliberate attempt to weaken the nerve centre of the Socialist state.

"There have been attacks on government supermarkets that sell food at subsidised prices, on clinics where Cuban doctors provide free medical care, and on educational facilities," James Petras, professor emeritus of sociology at the Binghamton University in New York, told IPS.

A few nights ago demonstrators torched an experimental university in the western city of San Cristobal, cradle of the protest movement, where several hundred low-income Venezuelan students were receiving subsidised education.

The government, meanwhile, is sandwiched between international pressure to release the roughly 1,800 jailed protesters and rein in its security forces, and a growing movement in and outside of Venezuela calling for swift action against what they say is a wave of fascism, in which a privileged minority is threatening to destabilise a government that has won 18 of the last 19 elections.