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  April 15, 2017

Opposition Protests in Venezuela Lead to Six Deaths

Clashes between protesters and police continued throughout the week in Venezuela, but polls indicate that the government is recuperating popularity and most Venezuelans disagree with opposition tactics says Lucas Koerner of
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Lucas Koerner is a journalist at Venezuelanalysis based in Caracas, Venezuela.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Opposition protests in Venezuela entered their 10th day on Friday. So far, six people have been killed as a result of confrontations between police, and opposition, and government supporters. Opposition leaders placed the blame on the government. Government officials say that the deaths are the result of a variety of confrontations, and that in cases where police officers were responsible, they have been arrested.

Originally, the protests were aimed against the Supreme Court, which had invalidated the actions of the opposition-controlled legislature. When the court's decision was reversed last week, protests changed their focus and demands, to immediate presidential elections. The next regularly scheduled presidential election however, is not supposed to take place until the end of 2018.

Joining us now from Caracas, to talk about the recent events in Venezuela is Lucas Koerner. Lucas is a staff writer for, and he's completing a Master's degree at Venezuela's Institute for Advanced Studies – IDEA.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Lucas.

LUCAS KOERNER: Great to be here, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Lucas, give us a sense of what's going on on the ground with these protests, and who's largely responsible for the people that have been killed.

LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah. I think that it's important to give a breakdown of these deaths, because there's been a lot of misinformation in the media, and the opposition has basically been attributing all deaths to government security forces, when in fact it's a lot more complicated.

If we look at the breakdown since the beginning of the week, we see that so far there have been two protesters that have been killed by authorities, and there have been district attorneys dispatched to investigate both those cases. There are two direct victims killed by protesters. One of them in Lara State, a 13-year-old, another one who was killed in a roadblock attempting to pass a roadblock, and was shot in the face by protesters afterwards.

And additionally, there was one bystander killed by authorities, Jairo Ortiz, who the police had been... the officer has been indicted, has confessed, and indicted and jailed. And then another one killed under unclear circumstances, not linked to a protest. And then another person who was killed indirectly as a result of protesters, a woman who suffered a cardiac arrest attempting to reach a hospital, and she died because the ambulance could not get through the roadblocks. That's kind of what we've seen so far.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now the opposition originally started protesting the decisions of the court, which the court then reversed, in terms of they had originally invalidated the existence of... or decision-making in the legislature. It realized it had not been accurate. It reversed its decision.

But now the protests are directed at immediate presidential elections. Is this reasonable to call for this, and is that going to come about?

LUCAS KOERNER: It's quite fascinating, because on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro came out on his television program, and he called for regional and local elections. And regional elections were actually supposed to be held last year, but the CNE postponed them in a rather dubious move. Yet the opposition has not really... you know, they have been silent on it, surprisingly. And the local elections are due at the end of this year. So, he called for these elections.

In response, the opposition said that we have literally, the quote is that, "respect for the National Assembly, and regional elections are important, but general elections are necessary. We can't just... we can't be satisfied with this while we have people in the streets." So, basically this is they're attempting... it's a political demand.

There's no actual constitutional legitimacy to demand presidential elections this year, because they're constitutionally scheduled for next year. It's totally legitimate to demand the government hold regional elections because they should have been held last year, and actually was a violation of the Constitution not to hold them. But nonetheless, the opposition just shows that they're not really interested in democratic procedure, or in the Constitution. They just want to oust Maduro, which they've been trying to do for the last... since he was elected in 2013.

If we recall that the opposition refused to recognize the results of the elections. The presidential candidate at that time, Henrique Capriles, called on his supporters to, quote-unquote, "discharge their anger in the streets." And that led to several deaths, and the burning of government medical clinics -- the other attacks.

In 2014, you saw 43 people died as a result of a protest campaign called, The Exit, or The Exit of Maduro, in which they blocked roads. They used the same tactics that they're starting to revive now, of, for example, stringing barbed wire across avenues, in an attempt to deter motorcycles. Which decapitated a motorcyclist in 2014. Or soaking streets in oil, also against motorcyclists, and six people died as a result of these tactics in 2014 –- and these are coming back.

So, clearly, there is a very undemocratic, violent bent to these protests, and it can be illustrated with the hashtag that's actually circulating recently among opposition supporters that's, #ElectionsNoLibertyYes, which is very extreme, and really baffles the mind of... you know, if you're watching international media, you don't really get this image at all.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And, Lucas, what happened to the recall referendum, the petition for the recall that they had posted last year?

LUCAS KOERNER: The recall is a complicated issue, because basically in order... it's a... in order to... Venezuela is one of two countries in the hemisphere -- aside from Ecuador -- that has this procedure. In order to be able to enact it, you have to follow a very time-sensitive set of procedures that include, basically, collecting a certain number of signatures in order to, basically 1% of the national electorate, in order to simply start it. And then... so having to collect 20% of the electorate within a three-day period.

