Meanwhile, in Venezuela …

2/22/14
 
   < < Go Back
 
from The Wall Street Journal,
2/21/14:

Students, Recent Graduates Form Backbone of Challenge to Maduro.

Day after day since early this month, on streets clouded with tear gas, William Colmenares and other young Venezuelans raise their voices against President Nicolás Maduro’s government. They accuse him of acting like a dictator and wrecking the country’s economy.

Mr. Maduro calls the protesters fascists, part of a plot by the U.S. government to derail Socialism in this oil-rich country, and his government has arrested dozens.

Six people have been shot dead since Feb. 12 from the ranks of a surging opposition movement. One of the victims, a local beauty queen and student, Genesis Carmona, 22 years old, was buried Friday as the country braced for more marches on Saturday.

The violence, though, hasn’t deterred Mr. Colmenares and other young people—from high-school and university students to recent graduates looking for work in a moribund economy. They form the backbone of an increasingly raucous movement that has become the most formidable challenge the president has faced since taking office in April 2013.

“I had to come out after all that violence,” said Mr. Colmenares, who is 23 years old and works in a department store, referring to the first outburst of deadly gunfire.

Many of the demonstrators are so young that they have known only Chavismo, the ruling system named after the late President Hugo Chávez who came to power in February 1999 and transformed Venezuela into a Socialist state closely aligned to Communist Cuba. They have spent their formative years listening to lofty Chavismo rhetoric—only to see their prospects dim as the country sinks further into economic crisis.

Many of Mr. Maduro’s top aides have said the protests are led and organized by rich children of the country’s elite and middle class, funded out of Miami and Bogotá. “The tough guys of fascism are out in the streets looking down on the people, kicking people in the streets, destroying public property, firing at apartments,” Mr. Maduro said on television Thursday.

Those claims sound hollow to people like José Materano, 21, whose parents work for the government. He attends a state university but says he is tired of living in a country with inflation of about 60%, the highest in Latin America, and widespread food shortages.

Mr. Materano lives with his parents in a hillside slum—the kind of place where Mr. Chávez built his following. His parents were Chavistas, and he was taught as a boy to revere the presidential palace, which can be seen from the slum.

But, he added, he also has seen how his parents’ combined salaries haven’t been enough to move them out of their crumbling home, which mirrors the crumbling of their support for the government.

“They don’t dare speak out against the government because they would lose their jobs,” Mr. Materano said. “They are even pushed to attend government rallies.”

The current protests … range day by day from several hundred to tens of thousands. They began after the alleged attempted sexual assault of a university student on Feb. 2, and then spread. The government reacted by arresting protesters, triggering more outrage.

But they come at a time when Venezuela’s economy is seriously dysfunctional, said Demetrio Boersner, a former diplomat in the Chávez government and a historian who has written frequently about politics here.

He said the protests could energize the opposition, which had become resigned to having little voice and few options.

More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):