On the 12th of February (Venezuelan national youth day), students from cities all around the country took to the streets in peaceful protest. Why were they protesting? Since President Maduro came into power in March 2013, the Venezuelan economy has deteriorated. Inflation was recorded at 56.2% in December 2013, and staple foods such as milk and oil have been unavailable for weeks at a time. The students were also protesting against the high crime rate in the country (There were 25,000 homicides last year alone), the lack of accountability and were demanding freedom of speech and the media, as the government is known to monopolise the media and restrict the flow of information within the country as well to the international community.
These protests that started off peacefully quickly turned violent as national guards unlawfully used batons, tear gas and guns in order to repress the protesters, resulting in the death of three students on the first day. Local human rights advocates also report that demonstrators have been abused and tortured in detention. President Maduro responded to the demonstrations by sending military tanks into a city in the West of the country, and sending out a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, blaming him for the outbreak of violence, conspiracy and treason. Lopez is currently being detained despite the fact that the government has not made public any credible evidence to substantiate allegations against him.
The government has been controlling the media and restricting the spread of information. Colombian news channel NTN24 has been taken off air and offline because it was broadcasting news of the protests in Venezuela. Maduro has also threatened to stop airing CNN as it is also covering the protests. Venezuelans have thus turned to the use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Soundcloud as it is the only way they can share information across the country. In an attempt to stop this spread of information, twitter has confirmed that the government restricted the ability of users to send images on the 15th of Feb.
Fifteen students have been killed and NGOs have confirmed there have been more than 500 detained and many reports of disappearances. While many Venezuelan’s have decided to cancel Carnival – a traditional five-day celebration – in mourning of the students that have been killed by government’s violent reaction, President Maduro was pictured dancing salsa at a public concert over the weekend.
“The Venezuelan government has openly embraced the classic tactics of an authoritarian regime, jailing its opponents, muzzling the media, and intimidating civil society,” said José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director at Human Rights Watch.
The opposition has since publicised a list of demands which include the release of the students that are currently being detained, the release of Leopoldo Lopez, an end to persecution and terrorising of citizens, and the immediate disarmament of pro-government gangs and national guards who have not faced any consequences following their unlawful use of fire arms against protesters which have resulted in uncertainty and tension among Venezuelans.