The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela is sliding into anarchy

An opposition activist throws a molotov cocktail in clashes with riot police during a march by doctors and other health-care personnel in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 22. (Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s crisis has taken a dark turn in the past few days.

Rioting and looting have exploded in the rural state of Barinas, leaving seven dead and dozens injured. In one of Caracas's main plazas on Saturday, a lynch mob doused a young man with gasoline and set him ablaze. And in several neighborhoods of the capital, masked protesters have been setting up smoldering street barricades known as “guarimbas,” demanding payment from passing cars.

After seven weeks of near-daily protests, the incidents point to spreading anarchy in Venezuela, as both the government and opposition leaders — who urge nonviolence — appear to be losing control.

Venezuelan security forces and the pro-government motorcycle gangs known as “colectivos” have met the unrest with escalating force, and in some cases, lethal gunfire, making matters worse. At least 55 people have been killed in the past seven weeks, including protesters, members of the security forces and bystanders caught in the fray. About 1,000 have been injured, according to the latest tally by authorities, and 346 businesses have been looted or burned.

“The danger is that a spiral of violence will overwhelm the capacity of either side to control it,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, adding the mayhem of the past several days appears to have “crossed another threshold.”

“The more people die, the more the anger grows and the more willing the government becomes to respond even more violently,” Gunson said.

This sort of downward spiral was always one of the possible outcomes of the protest movement challenging President Nicolás Maduro with calls for early elections and a return to democratic rule. But Maduro has remained obstinate, the demonstrations have intensified amid a severe economic crisis and a negotiated solution looks more remote than ever.

More violence may be in store after election authorities said Tuesday night that a vote would be held in late July to elect a "constituent assembly” with the power to rewrite Venezuela's constitution. Maduro's opponents are boycotting the assembly, viewing it as a final blow to Venezuelan democracy, and they urged protesters to return to the streets Wednesday.

In an interview, opposition leader Henrique Capriles said the government — not protesters — is to blame for the deadly turmoil. He accused Maduro of orchestrating the violence and outbursts of looting.

“The government wants to discredit the protests,” Capriles said Tuesday. “But the government has a credibility problem. People hear Maduro speak and don't believe anything he says.”

Venezuela’s paradox: People are hungry, but farmers can’t feed them

Venezuela’s opposition has organized huge marches with hundreds of thousands in the streets, the overwhelming majority of whom are peaceful. But smaller groups of protesters — typically young men in hoods and gas masks — have been hurling molotov cocktails at police, using slingshots to bombard them with jars of excrement or setting fire to government vehicles.

Or worse, setting fire to people, according to the government. In horrifying scenes captured by photographers last week, masked attackers in a crowd pummeled and stabbed 21-year-old Orlando Jose Figuera, knocking him to the ground and splashing him with gasoline.

He was suspected of being a pro-government spy, according to some versions. Others alleged he was a thief.

In the photographs, Figuera appears to struggle to get to his feet. Then two masked figures approach from behind and set him on fire. Figuera runs, half-naked, with flames leaping from his back.

He suffered first- and second-degree burns to 80 percent of his body, but he survived.

Maduro claimed Figuera and others have been targeted for merely expressing support for the late Hugo Chávez, the president who set Venezuela on the socialist-oriented course that the current government has pursued. He called the lynching attempt “a crime against humanity,” and last week said he and other members of the government “are the new Jews,” referring to Nazi-era persecution. His comments were widely condemned.

Capriles and other opposition leaders say such violence and chaos play into the government’s hands, by allowing Maduro to cast himself as the country's guarantor of law and order. Yet they appear to be struggling to rein in the more militant wing of the protest movement, and seem powerless to stop others who take advantage of the chaos to ransack stores.

In the state capital of Barinas, Chavez's home state and the so-called cradle of his “Bolivarian” revolution, the alleged killing of a protester sent crowds into a fury, attacking government buildings and looting stores.

At least seven people were killed and more than 50 others wounded in the violence Monday and Tuesday, according to Venezuelan authorities, including more than two dozen hit by gunfire.

As many as 200 businesses were gutted, said shopkeeper Samuel Guerrero, reached by phone in the state capital.

“Things are chaotic here,” he said. “There was not enough food in Barinas, and now with the looting it’s going to be even worse.”

The government said it was sending reinforcements to pacify the state. Guerrero said he didn’t know how he would feed his family.

Rafael Uzcátegui, the director of the Venezuelan rights group Provea, said the growing violence appears to be the result of both protesters’ frustration with the political impasse between the government and the opposition, as well as an emotional response to escalating force by police and national guard troops.

“This is a government strategy to transform a movement that has been peaceful, up until now, into one that is violent,” he said. “It’s a strategy to discredit the movement and facilitate its criminalization.”

Uzcátegui said what his group has observed is that the violence typically occurs in response to a crackdown by security forces on peaceful demonstrators. “It’s impossible to guarantee that 100 percent of those who protest will be peaceful,” he said. “But that’s why it’s important for us to condemn acts of violence.”

Gunson, of the International Crisis Group, said he did not think Venezuela’s opposition leaders could control the spreading turmoil or turn down the temperature. “Only a decision by the government to de-escalate would do it, and there is no sign of that,” he said. “Quite the contrary.”

“I think we will start to see curfews, mass arrests, a higher daily death rate and even worse violations of human rights,” said Gunson.

Authorities Tuesday also set Dec. 10 as the date for regional elections that were supposed to be held in 2016.

Rachelle Krygier in Caracas contributed to this report.