Arrest of Opposition Leader Does Little to Quell Venezuelan Violence

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“The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela,” read a February 15 press statement made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo López. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”

Kerry’s statement was brief, containing little news for anyone observing the unfolding political crisis the South American country. But in his nine sentences, the secretary of state drew attention to the heart of the issue; nearly everything in Venezuela — except oil — is imported, and that situation has likely been exacerbated by shortages in hard currency. As a result, basic goods from toilet paper to cooking oil are scarce. Those shortages fueled the protests initially, but a larger concern has emerged; now, Venezuelans are taking to the street to demonstrate against mounting government repression. These protests are the largest to rack the government of President Nicolas Maduro during its 11 months in power.

Typical of a government facing widespread unrest, Venezuelan leadership, including President Nicolas Maduro, has villainized the opposition, especially López, who has become the face of the movement. López — the Harvard-educated, unofficial head of Venezuela’s newly active opposition movement — turned himself in to authorities Tuesday after President Nicolas Maduro issued a warrant for his arrest, charging the activist with terrorism and murder.

The government maintains that a bout of violence in early February, which saw gunmen open fire on thousands of anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, was the work of López. But demonstrators say that the authorities began shooting to disperse the crowd, and their bullets killed three. Those three people were young students, and they died on Venezuela’s Youth Day. As Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Taylor wrote, the vast majority of protests are young as well, with the average protester between the age of 18 and 25 years old. That generation came of age as Chavismo, the ideology espoused by former president Hugo Chávez, began to falter. For them, Chávez’s choice of Maduro was an insult. As of Wednesday, the death toll had risen to five.

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