Can Venezuela’s Socialist Government Survive Wave of Protests?

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VenezuelaVENEZUELA (CNN, Feb. 23, 2014) — Student protesters pack the streets. Violence surges. Tear gas billows.

Opposition leaders and government officials blame each other for the unrest, and both sides show no sign of backing down.

No matter who you believe, it’s clear that tensions are running high in Venezuela.

The anti-government demonstrations are the biggest threat President Nicolas Maduro has faced since his election last year. And inside and outside the South American country’s borders, there’s a major question many are asking: Could this be the beginning of the end for Venezuela’s socialist government?

The situation doesn’t look pretty. Inflation topped 56% last year. Crime rates are high. Goods shortages have left store shelves bare

But the next election is years away, and experts say it’s likely too soon to start ringing the death knell for Hugo Chavez’s revolution just yet.

A variety of scenarios could play out in the coming days, depending on the steps authorities and protesters take. And, with so many factors in flux, it’s difficult to guess what’s next.

“Anything can happen now,” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College. “This is a real crisis on all fronts. The government has ways to survive…but at the same time, it can lose this battle.”

Here are some possible game-changers to keep an eye on:

Government crackdowns on protesters

Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition politician accused by the government of inciting violence and leading the recent protests, is behind bars, facing charges of arson and conspiracy.

Maduro has vowed to crack down on other opposition leaders like him, calling them fascists and comparing them to a disease that must be cured.

He’s defended that approach in national television broadcasts, accusing protesters of violence, vandalism and plotting a slow-motion coup.

“Is capturing these people repression? Or is it justice?” Maduro said after airing videos during a national broadcast that he said showed opposition attacks on government buildings.

Any ratcheting up of repression could have a major cost for the government, possibly turning supporters at home and abroad against it, said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“In contrast to Venezuela’s serious problem with street crime, for which the government does not traditionally pay a political price, for this kind of repression it will,” Smilde wrote in an analysis of the situation this week. “At best, it reveals a government that cannot control its guns. At worst, it reveals a government that is as violent as its opponents have long claimed.”

On the other hand, the government could defuse the situation.

“If the government responds in some way and deals with the situation by relieving some of the distress and trying not to clamp down further, and showing some flexibility and some willingness to engage in some dialogue and moderation, then I think it could weather this period,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Support from Chavistas

There’s one major reason analysts point to when they say that Venezuela’s socialist government isn’t approaching any sort of imminent collapse: Many people in the country are still behind the President.

“Maduro has a lot of support,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University. “He’s not Chavez, but he’s seen as a relatively faithful representative of what Chavez stood for.”

The cornerstone of Chavez’s presidency was the Bolivarian Revolution, his ambitious plan to turn Venezuela into a socialist state. Social “missions” aimed at eradicating illiteracy, distributing staple foods and providing health care popped up across the country.

Chavez was elected and re-elected in large part thanks to support from the country’s poor, who felt marginalized by previous governments. He tapped into their needs and frustrations — often through confrontations with the Venezuelan elite.

Maduro — who Chavez tapped as his successor before he died — has taken a similar tack. His narrow election victory last year was closer than supporters had hoped, but he still won.

Throngs of Maduro’s dedicated followers still call themselves Chavistas in devotion to the former president.

Even though Maduro is nowhere near as charismatic as Chavez, for many, he’s still better than the alternative, Shifter said.

“They perceive that there are parts of the opposition that want to go back to pre-Chavez Venezuela, which basically ignored the concerns of the poor,” Shifter said. “They don’t want to lose what they think they’ve gained.”

A key challenge for the opposition is chipping away at Chavistas’ support for the government. If they can win over Chavez loyalists, that could tip the scales.

Ciccariello-Maher, who authored “We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution,” argues that’s not likely. The revolution, he says, is much bigger than Chavez or Maduro.

“The Chavista government has been in power for more than 14 years and has won a larger number of elections than any other government essentially on earth because they mobilized the poor and have a strong support base among the poor, and also a chunk of the middle class,” Ciccariello-Maher said. “This support base is not going anywhere, and it’s not going to disintegrate because a relatively small number of students are protesting in relatively middle class areas of the country.”

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