To understand the spasm of violence gripping Venezuela, you need to go back to April 17, 2013. It was three days after the late President Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, had won presidential re-election by a paper-thin margin amid accusations of ballot stuffing, coerced voting, and other irregularities. The government-controlled National Elections Council had just dismissed calls for a complete review of the allegations, and the government and the opposition seemed to be on a collision course; Venezuelans steeled themselves for mass protests that were understood to have every chance of ending in violence.

But that evening, Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, called the whole thing off. Citing the near-certainty of violence, he urged opposition protesters to stay home and allow him to challenge the results through the judicial system. "Whomever goes out on the streets tomorrow is on the side of violence, and that's the government's game," Capriles said. In the end, Venezuelans stayed home, but, to no one’s surprise, the courts refused to hear Capriles’ legal challenge. Not only that; they fined Capriles for offending the majesty of the state by even suggesting that ballot stuffing could have taken place, and they urged the prosecutor's office to consider bringing charges against him.

Capriles' decision proved a fateful one for the Venezuelan opposition. It widened a long-standing rift between opposition "moderates," led by Capriles, and a more radical wing convinced that only a direct head-on confrontation would ever get a response from Venezuela’s authoritarian government. The more radical faction despaired of any attempt at dialogue and centered its hopes on a strategy of popular protest culminating in revolution. The most prominent member of this side of the opposition is Leopoldo López, a charismatic, telegenic Harvard-educated economist.

López has loudly supported the ongoing protests in Venezuela. But many observers have falsely concluded on that basis that he is the leader of the protest movement. The true organizing force has been a vanguard of university students. Their first march, which was in response to a campus sexual assault that drew no police response, took place on February 4 in San Cristóbal, a small city high up on the Venezuelan Andes, very far from López's organizing base. It set off the ongoing cycle of protests and crackdowns. Since then, the movement has spread to different campuses and different cities that were coordinating with one another only lightly, if at all. They are united by a shared revulsion at the violence used by security forces and by anger at the economic chaos, corruption, and crime that have marked Venezuela's experiment with socialism since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. Their preferred means of protest has been the erection of makeshift barricades from burning tires, garbage, and other debris that serve to isolate their neighborhoods from the outside world. They pursue direct action, in the areas where they live, organized via social media networks, and they feel accountable to no one other than themselves. 

What Venezuela has, then, is not two but three main actors on the opposition side: the moderate and radical wings of the traditional opposition, and then an anarchic student movement that, although radical in spirit, has only tangential links to López and his brethren. To complicate matters further, López was charged with inciting this month's violence and jailed. That leaves Henrique Capriles, the head of the moderate faction that the students have never quite trusted, as the only visible head of the opposition -- no other radical has moved to claim the mantle.

Committed to a strategy of nonviolence, Capriles has done what he can to try to quell the anarchy on Venezuela’s streets. In a speech last Saturday, flanked by a few of the more recognizable student leaders, he called for an end to nighttime protesting and barricades. Instead, he suggested, the students should concentrate on building a powerful and cohesive social movement that could attract disaffected chávistas. But the speech did little to curtail the violence. For one, the student radicals still feel little inclination to heed a call for compromise from a man who, they believe, discredited himself after the last election. More important, however, few people outside the rally heard the speech. Under strong government pressure, Venezuela's broadcast media declined to cover the event.

It might seem strange that a government that wants to portray itself as concerned chiefly with peace has been actively censoring the one message with a slight -- but real -- possibility of toning down the violence. But there is a method to its madness. By goading student hotheads, the government can instigate the very acts of violent resistance that it needs to justify an even wider crackdown. There have been plenty of opportunities, over the course of the crisis, to find a point of compromise with the students, but the government has preferred to deploy tear gas and rubber bullets instead.

Why Maduro decided to escalate tensions with the opposition is a subject of some speculation. Part of the answer is surely the scale of Venezuela’s economic crisis. Since Chávez’s election 15 years ago, Venezuela has become one of the most complicated places to do business on earth. Conditions have worsened precipitously over the past year. Price and foreign exchange controls have fed a deliriously profitable arbitrage industry, with regime-connected businessmen able to buy dollars on the official market and sell them for ten times that price on the black market.

As a result of these terrible policies and the rampant corruption they enable, Venezuela is on the verge of running out of foreign currency, and therefore out of the things you need foreign currency to import: everything from milk and wheat flour to toilet paper, airline flights, and antiretrovirals has become difficult to procure. Despite possessing the world's largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela is now a place where fistfights routinely break out at supermarkets upon the arrival of a shipment of chicken.

It may be that the government calculated that, amid such economic chaos, it could only keep control by becoming markedly more repressive; the increasingly radical protests have given it an excuse to do just that. In that sense, the students may be correct when they suggest that the government’s model is Cuba -- a regime capable of keeping a tight grip on power through decades of economic stagnation. And given those grim prospects, the students’ anger should come as no surprise.

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  • FRANCISCO TORO is a Venezuelan journalist and political scientist. In 2002, he founded Caracas Chronicles, an English-language blog on all things Venezuelan.
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