The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is Venezuela on the verge of civil war?

Opposition supporters attend a July 13 vigil in homage to victims of violence at past protests against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)
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The street protests that have convulsed Venezuela for the past three-and-a-half months often turn violent: One hundred and two people have already died. Yet the most surprising aspect of the movement is not how rampant violence has been, but how restrained.

The protesters have plenty of things to be angry about. The government is acting more and more dictatorial. Food and medicine are desperately short. The economy continues to collapse. And yet those participating in street demonstrations rarely use deadly force.

The security forces, likewise, have mostly used nonlethal force to repress them. As a result, violence is common but deaths comparatively rare. Venezuela is still a long way from Libya or Syria, where the regimes turned machine guns on protesters from the start.

But how long will this restraint last?

Since early April, as the protests have settled into a kind of rhythm, the sides have respected a set of unwritten rules about how much violence is admissible. Early in the afternoon protesters come out around the country to rally or march against the regime, and right away the security forces muster in response. Tear gas follows, often a lot of it. The protesters scatter, regroup and bombard the police with rocks or Molotov cocktails. The cops sometimes fire rubber pellets back at the crowds or sometimes large glass marbles loaded onto shotgun cartridges. As soon as they retreat, the protesters regroup to march or block the roads once more. The cops return, and the entire chaotic scene plays out all over again.

And yes, people do die. Shoot rubber pellets at someone at close enough range, or aim a tear gas canister directly at their chest, and you will kill them. One hundred and two people have died in the latest outbreak of protests so far, about one each day. That’s 102 too many, of course … and yet it’s also far, far fewer than might have been.

The security forces have figured out that live ammunition cannot be used at protests. The few protesters who have been killed by police bullets appear to have been genuinely isolated incidents: officers who felt threatened amid chaotic protests, panicked, and pulled a sidearm. Significantly, the regime has actually pressed charges against them.

And the protesters themselves, for the most part, have also shied away from deadly violence. For the most part they throw stones, hurl back tear gas canisters launched their way or use debris to block roads. The good, old-fashioned Molotov cocktail has become a protest favorite, but while they make for some impressive press photos, they’re not especially lethal. In a country where guns are readily available, this restraint is noteworthy.

But the balance is precarious. With every day of protests there’s a new chance that something or someone will upset it, tipping the conflict into a new and far more deadly form. A major civil conflict in Venezuela is far from inevitable. But it becomes more likely with each day that the underlying conflict isn’t resolved.

At the end of June, a rogue cop commandeered a police helicopter and opened fire on the building of the Supreme Court. Days later, pro-government activists physically assaulted the opposition-controlled National Assembly, attacking opposition legislators and members of the press with fireworks and clubs and leaving at least five lawmakers injured, one seriously.

Again, though, they went in with fireworks. Still, each escalation makes the next one more likely.

Reports from opposition strongholds show protesters are becoming better organized, at times along near-paramilitary lines. They’re deploying more sophisticated tactics and learning how to make more efficient use of fireworks as weapons. A video from the eastern city of Lechería shows that at least some opposition groups have figured out how to rig Roman candle arrays to work like makeshift multiple-rocket launchers. This month, for the first time, protesters used an improvised explosive device against the security forces, wounding seven soldiers.

The daily rhythm of protests risks lulling us into a dangerous sense of predictability, as though we’ve already seen the worst the conflict has to offer. But every day brings opportunities for weapons to be used in new ways, inviting responses that are easy to miscalculate.

The international community has regarded the situation in Venezuela with dangerous passivity, discounting the potential for all-out civil conflict.

Thankfully, the country has not yet reached that point: we’re still talking about protests, not war. But the warning lights are flashing bright red all around. A negotiated solution to the crisis is still possible — its outline is just about discernible. But without it, Venezuela could slide into the first outright civil war in the hemisphere this century.

There is still time to prevent that outcome. But it is growing short.