Venezuela’s opposition is putting up its most determined challenge to President Nicolás Maduro in years, with near-daily protests that are backed by widening international condemnation of the government’s authoritarian rule.

Calling for early elections, the release of political prisoners and a return to democratic norms, thousands of Maduro’s opponents have repeatedly attempted to march toward downtown government buildings in Caracas in the past two weeks, only to be repelled by police truncheons and clouds of tear gas.

The protests in Caracas are the most intense since 2014, when more than 40 people were killed in clashes that erupted during a failed push to drive out Maduro. “This time, the opposition is not trying to seize power,” political analyst Carlos Romero said. “They have a specific agenda, and if they achieve their goals, the protests will be considered a success.”

Chronic shortages of food and medicine have made life miserable in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves, and Venezuela’s homicide rate and its inflation rate are among the highest in the world. Such ignominious distinctions reflect a broader unraveling of a nation that was once one of South America’s wealthiest — and is now one of its most desperate.

The protesters challenging Maduro face steep odds and potentially severe consequences. With international attempts to mediate Venezuela’s political crisis essentially dead, the president appears willing to risk reproach to squelch the latest challenge and buy time ahead of a presidential election due to take place next year. Maduro is determined to hold on to power, analysts say, but has begun maneuvering to tip the election in his favor, rather than cancel it outright. 

(Reuters)

That has convinced many of those in Caracas and other cities who oppose the government that their only recourse is to take to the streets. Most have marched peacefully, but small groups of militants firebombed police vehicles Monday evening and attacked offices of Venezuela’s supreme court over the weekend.

The court, which Maduro has loaded with government loyalists, became a particular target of opposition anger when the judges attempted to strip Venezuela’s ­opposition-controlled legislature of its powers last month, claiming that lawmakers were in contempt of their rulings. Governments across the Americas denounced the measure as a grave violation of democratic rule, and the court mostly reversed itself the next day.

But the fires of protest were lit, and Maduro threw gasoline on them last week when his government barred opposition leader and state governor Henrique Capriles from running for office for 15 years, alleging “administrative irregularities.” Capriles, a ­two-time presidential candidate whom Maduro narrowly defeated in 2014, told regulators to “shove your disqualification where the sun doesn’t shine.”

The opposition’s other main leader, Leopoldo López, is locked in a military prison, serving a ­14-year term for his role in leading the 2014 protests. Maduro has served as president since 2013, succeeding the late Hugo Chávez, who set Venezuela on a course of “revolutionary socialism.”

On Tuesday night, a live television broadcast of Maduro leading a military parade cut away when a few members of the crowd appeared to pelt him with eggs and other objects.

The unrest continued in several cities overnight, with protesters battling police and blocking streets with flaming debris. Two protesters, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in the state of Lara, bringing the month’s death toll in anti-government demonstrations to at least five.

With anger at Maduro surging and his opponents calling for nationwide demonstrations on Thursday and the following Wednesday, there could be a new wave of arrests. Pro-government thugs have bloodied opposition lawmakers in the streets this month, and Venezuelan security forces were denounced Monday for firing tear gas into clinics where protesters sought medical attention.

The harsh tactics have discouraged some frustrated Venezuelans from joining the marches, which have attracted thousands of protesters but have not been massive by the standards of Venezuelan politics. Many people say they are too busy trying to get enough to eat. “I have three kids,” said Xiomara Toro, who rode the subway among demonstrators on their way to a recent march but was not persuaded to join them. “I have to find food,” she said.

As the country reels, a rightward shift across South America has left Maduro’s government with far fewer friends to lean on. In recent weeks, Peru, Brazil and Argentina have led an effort to censure Venezuela, which stands at risk of being suspended from the Organization of American States and expelled from the Mercosur trade bloc.

Maduro claims that the criticism, like the street protests, is part of a U.S. plot to overthrow him. “The latest offensive by Venezuela’s right wing has chosen the path of violence, coup-mongering, power-grabbing that reflects new extremist tendencies directed and governed by the United States,” he said in a speech Monday in Havana. 

Insisting that his government wants peace, Maduro once more called for “dialogue.” His opponents have dismissed such appeals as hollow rhetoric.

“The reality is the order has come from Washington for zero dialogue in Venezuela, to make our country explode and give way for a foreign intervention,” Maduro said.

Maduro is too financially squeezed to send discounted oil shipments as he once did to friends around the region, leaving Venezuela more isolated than it was a few years ago. With oil production in steady decline and global crude prices still slumped, the government has slashed imports and appealed for help to Russia, China and Wall Street investors willing to buy high-risk Venezuelan bonds. So far, it has been able to hold off a full-scale financial collapse.

“Venezuela has come under greater international scrutiny than in many years,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be more arrests or disqualifications of opposition politicians. But it will be more difficult for the Maduro government to get away with it.” 

“At a certain point, divisions might emerge, and some sector of the government may decide it is not worth continuing down the road to authoritarianism,” Smilde said.

That has become the opposition’s other hope. The supreme court decision last month usurping the powers of the National Assembly produced a rare public fissure in the government, as chief prosecutor and longtime Chávez loyalist Luisa Ortega Díaz deplored the court decision on national television, accusing judges of violating the constitution. 

Other figures once close to the Chávez government also said that the court had gone too far, but Maduro has surrounded himself with hard-liners, some of whom face indictments for drug trafficking and corruption in the United States. Many observers worry they will never submit to a fair election knowing a defeat would send them to jail.

Nor has the Maduro government demonstrated a willingness to abide by the wishes of democratic majorities. His long-ruling United Socialist Party lost the 2015 parliamentary elections to the opposition by a landslide. But since then, Maduro has used the courts to stymie his rivals’ agenda.

Luis Vicente León, an economist and pollster, predicted that the government will stack the deck in next year’s presidential election by continuing to disqualify its main rivals.

“The government is going to target the candidates and leaders it considers the most dangerous and allow only those who are electorally weaker or more open to a future negotiation to run,” León said.