CARACAS, Venezuela — It is Carnaval time in Venezuela, when revelers typically fill the streets in rum-powered dance parties leading up to Tuesday’s Mardi Gras blowout.
And after two weeks of deadly street demonstrations against his government, embattled President Nicolás Maduro would like nothing more than for the country to go numb on booze and rumba. A social media campaign pushed
by his supporters, #ConMaduroCarnavalSeguro (“a safe Carnaval with Maduro”), is promoting the government as the official guarantor of the good times.
So, then: To party or to protest?
For the student-led uprising that has convulsed Venezuelan cities but is showing signs of fatigue, that is the question.
The next few days appear to be a critical interval for the protest movement and the government’s effort to contain it. Maduro has declared a national holiday between now and next Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, offering Maduro his best chance to convince the Chávez support base that he is capable of keeping his mentor’s legacy from coming undone.
But the vacation time potentially leaves even more people free to take to the streets, setting up the possibility of bigger clashes. The sharply divided, oil-rich country has not looked very festive lately as it sorts out its hangover from 14 years of Chávez rule: a country with not enough milk or sugar in the supermarkets and far too many carjackings and murders in the streets.
Caracas student leader Juan Requesens said the protesters are in no mood for dancing. The heavy-handed government response has only encouraged them to dig in further. “We are going to stay in the streets,” he said in an interview. “As long as the government keeps up its repression, we’re not going to sit down.”
On Wednesday, students joined a peaceful women’s march led by Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was taken into custody by Venezuelan authorities Feb. 18.
López is being held at a military prison and faces charges of arson and conspiracy, as the Maduro government tries to hold him responsible for demonstrations Feb. 12 that ended in violence. Daily clashes of varying intensity have followed, with at least 14 people killed and about 150 injured since the protests began.
Maduro has taken to the airwaves almost nightly, lurching between calls for peace and incendiary denunciations of the protesters as “fascists” and “coup plotters.” He claims that the demonstrations are part of a subversive campaign hatched in the United States, a charge U.S. officials deny.
Maduro invited business leaders, religious figures and opposition members to join him at the presidential palace Wednesday for a “national conference on peace and life,” with the goal of “building social and political peace.” Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost last April’s presidential election to Maduro, did not attend, after skipping a similar event on Monday, saying the president was trying to create a false image of “dialogue” and “dance around the conflict.”
The demonstrations have cooled off in recent days, and tactical disagreements have emerged among protesters, particularly over the construction of street barricades that some residents have started to see as a nuisance.
Luis Vicente León, president of the respected Caracas polling firm Datanálisis, said it is also important for outside observers to keep in mind that “not all of the country is protesting.” But while the president retains the support of part of the population, particularly among Venezuela’s poor, León said that “even those who support Maduro are unhappy about the troubled economy.”
Some of the most intense clashes between demonstrators and national guardsmen have occurred in the state of Tachira, an opposition stronghold along the border with Colombia. It was the site of the first protests at the beginning of this month, which erupted after an attempted sexual assault on a campus and a botched police response. Anger at the government spread from there.
In San Cristobal, Tachira’s capital, the streets remain choked with makeshift barriers built from tree stumps, tires and other debris.
Venezuelan authorities have sent fighter jets roaring over the protesters’ heads in the city, prompting the state governor — a longtime Chávez loyalist — to criticize Maduro in a rare public reproach from within the ranks of their United Socialist Party.
The state is Venezuela’s biggest tinderbox. With the annual inflation rate topping 50 percent and the black-market exchange rate for Venezuelan currency tanking, shoppers from Colombia have been crossing the border to trade in their pesos and clean out local supermarkets of the few remaining goods.
“We want to go to supermarkets and find the products we need,” said Wilmer Zabaleta, a student leader in Tachira. “All the contraband has made San Cristobal into one of the most expensive cities in Latin America.”
Zabaleta said students will stay in the streets until the government starts to address their problems. “Instead of trying to divide us, the government needs to listen to the people and stop demonizing us,” he said.
David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a longtime Venezuela observer, said he expects Carnaval to bring a lull in the tensions over the next few days. “It’s the biggest party vacation of the year and precisely attracts young people,” he said.
“Nevertheless, the cause of these protests is still present and could conceivably get worse in the coming months, so we could be doing this again.”