February 18, 2014 12:33PM

Are We Nearing a Breaking Point in Venezuela?

Today could be a very tragic day in Venezuelan history. Two large marches, one from the opposition and the other organized by the government, are already taking the streets of the capital and might converge in the same district. The regime of Nicolas Maduro outlawed the opposition march and threatened violence if they try to enter the municipality of Libertador, in downtown Caracas. Things could get very ugly.

Tensions have built up since last week when tens of thousands of people, mostly students, took to the streets to protest against the government. The heavy-handedness with which the regime has dealt with the protests is almost unprecedented. At least 3 people died, scores have been detained and many are still missing. The students that were released have denounced that they were tortured and raped while in custody. Moreover, the government issued an arrest warrant against Leopoldo López, former mayor of the district of Chacao and one of the most emblematic leaders of the opposition. As leader of the march today, he turned himself in to the National Guard.

We need to keep a few things in mind as events unfold:

A large segment of the population is fed up: This is not the first time that tens of thousands of Venezuelans take the streets to protest against the government. However, as the acute economic crisis worsens, the level of desperation among the population, especially the middle class, is reaching a boiling point. The scarcity index shows that more than one out of four basic products is out of stock. Hour-long lines are an every-day occurrence in super markets. And when you can actually find a product, your income is rapidly dwindling to purchase it. The official inflation rate reached 56 percent last year, but according to my colleague Steve Hanke’s Troubled Currency Project, the implied annual inflation rate is actually 305 percent. Crime has significantly worsened living conditions: Venezuela is now one of the most dangerous places in the world with almost 25,000 homicides in 2013 –a murder rate of 79 killings for 100,000 inhabitants. The country is quickly becoming unlivable and many Venezuelans think that they have nothing to lose.

The government will do anything to maintain its hold on power: This is almost verbatim from Nicolás Maduro this past weekend, who even stated that he doesn’t mind being called a dictator. People who fear the breakout of a civil war in Venezuela don’t understand that only one side is armed: the government and its supporters. The Maduro regime, whose security apparatus is closely controlled by Cuba’s secret services, has already engaged in brutish repression of protestors. The army and the National Guard are firmly aligned with the government and there is little or no chance that they might balk at exercising unrestrained violence against unarmed civilians. Moreover, armed gangs of government supporters, called “tupamaros,” act freely with the complicity of the security services and were supposedly behind the killings of a couple of protesters last week. It’s hard to have a civil war when only one side is armed.

Maduro’s real threat is from within: The opposition is disarmed and doesn’t constitute a real threat to Maduro’s hold on power. His real enemies are inside the government, especially military-types aligned with the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. Any sign of weakness from Maduro could give the green light to this wing of chavismo to take over power. Maduro knows this, and is another reason he is likely to exert unrestrained repression against the protestors.  

Latin American countries will back Maduro or remain silent: Maduro doesn’t have to worry about the international community, at least about his Latin American peers. Mercosur has already issued a statement declaring its solidarity with the Venezuelan regime. Similar declarations were made by other left-wing governments such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. On the other hand, Latin American nations with more mature democracies such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Costa Rica have been silent, out of cowardice or cynicism, and will probably remain so. Thus, the Venezuelan government has a free hand to repress its people without having to be held accountable by its neighbors or regional groupings such as the Organization of American States or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The Venezuelan government will simply brush off any other criticism coming from Washington or Brussels.

There won’t be an easy way out. The question is whether the opposition will be intimidated by the threat of violence, as has been the case before, or will continue its struggle even if that means mounting casualties. My guess is that things will get a lot uglier.