The problem is, you have to begin the process very early, because it can take eight months. And if it doesn't happen -- it didn't happen before January 10th of this year -- the President actually cannot be revoked, and the Vice-President will just take over.

So, what happened was, you saw that the opposition was dragging its feet very early on. It was actually pursuing other options in an attempt... in fact, when the National Assembly was sworn in, in early 2016, literally a few days of being sworn in, they declared their objective of ousting Maduro within six months. Which is obviously impossible, because as I said, the procedure takes eight months.

They also attempted to pass an amendment to retroactively shorten the presidential term, which is also... it was declared unconstitutional, and just doesn't make any sense. But you can't retroactively shorten a presidential term for a sitting, elected president.

Basically, once they got around to actually collecting the signatures, it was already rather late in the game, and admittedly, yes, absolutely the government dragged its feet on many of these... the CNE dragged its feet on many of the procedures. And ultimately you saw in the signature collecting process, you saw over 53,000 fraudulent signatures, including 10,000 signatures from deceased people, and several thousand from minors, several thousand just made up.

Clearly, there was a lot of illicit practices on the part of the opposition, and mostly because they were just too preoccupied with looking for the fastest way to oust Maduro by dubious means. Certainly there was feet dragging by the government, because obviously they didn't want to have a recall referendum, because they knew they'd probably lose it.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, a new poll that was released by the polling company, Hinterlaces, says that the governing coalition, known as the Grand Patriotic Pole, which includes the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and the Communist Party, among others, is still the country's most popular political force, with 35% approval.

Now, meanwhile, the opposition parties enjoy a 29% support. Given all of the economic problems in Venezuela at the moment, such as... well, of course, they're experiencing inflation and food shortages. Why is the opposition still less popular than the governing coalition then?

LUCAS KOERNER: I honestly found this statistic quite astounding. And in the fact, the governing party has increased its popularity over the past few months, and actually Maduro's popularity has increased, although it's still very low. It's 24%, but it's higher than it was in November at 18%. He's still more popular than Michelle Bachelet, Peña Nieto and Michel Temer.

So, it does say something, and isn't reflected in all international media. But I think that it speaks to just the bankruptcy of the opposition, which really has no project for the country, it has no vision. All it attempts to do is oust Maduro violently, and then presumably implement neo-liberal shock therapy. Which is extremely unpopular, and is not going to in any way improve the situation.

So, it's quite fascinating, but in the midst of an extremely severe economic crisis, that the governing party is actually more popular than most... in a multi-party system is... than most parties... even in the Western world. If you look at most governing parties in Europe, they can't... you wouldn't say that they would have 30% support. That would be very strong, very significant. So, it's interesting.

SHARMINI PERIES: And give us a sense of the credibility of Hinterlaces

LUCAS KOERNER: Hinterlaces is an independent polling agency. Certainly they may lean in some cases towards the government. But they've been very critical of the government, and they're completely independent. So, they're definitely credible. And also, I think the... if you look at the Maduro popularity statistic that we just... that Venezuelaanalysis wrote an article about, that actually came from Dataanalisis, which is a center-rightist opposition think tank.

So, it's across the board that statistics show that, the polls show, that the opposition has been losing popularity over the past few months, and over the past year. That really, 2016 was their failure, because they had control of the legislature, and they failed to actually pass any laws they could pass.

They could resolve the economic crisis, and they spent most of their time attempting to just oust the government, which clearly was unpopular among people.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And speaking of popularity, the current disruptions to Easter Week in Venezuela, which is usually a popular week to go on vacation, or to go to the beach, and this is the beginning of spring, but summer for them, in the sense that vacation periods starts.

Give us a sense of what the mood is like, in light of all the protests going on in the country.

LUCAS KOERNER: I think it's interesting, because on Saturday, last Saturday, when you saw the beginning of these really violent protests, it was really concentrated in the wealthy eastern part of the city. But in the west, where I live, literally it was just, life goes on as normal, nobody even noticed.

In fact it was... Chavez -- there was actually a government-sponsored festival of sports and culture and recreation, and where people were doing all kinds of activities, so there was really... you wouldn't have known. And then in the past few days, there have... the more of them... the kind of lower middle-class area where I live, there has been 'cacerolazo's', or banging pots and pans, and there had been some roadblocks around here.

But largely, it's been very calm. You have to understand that these protests, nine out of ten Venezuelans opposed the guarimbas in 2014. They banned... this is the... what we're seeing now is a repeat of these protests. So, these kinds of protest tactics that see just blocking roads, with bon fires, and basically forcing the government to shut down the Metro because they don't want ... (audio drop) ... spread, it is just an impediment to people's days... (audio drop) ... and people dislike it.

So, I think that the opposition is ultimately in many ways, just making itself further and further unpopular with these kinds of tactics.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Lucas, I thank you so much for joining us today, and look forward to ongoing conversation with you about what's happening in Venezuela.

LUCAS KOERNER: Thank you for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.




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