Donning white t-shirts, which represented their pacifism, and waving national flags, tens of thousands of enraged Venezuelans flooded the streets of their capital, Caracas, to protest Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government throughout last week.
After courts struck down a referendum to remove Maduro from office, protesters took to the streets, demanding Maduro’s resignation.
The protesters say he is a threat to Venezuela’s democracy, as his behavior has become increasingly autocratic since assuming office.
Elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez, the previous controversial leader, Maduro won by a narrow 51 percent and was instantly unpopular.
He idolized the former President Chávez and sought to continue Chávez’ ideology, dubbed “chavismo.” The ideology is a mixture of socialism, nationalism, anti-american sentiment and militancy.
Admittedly, while Chávez did reduce poverty and increase standards of living, Venezuelans still feared losing their democracy to a dictatorship because of Chávez’s limitations on the independent press and close ties with Cuba’s former dictator Fidel Castro.
Today, Maduro’s version of chavismo is increasingly unpopular. In the eyes of opposition, Maduro is a dictator and Venezuela is no longer a democracy.
Protesters accuse Maduro for the country’s economic crisis involving triple-digit inflation and severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
Daily, Venezuelans cross the Colombian border for essential products such as rice, flour, sugar and cooking oil. The nationwide food shortages and lack of medicine have caused weight loss and health issues.
Angry at the crumbling economy and autocratic behavior, opposition attempted to remove Maduro from power by arranging a recall referendum, a process written in the country’s constitution.
For months, Maduro’s government repeatedly delayed the process until last week, when courts rejected the referendum altogether. In effect, the government refused to relinquish power through constitutional means, stripping citizens of their democratic right to remove Maduro from power.
With roughly 80 percent of Venezuelans wanting Maduro out of office, citizens staged multiple protests. Roads, schools and businesses closed as political tensions increased, leaving one police officer killed, 147 people arrested and 120 people reportedly injured as of last Saturday.
Government sympathizers and security forces fiercely resisted protesters, and a crowd of red-shirted Maduro-loyalists held a counter-protest.
During a speech to the crowd, Maduro blamed the U.S. for Venezuela’s collapsing economy, accusing Obama of leading an “economic war” against Venezuela. His speech drew praise from the crowd, roaring in Spanish, “Maduro is not leaving!”
In attempt to ease the rising political tension, the Vatican intervened last Sunday, arranging a meeting between the government and the opposition to spur peaceful dialogue. Former Spanish President Jose Luis Zapatero and a Vatican mediator led the meeting, which began Sunday evening and lasted through daybreak on Monday.
In a statement from the Holy See, as translated by Catholic News Agency, Pope Francis encouraged President Nicolás Maduro “to undertake with courage the path of sincere and constructive dialogue” and “to alleviate the suffering of the people — first of all, those who are poor.”
While some members of the opposition met with Maduro, 15 parties affiliated with the Democratic Unity Alliance boycotted the Sunday session, refusing to meet with government authorities until courts restore the recall referendum and release political prisoners.
Until then, the opposition continues its campaign to remove Maduro from power with a march to the national palace yesterday. The opposition to presented Maduro with a pink slip, symbolizing their demand that he leave office. Given the national palace is situated in pro-government territory, the confrontation between government and opposition is unlikely to be cordial.
In the unlikely event that Maduro does resign, Venezuelans can salvage what remains of their democracy and, hopefully, turn their economy around. But if he stays in office, it’s likely that the protest will increase in violence.
Jessica Ruf is a sophomore journalism and English major from Sioux Falls, S.D.