Protests in San Cristobal, January 17th – image: Valentin Guerrero

Yesterday, Alixon Pizani, a 16 year old Venezuelan boy, was killed in the city of Catia La Mar by police amid growing protests against the current government. Almost 20 protestors, calling for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, have been killed by authorities, more than 200 injured and over 70 people have been arrested. Thousands of people have taken to the streets and opposition party leader and National Assembly president Juan Guaido has been declared the interim president of the country.

But why are Venezuelans protesting against their government?

Why are people protesting?

Since 2010, Venezuela has faced a social and economic crisis under the late president Hugo Chavez and his current successor Nicolas Maduro. Hyperinflation, rampant crime and food shortages have plagued the country for many years and forced millions of people to flee to other countries. In an election in 2015, the ruling United Socialist Party lost control of the National Assembly for the first time since 1999, with the Democratic Unity Roundtable (an opposition coalition) winning almost two thirds of the seats.

Since the ruling party’s defeat, Maduro has turned increasingly authoritarian. He has filled the highest court in Venezuela (the Supreme Tribunal of Justice) with allies of his government to approve measures to grant him more powers, replaced the opposition-led National Assembly with a new constitutional assembly and has been responsible for thousands of extra-judicial executions and hundreds of cases of torture.

In 2017, after the opposition bloc boycotted elections to the new Constitutional Assembly (criticised as being a way for Maduro to cling to power), the ruling party won almost all seats by default and stripped the National Assembly of its powers. Then, in elections last year, Maduro won a second term in office with over two thirds of the vote; however, the result was rejected as illigitimate by the European Union, the United Nations and the United States.

Many citizens in Venezuela view Maduro as an illigitimate leader and have called for new fair elections. Only months after Maduro’s ‘win’ in the election, he was the target of an drone attack in the capital, Caracas, with two drones carrying explosives detonating as he gave a speech to the National Guard. However, there have been some suggestions that this incident was staged to justify continued repression of opposition in the country.

The day after Maduro’s inauguaration, leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido called a rally in Caracas to protest against the government and calling for fresh elections. The Assembly also declared Guadio the interim president under the constitution; as the leader of the National Assembly is to hold office in the absense of a legitimate president. Guadio also called for demonstrations to take place on January 23rd, the anniversary of the overthrow of former dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958.

Citizens began taking to the streets in their thousands last week, espeically in Caracas supporting Guadio and calling for a ‘transitional government’, facing attacks by far-left Maduro activists who threatened to assault those demonstrating against the government.

At the start of this week, more than 25 soldiers of the National Guard mutinied against the goverment and stole weaponry from a military post in a suburb of the capital. Rioting began in the area and carried on throughout the night, being suppressed by police using tear gas on civilians. One person died, a woman mistaken for a protestor by a far-left pro-Maduro gang, that also stole her phone.

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Protestors yesterday in Caracas – image: Voice of America

Yesterday, January 23rd, saw millions flood the streets across the country, calling for Maduro’s resignations and for a transitional government. Violent clashes erupted in several cities; thirteen people had been killed by the end of the day.

Since the beginning of this week, the Maduro administration has begun a campaign of strict censorship, blocking access to social media websites, Wikipedia and Google. Despite this, however, #23Ene (short for 23 de Enero, January 23rd) was trending on Twitter, and both Facebook and Instagram removed the verified label from Nicolas Maduro’s account.

What has been the international response?

The response from the international community has been, for the most part, supportive of the protestors in their efforts to remove Maduro from office. The United States, in particular, has recognised Guadio as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, prompting the Maduro administration to sever all diplomatic ties with the country and has demanded that all US diplomats leave the country within 72 hours. The United States has, so far, refused to comply and has warned that ‘all options are on the table’ should Maduro refuse to leave office.

Many neighbouring Latin American countries have also declared their support for Guaido, as well as Canada, Sweden and Denmark. The UK has also expressed its support, with a spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May saying:

We fully support the democratically elected National Assembly with Juan Guaido as its president.

However, other nations have come out against the protests to support Maduro’s government, including Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and Syria.