MÉRIDA, Venezuela — “Lights out! Whoever doesn’t turn out their lights will have their apartment stoned!” The cry rang out at 9pm, and residents of a set of apartment blocks near the center of Mérida, a provincial capital in the Venezuelan Andes, shuttered down for the night.
The scene was described to this reporter by Alba Ruiz, a retired kindergarten teacher in her mid-50s who spoke of her daily ritual during the self-imposed occupation her residence was subjected to.
What she described as living in a “state of war” began in early February when militant opponents of Venezuela’s socialist government constructed barricades around the apartment complex called El Campito and on the main avenue nearby. The barricades continue for several kilometers down Las Americas Avenue, completely cutting off several medical centers and the city’s main bus terminal.
Built with torn-up bus stops, street lamps, corrugated iron sheets and barbed wire, the barricades are part of a strategy to try to shut down cities and force the resignation of President Nicolás Maduro just one year after he succeeded Hugo Chávez. At night, the barricades are often alight with burning rubbish and tires, whose toxic fumes drift into nearby buildings. Red-clad dolls, which appear to represent Chavistas, as government supporters are known, hang from several barricades, swaying in the wind as a warning.
Stranded Behind the Barricades
Life behind the barricades was especially difficult for Ruiz, a government supporter who lives alone with her teenage daughter. Apart from the uncomfortable presence of around 10 masked activists bunking in the lobby of her building, where they maintained a supply of Molotov cocktails and other materials, the two women had to endure constant verbal threats.
Things got worse when Ruiz’s next door neighbor wrote a series of tweets criticizing the masked men’s activities. The tweets were discovered by someone in the group of militants and local residents who supported them, and they published the messages on a poster next to the building’s elevator, along with the neighbor’s name and photo.
“Then they stood out in front of our apartments and said that they were going to kill us, that they were going to kill our children and that they were going to rape our daughters,” said Ruiz.
The incident was the last straw for the retired teacher, who, along with up to half of the families in her building, fled El Campito. She currently stays with her elderly mother in a part of the city unaffected by the barricades and hasn’t yet returned home.
The political unrest started in early February after leaders of the hard-line opposition, Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado, called on supporters to “light up the streets of Venezuela with struggle” in a campaign called La Salida (“The Exit”).
Many moderate opposition supporters also joined peaceful protests to demand that the government solve the problems of high crime, irritating shortages in some basic foodstuffs and a 56 percent inflation rate in the oil-rich nation of 30 million people.
Nightly riots in the wealthy east of Caracas, the nation’s capital, and street barricades in some of Venezuela’s cities intensified, causing damage to lives, property and services. In the upper- and middle-class zones affected by barricades public transportation was shut down, schools closed, medical centers blocked off and food and fuel deliveries impeded, making life difficult for local residents whatever their political affiliation.
Meanwhile images of Molotov cocktail-wielding masked militants clashing with National Guard officers were splashed across the screens of foreign TV viewers.
With few exceptions the urban poor and rural campesinos that form the government’s political base did not join the protests. These sectors have benefited from social programs, new mechanisms of political participation and an improved standard of living under the administration of Hugo Chávez. They appear to want to give his successor time to solve existing problems, and as the country’s majority continue to support the government.
After more than a month of unrest, 33 people had been killed, 461 wounded and 1854 arrested, the majority of whom were later freed or released on bail conditions. Those killed include opposition activists, government supporters, other civilians and several national guardsmen.
By late March, attendance at protests appeared to be ebbing, while the zones affected by the street barricades had shrunk. Leopoldo López remained jailed and under investigation for instigating violent acts.
The Opposition’s Motives
Why did the hard-line opposition call for street actions in the first place? Some have argued that the strategy represents an attempt to overthrow President Maduro or wear the government down to prevent it from being able to solve existing economic problems and thus maintain popular support.
Others suspect the strategy has more to do with the opposition’s internal politics, and is an attempt by the radicals to seize the leadership of the opposition, torpedoing the dialogue that was occurring between the government and the moderate wing after the government coalition won December’s local elections by a 10 percent margin.
Meanwhile, those who argue that the protests are simply a national outpouring of discontent have to explain why the unrest has not spread beyond the opposition’s traditional upper- and middle-class base, and that those arguably most affected by crime and shortages have stayed with Maduro.
When I spoke to masked activists on a barricade not far from El Campito as the protests were gaining momentum, they were clear that the aim of their struggle was to force the government out of office. “We’re sunk in misery and corruption, so we want Maduro’s resignation now, that’s why we’re here,” said one.
Another told me that they were fighting a “war of attrition” to wear down the government. “Either we get tired first, or they get tired first,” said the man, who was in his twenties. Dressed in ordinary T-shirts and jeans, the barricade activists maintain contact with one another through smartphones and appear ready to upload any incriminating information to social networks.
The men looked at me suspiciously, rocks in hand. Behind them, their barricade was maintained with burning tires and wire strung across the road to prevent motorists from passing. On a street nearby, a colleague of mine had been threatened at gunpoint a few days earlier after photographing the activities of another group of militant opposition activists.
