CARACAS — His face and muscular arms sweating, hands dirtied from the sand-filled sugar bags he dragged toward the makeshift rampart blocking half of his street, Emilio Palacios’ immediate political struggle was with his mother. “No, Mama, no!” he yelled toward his mother, Maria Bravo, a longtime resident of the Chacaito district of Venezuela’s capital. “No!” he repeated, after hearing her tell Al Jazeera that the purpose of the barricade under construction in front of their apartment was “getting rid of this government.”
Measuring his words, he offered a different explanation. “We’re here as students to protest against the insecurity in the country and scarcity and the killing of students by the National Guard,” said Palacios, an engineering student at Central University. “This is not a protest against the government. We’re sending a message to the government.”
“OK. We have differences,” responded Bravo, a 48-year-old publicity and marketing executive, while sitting in a plastic lounge chair alongside her dog, Bruno, who almost knocked over a makeshift sign saying “Resistencia SOS Venezuela.”
On the anniversary of the death of socialist President Hugo Chavez, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, faces the biggest challenge to his 10-month-old government. Demonstrators frustrated by a long string of electoral defeats in municipal, gubernatorial and presidential election challenges to the Chavistas are exploring new strategies: taking to the streets to demand Maduro’s resignation as a solution for rampant crime and food shortages. But history suggests it may be difficult to overthrow a Venezuelan government without support from the country’s have-nots, and they have yet to be seen mimicking the burning of garbage or smashing of concrete seen in more well-off neighborhoods.
“Yes, we’re here to support the students, to protest the waiting in lines for food like we were in Cuba,” Bravo continued. “But we’ll be in the streets until this nefarious government, until this dictatorship goes, until Maduro renounces!” Asked how the crisis affects her well-groomed mixed sheepdog, she said, “Four kilos of dog food costs 400 bolivares ($63). Four hundred bolivares! Absurdo!”
A visibly tense Emilio raised his eyebrows, nodded his head from left to right and rushed down the street to continue gathering tree trunks and sugar bags to fortify the barricade. The lines of burning garbage, rocks and dead trees were not clearly drawn. Neither are the political divisions within Venezuela’s opposition.
The family argument between Palacios and Bravo reflects wider differences in the opposition involving politics, strategy and tactics over the protests and street clashes that have left 18 dead, including some Chavistas. While Chavez built the base of his movement among Venezuela’s poor and working class, the current protests are centered in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. The movement challenging Maduro is led by wealthy and privileged individuals, some of whose photographs feature regularly on the society pages of El Universal and other newspapers. And they seem unable to agree on whether change will be achieved via the ballot box and negotiation or through insurrection and violence — and also on who should lead the opposition. What they are united over is their desire to end crime and shortages, but also to reverse the Chavez legacy of major government spending in housing, education and other social programs, limits on profits that can be made by companies and other socialist initiatives.
The most visible leaders of the opposition — former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, the telegenic Harvard-educated former mayor of Chacao Leopoldo Lopez and Lopez’s closest ally, Maria Corina Machado — all hail from families that own or have powerful positions with conglomerates in media, food and other industries. All are connected to middle- and upper-class student groups currently protesting in the streets of Caracas. And WikilLeaks cables suggest that the key protest groups have, over many years, been the beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. “democracy promotion” assistance.
Despite efforts to project unity at recent rallies and marches, deep differences divide the opposition. Lopez and Machado are seen as promoting the more confrontational street actions to end Chavismo, but other opposition leaders fear that those tactics will alienate the larger public. Some opposition leaders even called for a moratorium on protests out of respect for commemorations of Chavez this week — a call that was ignored by student leaders and Machado.
Capriles and his key allies, including a number of industrialists, are more inclined to press for negotiations with Maduro, signaling discomfort with the more radical approach of the unyielding “Salida” (“Exit”) call by Lopez, Machado and many student groups on the streets who demand Maduro’s ouster. Capriles ally Lorenzo Mendoza, one of the wealthiest people in Venezuela, recently stood alongside Maduro to report on the National Conference for Peace, convened by the president and attended by leaders in politics and industry. “This is a convening to build a peace agenda,” declared a solemn Mendoza to a national audience.
Statements like Mendoza’s also reflect growing discomfort on the right with some of the student violence, like that which ended the life of Santiago Henrique Pedroza Longa. He was a 29-year-old motorcyclist who was beheaded by barbed wire put up by students at the behest of a pro-opposition retired general who had tweeted instructions on how to “neutralize the criminal hordes on bikes.”
And then there are the more radical student activists who distrust the close ties between fellow student groups and well-connected, well-heeled leaders of the political parties. “Leopoldo Lopez is a prefabricated martyr engaged in political theater designed to promote him as the new leader of the opposition,” said Joshua Cespedes, a 20-year-old working-class student protester and member of the Organization of Nationalist Students (ORDEN). “Capriles is the same, but he’s losing ground to him because people on our side are getting desperate and want quick solutions,” he said on Sunday at an opposition protest, standing next to a colleague hiding his face behind large, dark shades and a black poster with big white letters saying “Negotiation = Submission.”
Cespedes and other youth founded ORDEN after concluding that “politics in Venezuela is controlled by international interests. The opposition is controlled by the U.S. and Obama, and the government by Cuba. So the only solution is a nationalist solution.”
ORDEN traces its nationalist legacy to El Generalissimo Marcos Perez Jimenez, a former dictator, whose repressive policies eventually brought about his demise. Many years and several political defeats later, Perez Jimenez’s legacy still brings division to the right. After unfurling a banner with a picture of the smiling generalissimo, members of ORDEN were violently challenged by supporters of rival opposition groups during a widely televised opposition gathering on Jan. 23, 2013. “We were beaten with our own flags, punched, kicked at and dragged out of the conference — all at the hands of our ‘allies,’” said Cespedes. Despite the internal tensions, he said, he and the other members of ORDEN will “continue to organize and agitate in the streets.”
Striking a philosophical pose about the possibility of continued student clashes with Venezuelan government forces, 62-year-old Edith Mujica, Secretary for Organization for Caracas in Primero Justicia — the political party founded by both Lopez and Capriles — worried that the continued confrontation will not yield the desired results. “We may learn that all this excitement in the streets turns out to be an error,” said Mujica. “We might actually end up looking like we don’t want peace. We may even end up strengthening Maduro and the Chavistas. And we all agree we don’t want to do anything to make them stronger than they already are.”