The Current

Can Venezuela protests break authoritarian rule of President Maduro?

As Venezuela president Nicolaus Maduro tightens his grip on power, many are saying the country is becoming increasingly unlivable — and it's not just democracy at stake, it's survival.
A demonstrator throws a tear gas canister back to policemen during an opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela, April 6, 2017. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

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Thousands of anti-government protesters have been filling the streets in Venezuela, facing off against police and pro-government gangs. Demonstrators accuse President Nicolas Maduro of eroding democracy and moving the country toward dictatorship — something Maduro's party vehemently denies.

On April 7, the Venezuelan government banned the popular opposition leader Henrique Capriles from politics for 15 years, effectively removing him from running in next year's presidential elections.

"It's just to demoralize us, take hope from the people, to keep me from being a candidate, or from being President," Capriles responded after the government's decision.

"This isn't about being a candidate. It's about Venezuela and we are about to fight to change our country."

It's a fight many Venezuelans have taken to heart.  
Emiliana Duarte says at least 117 political prisoners currently being held by government forces. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Managing editor of the website Caracas ChroniclesEmiliana Duarte tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe how the most recent anti-government protest was thwarted.

"Yesterday's protests can't even be called a protest because it was repressed even before it began," Duarte says.

"National guardsmen were throwing tear gas canisters from all which ways. I was there. I got chased by hundreds of police in their riot gear."

More than 200 people were injured. Duarte adds there are believed to be at least 117 political prisoners currently being held by government forces.

Economic troubles fuel unrest

Meanwhile, Venezuela's economy remains in shambles, with widespread shortages of food and medicine and one the highest inflation rates in the world.  

"Every morning when I come out of my building, there are people fighting over the trash," Duarte tells Crowe.

"People have been reduced to having to beg on the streets or scavenge for trash, or wait hours in lines in order to find rationed goods."

A recent national poll found that 86 per cent of Venezuelans reported involuntary weight loss last year averaging 16 pounds. 

With inflation expecting to hit 1000 per cent by the end of the year, Duarte says democracy and survival are at stake. It would takes 16 full-time salaries to feed and support an average family of four.
President Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, was no stranger to populism, coming into power in 1998 during widespread discontent with the government. (Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)

Critics warn that Venezuela's struggle highlights the dangers populism can represent to democracy.

President Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, had a deft hand with populism. Chavez swept to power in 1998 riding a wave of widespread frustration with the political establishment.

His supporters believed in the vision he'd laid out: to redistribute oil wealth, bump up social spending and tackle corruption. That movement was named "Chavismo" after him.

National guardsmen shoot at protesters in Caracas, April 11, 2002 - 12 years ago today. A Venezuelan general said that President Hugo Chavez's government had "abandoned its functions" and the South American country was under the control of the armed forces. (Jorge Santos-El Universal/Reuters)

But concerns about the erosion of democratic institutions during his presidency soon began to mount. And political observers say President Maduro is continuing along the same path.

Amherst College professor Javier Corrales points to the recent efforts by Venezuela's Supreme Court to usurp the authority of the opposition-led National Assembly.

The court eventually stepped back from that effort under public pressure but Corrales says it was still disturbing. 

"It was a remarkable moment in which Venezuela demonstrated how far it had moved away from the concept of separation of powers," he tells Crowe. 
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro with supporters in Barcelona, Venezuela, April 7, 2017. (REUTERS)

He calls the attempt a "self-coup" — an attack on Venezuela's democratic institutions from within Venezuela's government.

Duarte notes that the Supreme Court uniformly sides with the interests of President Maduro.

After widespread condemnation inside and outside Venezuela, President Maduro said the court's decision was incorrect, which prompted the court to immediately reverse itself.

"So an undemocratic move in Venezuela was solved by an undemocratic move," Duarte says.

"That's where we are now — real proof that there is no democracy in the country."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien, Sujata Berry and Sam Colbert.