Caracas, Venezuela – It was a war with no winners.
One year ago, the streets of Venezuela’s main cities became a combat zone where protesters – most of them college students – confronted the security forces of the government of President Nicolás Maduro. It lasted almost four months and the final balance was shocking: 43 people dead, including 10 police officers; hundreds injured and 3,517 arrested, according to the NGO Foro Penal Venezolano.
The consequences are still being felt.
“The demonstrations became widespread because of the discontent of the society due to the devastation the country has suffered over the last 14 years … and the lack of a future for the young,” Sairam Rivas told Fox News Latino.
Rivas, one of the leaders of the Venezuelan student movement, was imprisoned for four months. During one stretch, she wasn't allowed to see the sunlight for 55 days.
These days, she is free on parole, but other leaders of the protest are still in jail. One of them, Gerardo Carrero, has been kept isolated from his comrades in a cell known as “The Tomb,” in the fifth sub-basement of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service headquarters, a place so far underground prisoners have no idea whether it's day or night.
The list of the dissidents jailed includes Leopoldo López, leader of the opposition party Voluntad Popular and one of the leading proponents of “La Salida,” a political proposal that a year ago tried to get Venezuelan citizens out onto the streets to discuss ways Maduro’s presidency might be legally ushered to the exit.
López was imprisoned under charges of promoting violent acts a few days after the protests began on Feb. 12, 2014, when thousands of people marched to the Office of the General Attorney to demand the end of the repression and to ask for the freedom of several students who were detained for taking part in demonstrations.
The popular revolt started that afternoon, when a bullet, allegedly fired by a member of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, killed Bassil Dacosta, a 24-year-old student. From that point the demonstrations started growing all over the country.
So did the reaction of the government.
Dressed like Robocops, thousands of members of the Bolivarian National Guard and the Bolivarian National Police went to the streets where they peppered the stone-throwing protesters with tear gas bombs and pellet guns.
Finally, the government got its way with an overwhelming use of force and massive raids, including one against a peaceful tent camp led by Carrero of more than 300 students parked in front of the United Nations’ Caracas offices.
President Maduro finally got the demonstrators off the streets, but he paid a price.
“For the government, the protests presented a challenge to which it reacted in a very repressive way,” John Magdaleno, analyst and professor of political studies at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, told Fox News Latino. “Its authoritarian character was exposed, not only by the excesses committed by security forces but by the deprivation of liberty to which many students and citizens were subjected. This had a major impact on its public image.”
But the opposition paid a heavy toll.
“The protests made clear the divisions within the leadership of the opposition, some rivalry between the leaders became visible as well as the absence of a basic consensus on political strategy,” Magdaleno said, pointing out that the former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski and many other opposition leaders didn't back “La Salida.” They believed it best to wait until the government began facing the negative consequences of its economic policy.
Carmen Beatriz Fernández, managing director of DataStrategia, a consulting group, said that ever since “La Salida” the government has based its legitimacy on the use of force and that the current Venezuelan crisis is of such dimensions that the control of the violence—not support at the ballot box—seems to be the most important factor.
“For the first time in 15 years, the opposition would have a very clear chance to beat the Chavistas at the polls,” Fernández told FNL. “The people who say they intend to vote for the government stands around 20 percent, while the opposition gets almost 40 percent. This means that the opposition is in a much better position than last year to run for an election, but it also means that the chances of the government actually calling for elections are lower.”
Both experts mentioned that the loss of support of Maduro has happened at a stunningly fast pace, thanks to widespread shortages and sky-high inflation.
The shortages have led to more repression. In the last few weeks, the administration has started jailing businessmen it accused of creating the shortages – people like Pedro Luis Angarita, the president of the Farmatodo pharmacy chain, and Manuel Morales, director of Día a Día supermarkets.
Magdaleno points out that the opposition's approval rating of 41 percent in polls indicates a strong minority, but, given the magnitude of Venezuelan crisis, he marvels that it isn't still higher.
For her part, Fernández believes an “electoral solution looks very distant now. Even president Maduro has been talking about the possibility of a coup [ousting him from power]. If that undesirable scenario plays out, the opposition wouldn’t be involved because the ones who can do coups are the military. In that sense, ‘La Salida’ turned the opposition into mere spectators in the course of events.”
In the meantime, the student movement will commemorate Thursday's anniversary of Dacosta’s death with a remembrance of the victims of the political repression in Venezuela, but the participants also have their eyes in longer term goals.
“We will also hold a small march,” Rivas told FNL. “We want the people to slowly recover their confidence in the demonstrations. Overall, we want to rescue the constitutional right to protest and to express our rejection of the new decree by the Defense Ministry allowing the Army to use lethal weapons to control demonstrations. We have the commitment to fight not just for our rights as students, but also to participate in the national struggle for a better future for all.”