Spiraling violence a double-edged sword in Venezuela
A young man set ablaze by protesters in Caracas. Looting, destruction and 57 people dead.
Both the Venezuelan government and the opposition admit that violent protests which have gripped the country for nearly two months are out of control — and analysts warn they could be a double-edged sword that might trigger even more unrest.
"We condemn violence wherever it comes from," said Attorney General Luisa Ortega, nominally an ally of socialist President Nicolas Maduro but now the highest-profile public official to criticize authorities during the protests against him, on Wednesday.
The government blames its opponents — some armed with stones and Molotov cocktails — for the clashes. But opposition protesters say they must defend themselves from tear gas and even bullets.
"If they let us march, we wouldn\’t do anything," said 19 year-old Alejandro, who belongs to a group of hooded youths opposed to Maduro.
"But they attack first so we throw rocks and bottles," he told AFP.
Maduro says that his moves to draft a new constitution will bring "peace." His critics say the move is a power grab in the face of deadly unrest.
The burning of 21-year-old Orlando Figuera — who was beaten, doused in fuel and set alight in a recent Caracas protest — highlight the country\’s descent into chaos.
The prosecutor investigating the incident dubbed it "nightmarish," and blasted videos that appear to have been "manipulated to favor one of the sides in the dispute" as "vulgar."
The government said Figuera was attacked for being a Maduro supporter. The opposition, which has also condemned the incident, said members of the crowd had accused him of "stealing."
The public prosecution service said in a new report Thursday that the death toll stands at 57 after some eight weeks of demonstrations demanding general elections to remove Maduro.
Senior opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said his side planned to march in protest to a military complex in Caracas on Friday to demand the armed forces drop their support for Maduro.
Ortega has accused the military police of being to blame for hundreds of injuries in the unrest.
Protesters brand the socialist president a dictator and blame him for economic turmoil and food shortages. Maduro has resisted those calls, insisting the opposition and the United States are plotting a coup against him.
Analysts warn the violence benefits neither the government, which faces mounting international pressure, nor the opposition, which could lose sight of its aims.
If the opposition becomes "radical and violent," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, it risks "scaring people away."
Nicmer Evans, a political scientist ideologically loyal to the socialist leadership but critical of Maduro, says that people in both the government and the opposition are driving the violence — but that it has especially "discredited" the opposition.
"We see hooded warriors, with Molotov bombs, in a stupid confrontation of David versus Goliath that spawns rejection and distracts from goals," he said.
On the other hand, Roberto Briceno Leon, head of Venezuelan Violence Watch, say the government promotes confrontation "because it no longer has popular support."
Venezuelans are struggling with shortages of food and medicine, soaring inflation — prices could rise by 720 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates — and one of the world\’s highest violent crime rates.
If violence continues, analysts say it could come close to "civil war," as sociologist Francisco Coello puts it.
"A problem of this type cannot be resolved… without political negotiation," said Briceno.