The Revolution Will Not Be Supervised

The Dangers of Venezuela's Leaderless Protests

Students take part in a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas on February 16, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

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.

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