What Is Happening in Venezuela? How Ongoing Anti-government Protests Are Challenging Maduro's Rule

Updated | Thousands of largely peaceful protesters demanding new elections were met Monday in Caracas with tear gas and security forces in riot gear. Holding signs reading “No more dictatorship,” the protesters marched through the streets of Venezuela’s capital for the second week of public demonstrations.

Months after general elections were indefinitely postponed in December and the Supreme Court temporarily took control in March of the opposition-led Congress, tens of thousands of people have now taken part in anti-government protests in Venezuela. Despite the violent clashes with the police that left two young people dead and led to dozens of arrests, protesters' demands for new elections have not waned.

Confused about what exactly is happening in Venezuela? Here's everything you need to know about ongoing anti-government protests challenging President Nicolás Maduro's rule.

How are these protests different from anti-Maduro uprisings in the past?

In the past year and a half, Maduro has resisted numerous calls for resignation as his approval ratings tanked on the heels of an economic downturn that led to high inflation, shortages of basic food, goods and medicines, and unrest in the country.

Venezuelans have since become more desperate than ever over the worsening state of the economy and erosion of the rule of law, Diego Moya-Ocampos, a senior analyst for the Americas at IHS Markit, tells Newsweek. “When the protests took place in 2014, the country was still very polarized. At this stage a large part of the population is overwhelmingly against the government,” he says. 

Protesters want all legislative powers returned to the National Assembly and the release of dozens of political prisoners, but calls for a new election are the main driver of the protests, Moya-Ocampos explains.

“People want to be able to vote against what they perceive as economic mismanagement from the government," he says. "People want elections and what they want from the military is to be neutral, to protect the citizens’ right to stage protests and to put pressure behind the scenes to call for elections.”

Venezuela protests_01 Demonstrators carry a banner that reads "No more dictatorship" at a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, on April 10, 2017 Christian Veron/Reuters

How did Venezuela get to this point?

The recent wave of protests was sparked by a government-appointed Supreme Court ruling on March 29 against the opposition-controlled National Assembly in what has become known as “a self-inflicted coup.” Venezuela’s top court assumed the legislative power of the assembly because lawmakers were refusing to agree with Maduro’s proposed measures to address the country’s ongoing economic crisis.

A group of opposition lawmakers began protesting on March 30, and they were joined in larger street protests on April 1. Bowing to the pressure, the court reversed its decision, but protesters’ were already riled up to take on the government.

New protests followed on April 4, in which police officers sprayed anti-government demonstrators advancing toward congress with pepper spray and tear gas. Nine people were treated in hospital for injuries, including a 19-year-old woman whose leg was run over by a motorcycle driver by an officer and another demonstrator with a bullet wound in the leg, the Associated Press reported.

The protests were renewed on April 6, increasing in participation to the largest the country has seen in the past six months. The crowds were again met by police in riot gear firing tear gas, rubber bullets and using water cannons. In ensuing clashes, 19-year-old Jairo Ortiz was fatally shot in the chest, Reuters reported, and a policeman has been charged over the killing.

A day later, opposition leader Henrique Capriles claimed he got barred from holding political office for 15 years, an announcement that spurred further protests over the weekend and on Monday. During clashes in Valencia, a city east of Caracas, 20-year-old university student Daniel Queliz was shot in the neck and died on April 11, the Associated Press reported.

How are world leaders reacting? 

The ongoing crisis has led to influential Latin American countries, including Chile, Uruguay and Peru, slamming Maduro. On Friday, President Enrique Peña Nieto met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. This week, Brazil and the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) called for elections to restore full democracy in Venezuela.

The U.S. also called on Maduro to respect the wishes of the Venezuelan people. In a public statement Monday, the State Department said it echoed calls “for prompt elections, respect for the constitution and the National Assembly, and freedom for political prisoners.”

Maduro meanwhile accused the opposition of conspiring with foreign countries to promote unrest and political instability. Maduro was in Cuba over the weekend to attend a gathering of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Caribbean and Latin American nations, which offered its support to the embattled president. “We reject the aggressions and concerted manipulations against our ally,” read the statement published by the bloc.

Venezuela protests_04 A demonstrator looks on during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, on April 10, 2017 Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

What will happen next?

Moya-Ocampos says protests could continue to escalate despite tougher repressive measures, reaching a tipping point beyond the capacity of security forces to contain demonstrators, and especially affecting Western Caracas, where the seats of power and many shanty towns are located.

At that point, facing widespread chaos and looting across the country, the military may stop supporting Maduro and force the National Electoral Council to hold early elections or stage a coup to assume power directly.

The next official protests are slated for April 19, a day of historical importance for Venezuela as it marks the anniversary of its independence from Spanish colonial rule. In the lead up to the national holiday, Moya-Ocampos says the government will keep cracking down on opposition, with arbitrary detention of opposition leaders.

"The government will try to do whatever it can to try to deter and instill fear in the population to prevent that the protest is indeed massive," he says.

Correction: An earlier version of this article carried an incorrect spelling of Moya-Ocampos.

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