How did Venezuela’s protests get so big? These two charts offer a clue


A demonstrator holds a placard as she stands in front of national guards during a protest near the Cuba's Embassy in Caracas February 25, 2014. Anti-government demonstrators put up barricades and set fire to trash in Caracas on Monday despite calls from within the opposition to rein in protests that have led to 13 deaths in Venezuela's worst unrest for a decade. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

After weeks of protests against Nicholas Maduro's United Socialist Party government, some 13 people are thought to have died in Venezuela. The protests appear to be the largest since the death of Maduro's mentor, the mercurial Hugo Chavez, almost one year ago.

As tragic and violent as these protests have become, do they actually have the momentum needed to oust Maduro? When the Washington Post spoke to analysts about the possibility earlier this month, they expressed some doubt: Maduro still appeared to have the broad support of the country's military and its poor, two key sectors in Venezuela's polarized political landscape.

The latter group may be especially especially important. These are the people who gained most from Chavez's “Bolivarian” Revolution, a movement that used oil profits to vastly improve public services and reduce poverty. Even critics of Chavez's government might be forced to admit it went some way to achieving its aims – the World Bank says poverty was reduced from 50 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2012 – and it's created a practical and emotional bond to the government.

The big worry for the government, however, is that the successes of the Bolivarian Revolution could be evaporating. This chart from Gallup shows the negative and positive views of the economy since 2006:

(Gallup)
(Gallup)

According to this chart, a big shift in public opinion took place in 2013, when just 12 percent of those polled said they believed the economy is getting better.

The Venezuelan public's perception of their economy isn't wrong: Despite historically high oil prices for their enormous reserves, huge problems are being caused by Venezuela's troublesome local currency and its lack of U.S. dollars. Such an economy can't go unnoticed by the locals, especially when official inflation levels are reported to have hit 56 percent (and are estimated by the CATO Institute to have reached over 300 percent).

The Post's Nick Miroff was in Caracas last month and was able to paint a picture of what this means for the average Venezuelan: Desperate mobs at supermarkets, battling to buy the few remaining toilet rolls. “This is so depressing,” one lawyer named Maria Plaza told Miroff after an hour and a half of waiting in a check out line. “Pathetic.”

As Miroff notes, even Venezuela's famously cheap government gas is facing a price hike. Stuff like this has a serious effect on Venezuela's citizens, whether they are rich or poor, and, according to another chart from Gallup, they are feeling its effects:

(Gallup)
(Gallup)

The economy isn't the only thing taking the protests to the streets: Critics of Maduro's government also point to the country's crime wave, alleged human rights violations, media censorship, and the influence of Cuba (Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro suggests that protesters are protesting for the right to protest). The economy could be especially important, however, as it touches the lives of so many people.

The protests began earlier this month as a student-led movement, but are already reported to have broadened significantly in support. If Maduro's base has had enough too, they might be impossible to contain.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor | February 25