The men at the barricade said they were students and that their enemies were the National Guard and allegedly armed pro-government groups, who they said attacked them and tried to remove their roadblocks.
Residents from El Campito told me that no pro-government vigilante groups had appeared to attack the barricades near the residence. However, other city residents say that clashes have occurred between opposition militants and pro-government groups in other parts of the city.
The four deaths that have so far occurred in Mérida during the conflict have been on or around the barricades. The first two were a middle-aged woman who hit a wire trap with her motorbike and a pro-government female student who was shot while trying to clear a barricade from a road near her home.
On March 22 a state telecommunications worker died during clashes between police and barricade militants, in which both officers and civilians were also wounded. It is not clear exactly what happened. Footage has emerged showing opposition militants firing a rifle and other arms from behind the barricades, while the local opposition mayor said that pro-government armed civilians were also at the scene.
Two days later, a national guardsman was shot and another officer wounded while security forces attempted to dismantle a barricade on Las Americas Avenue.
Perhaps due to the actions of security forces, or declining public support, the number of barricades in Mérida gradually decreased during March. As a result, the militants on the remaining barricades appear to have become more desperate. Buses and taxis have been taken hostage to force the suspension of public transport services, and a food delivery truck and at least one bus were torched recently near a city supermarket.
During a recent peaceful opposition march in Mérida, Malina Pino, a local city councilor for the opposition, told me that the barricades were acts of “self-defense” against attacks from authorities and pro-government vigilante groups and that any violence by barricade militants was caused by “infiltrators.”
“Hopefully the world can understand that we’re fighting for democracy, that we’re peaceful, that we want respect for human rights and that a government that presents itself as left-wing is violating human rights,” she said.
Authorities have rejected the opposition’s accusations that efforts to control the unrest have represented the “repression of peaceful protests.” They say that of 20,000 National Guard officers deployed to maintain order since the unrest began, the ombudsman has received 60 denunciations of abuses by state security forces, which are being investigated. At least 15 members of the security forces have been arrested for alleged abuses and excessive use of force so far.
Meanwhile government supporters argue that radical opposition activists are responsible for most of the violence. “I’m marching against the violence that extremist sectors of the opposition have unleashed over the past two weeks,” artist America Rodriguez told me during a pro-government march of some 2,000 people in central Mérida.
She continued, “There’s a very strong media campaign, nationally and internationally, to make people abroad think that it’s the government that’s doing all this when in reality it’s a sector of the opposition. I’m not saying that it’s all of them, but a very radical sector of the opposition is causing great damage. Many people have been killed already due to this violence.”
The future course of events is hard to predict. A key question is whether the opposition will eventually agree to sit down in a dialogue with the government in order to resolve the conflict.
The government’s strategy so far seems to be to “hold and divide” by highlighting what it calls the radical opposition’s “fascist” violence and hoping that this sector gets tired of their struggle. They may be betting on the right side of public opinion, as a recent opinion poll found that only 13 percent of the population supports the barricades as a form of protest.
Another reason for the strategy could be the state’s limited capacity to confront this type of civil insurrection. There are rumors that the local National Guard unit in Mérida lacks the anti-riot gear and necessary jail space to deal with the situation, and that needed reinforcements from the central government have not come.
However, the government’s “soft” stance appears to be changing. Two opposition mayors accused of supporting street barricades have been arrested, and one of them has been accused of “rebellion.” The minister of interior affairs announced on March 24 that only four cities in Venezuela still had a hardcore “foco” of barricades, and that “special military and public order operations” would be required to remove them.
Meanwhile President Maduro has repeatedly invited opposition politicians and students to attend peace talks, which have already been held with business, religious and a few moderate opposition figures. The president has said that these talks can be in private, “without conditions, without an agenda,” in an attempt to coax the opposition to the table.
The bulk of the opposition leadership remains reluctant, maybe fearing that such a move would be unpopular with their now-radicalized support base, or perhaps hoping that the momentum of protests can be maintained, forcing the government to make political concessions. The conditions the opposition is currently setting to enter talks include freedom for Leopoldo López, an end to shortages and an opportunity to speak to the country on a national presidential broadcast.
“As long as there is a crisis in Venezuela, there will be street protests. Venezuelans will keep going onto the street to demand a better country,” declared Henrique Capriles, the main opposition leader, on March 19. The hard-line opposition meanwhile completely rejects dialogue or cooperation with the government, which they refer to as “the regime.”
It also remains to be seen what effect international pressure will have on the situation. On March 7 divisions in the region were revealed when 29 states from Latin America and the Caribbean supported an Organization of American States resolution supporting the government’s dialogue efforts. The only countries to oppose the statement were the United States, Canada and Panama, which back the Venezuelan opposition in the dispute.
Meanwhile in Mérida, Alba Ruiz hopes that the conflict will be resolved so that she can go back to her life in El Campito and the apartment that she worked hard to own. She and several other residents want the National Guard to come and take down the barricades by force. “We have to go back, because it’s all that we have. Even our cat is nervous.”