Both sides in Venezuela’s conflict often warn of “civil war,” but they’ve used it mostly as a rhetorical tactic. President Nicolás Maduro justifies his crackdown on protesters with claims that he’s trying to save Venezuela from “terrorists” who want to instigate an armed confrontation. His opponents say the government’s intransigence is deepening the country’s desperation, pushing Venezuela toward cataclysmic violence.
The street clashes in Caracas have a militarized feel to them. On the front lines, battle-hardened protesters who call themselves “the Resistance” use wooden shields, gas masks and slingshots to face off against armored National Guard troops firing tear gas and water cannons.
With their ragtag combat gear, Venezuela’s protesters resemble the Ukrainian demonstrators who took over the “Maidan” square in Kiev during the country’s 2013-'14 revolution. Those clashes began peacefully but escalated when police started to attack the occupied site, with snipers killing protesters. The protests eventually forced the country’s pro-Russian president from office. But the new Ukraine government has been fighting Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country ever since.
Syria’s descent into violence was far steeper and indescribably more catastrophic. Arab Spring protests against President Bashar al-Assad's government were brutally repressed by security forces, and the confrontation quickly built into an inferno, fueled by weapons and money from regional powers competing for influence.
Many of the factors that led to civil war in these countries are absent in Venezuela’s conflict, and few experts seem to think that some sort of military-level confrontation is likely. But an institutional collapse that plunges the country into homicidal chaos and anarchy is not hard to imagine.
Venezuela’s opposition leaders insist on nonviolence as the only acceptable path of protest, and the overwhelming majority of demonstrators have been peaceful. The latest academic research shows that nonviolent protest movements are twice as likely to achieve their objectives as those that use force.
Yet Venezuela’s opposition leaders appear unable to rein in more militant demonstrators eager to confront security forces with molotov cocktails and homemade weapons.
After 17-year-old Neomar Lander was killed last week during a protest, the government claimed that he had mishandled an improvised explosive device he was planning to use against troops. Maduro opponents say National Guard troops shot him in the chest with a tear-gas canister.
The vast majority of the dead in Venezuela have been civilians, including some shot while protesting. But members of the country’s security forces have also been killed, including a National Guardsman found face down on the street in Caracas’s Altamira neighborhood last week.
Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, which seeks to defuse violent conflicts around the world, said the possibility of much more intense and widespread fighting “is clearly present in Venezuela.”
“But there are a number of key accelerators of conflict present in countries like Ukraine and Syria that are almost wholly absent here,” he said.
Venezuela is a country with a recent history of relatively stable, democratic governance, he noted. Its neighboring countries aren’t trying to intervene in the conflict or threatening to do so. It doesn’t need a “road map” to peace, since the country’s 1999 constitution is widely accepted, although Maduro’s plans to rewrite it are clearly making tensions much worse.
On July 30 Venezuelans will elect delegates for the constitutional assembly, and Maduro’s opponents are boycotting the event. “The election planned for July 30 could be a trigger point leading to a sharp escalation of violence,” Gunson warned.
There are other causes for worry, he said.
Maduro and the top officials who surround him appear determined to remain in power at any cost, despite increasing regional isolation and growing signs of division within the government and the military.
A more dramatic rupture within Venezuela’s armed forces could be a worst-case scenario if it sparks internecine fighting. There are precedents in Venezuela for mutinies of this sort: Hugo Chávez led a failed coup attempt in 1992 that launched his rise to power. And when he was president, Chávez was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup, then restored with the backing of military officers.
The problem is that Venezuela’s guns aren’t only in the barracks. The country is awash in illegal weapons. Maduro has also armed tens of thousands of government supporters to defend his government, and drew widespread international criticism when he announced plans to build a force of 500,000 “militia members.”
And although the government of Colombia has remained largely neutral in Venezuela’s conflict, the two countries share a porous land border roamed by guerrilla groups, mercenaries and criminal gangs who could also play a destabilizing role.
“This does not have to end in civil war,” Gunson said. “But there are a number of red lights on the dashboard now, and the international community needs to act much more rapidly and decisively to head it off.”