When the citizens of a country under a military regime decide to confront their rulers, they step into the unknown. One of the many questions they have to ask themselves is this: how long before those who govern respond with deadly violence? Will they allow the demonstrations to spread for a few days before pulling the trigger? Or will that reaction come on the first day?
On February 12, Venezuelans received their answer to this question. As soon as the country erupted in peaceful student-demonstrations, armed militiamen riding motorbikes delivered the regime's response. As the protests wound down on Wednesday evening, three people, including one pro-regime activist from Caracas, had been shot dead. The other fatalities were two students, Bassil Alejandro Dacosta and Neyder Arellano Sierra. Heartbreaking images of Da Costa's wounded body being pulled into a truck by his friends, who drove him to the hospital where he later died, were quickly broadcast around the world.
Venezuela's President, Nicolas Maduro, is unlikely to be perturbed by outside condemnation of these killings, particularly if they emanate from the United States. In fact, Maduro is probably feeling very pleased with himself. After all, the killings of the students sent an unmistakable message that his regime is not to be trifled with.
It is a message that is being continually reinforced. The residents of Caracas and other cities awoke on Thursday morning to the sight of armored personnel carriers on the streets, ready to prevent any further protests. And while the regime says that security forces detained around 80 people, the real number is undoubtedly much higher. Lawyers from the Foro Penal Venezolano (FPV), a voluntary group that assists political detainees, report well over 200 people in detention at various locations in Caracas, many of them unidentified. In the regional city of Barquisimeto alone, more than 100 people are in custody.
According to Alfredo Romero, the lawyer who directs the work of FPV, February 12 is likely to be remembered as the day when more people were arrested at a single demonstration than on any similar occasion previously. Romero also says that some of the detainees have reported being horribly tortured with electric shocks and that, appallingly, he encountered a sixteen year old boy with special needs in police custody.
The Maduro regime's bombastic rhetoric works in tandem with these mass arrests. What has happened, Maduro and his cohorts insist, is that a coup has been thwarted. According to the Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Díaz – who is ostensibly an independent judicial figure, but is both a regime loyalist and a regime appointee – the aim of the demonstrations was to engineer a coup similar to the one which temporarily removed Hugo Chavez from power in 2002. "We have videos, recordings and photos that will help us ascertain the facts," Díaz revealed, apparently not realizing that her bosses have, conveniently, already ascertained the facts.
And here are those facts as Maduro sees them. “We’re facing an evolving coup d’etat, and the Bolivarian revolution will triumph,” he declared on state television. Meanwhile, Maduro's Interior Minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who also runs the much-feared SEBIN security police, dutifully echoed his master, denouncing the "conspiratorial nature" of the protests. The regime has pointed its accusing finger toward the former mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo Lopez, and assemblywoman Maria Corina Machado, and it seems they will use their controlled judicial apparatus to hide or distort the truth.
As is the custom with the regime's propaganda, the actual truth is the polar opposite. Over the last two years, the opposition has largely avoided peaceful demonstrations, in order to prevent violent responses from government sponsored armed government militias known as colectivos, focusing its energies instead on elections. In September 2012, and again in April 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, Henrique Capriles, contested presidential elections. Both elections were stained by voter intimidation and similar irregularities – indeed, it is probable that Capriles won the April 2013 election, but the regime claimed victory by a wafer-thin margin of 1.5 per cent ¬– yet the opposition never turned to violent confrontation in response. In fact, while Capriles has been at odds with other senior opposition figures over the wisdom of holding demonstrations, given the potential for deaths and injuries, the entirety of Venezuela's democracy movement has been united in emphasizing that any protests must be peaceful. And the February 12 protests were peaceful until the colectivosdescended.
This commitment to peaceful change is borne out by the opposition's ongoing appeals for dialogue on the issues that matter to Venezuelans: spiraling inflation which has now reached 56.3 per cent, no end in sight to the shortage of basic goods like cooking oil and flour, and the violent crime that has made Venezuela one of the world's leading murder capitals. Moreover, the opposition has repeatedly emphasized that there cannot be a solution to the country's chronic problems without the involvement of everyone – including the supporters of the Maduro regime.
What the world has learned this week is that Maduro doesn't want dialogue if it entails considering political arrangements that would require him to surrender the massive powers he has accumulated in violation of the Venezuelan Constitution. Yet for the moment, he cannot stifle the thousands of protesting voices that took to the streets on February 12. That is why there is still reason to hope.
Leopoldo Martínez is a former Venezuelan congressman currently living in Washington, DC, where he is the CEO of the Center for Democracy and Development in the Americas (CDDA).