Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government is facing its biggest challenge since his electoral victory on April 14, 2013 - still unrecognized by the U.S. government. Nationwide street protests coinciding with Venezuela's "Youth Day" turned violent on February 10. Disruptions continued and two days later in Caracas swarms of masked demonstrators taunted police, ringed public buildings, destroyed official vehicles, and set fires. Gunfire left three people dead and over 70 wounded. Dozens were imprisoned.
Serious confrontations erupted in Tachira and Merida states, well known for harboring anti-government paramilitaries from nearby Colombia. Official spokespersons characterized the killings of two victims in Caracas with single shots from one gun as assassinations and, as such, provocations.
Disturbances emerging immediately after Maduro's slim election victory caused 11 deaths. Uprisings then and now, observers say, followed a single script, that of casting Venezuela's Bolivarian government as precarious, now because charismatic leader Hugo Chavez, who preceded Maduro, is gone. Power brokers within Venezuela's still thriving capitalist sector aim at destabilization. The current turmoil has parallels with the failed, U.S. supported, anti-Chavez coup in 2002.
Washington officials, mindful of Monroe Doctrine traditions of dominating a continent, have little enthusiasm for the Bolivarian Revolution Maduro now heads. It is anti-imperialist, socialist, and -- for the region -- integrationist. And Venezuela has oil.
With student protesters and others in the streets, millions of U.S. dollars delivered over the past decade to groups aligned with Venezuela's traditional centers of power and influence seem to be bearing fruit. The National Education for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development served as conduits for funding, much of it directed at organizing students in private universities
Intermittently during the Chavez era and since, those students figured prominently in protests against inflation and shortages. Their demonstrations are big news for 85 percent of national media that is privately owned. Reports have surfaced that behind the scenes importers manipulate currencies and distributors hoard commodities.
Venezuela's Unified Socialist Party, led by Maduro, made big gains in municipal elections on December 8, 2013. Opposition strategists took the message that elections aren't helpful in their project of ousting the Bolivarians. Consequently, protesters' rhetoric within weeks turned to "regime change." Then violent confrontations materialized, spreading widely during the week of February 10. Whether thugs involved are students or infiltrators is unclear, but some admitted to payoffs.
The wealthy Henrique Capriles, the right-wing presidential candidate in elections won by Maduro, condemned the violence. One effect of his dividing opposition ranks was to spotlight veteran hardliners in charge of the current protests, two in particular.
National Assembly deputy Maria Corina Machado, born into wealth, urged protesters to remain in the streets, blaming the government for the killings. She faced allegations of involvement last year in another destabilizing plot. Machado once visited the office of President George W. Bush in connection with her leadership of the U.S. funded Sumate group, notable for propelling the anti-Chavez referendum of 2004. She became a "Yale World Fellow," according to Yale, partly because "Sumate's network of volunteers grew to include more than 30,000 members from all over Venezuela." Machado sent two sons to Yale, alma mater of both Bush presidents. In 2002 she signed a document expressing support for the coup government briefly in power then.
Leopoldo López, another elite, heads the rightist Popular Will Party. Facing an arrest warrant as intellectual author of the February 12 disturbances, López tried unsuccessfully to exit Venezuela. He graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio, a nursery for future CIA operatives, says Canadian-Cuban political writer Jean-Guy Allard. He attended Harvard's Kennedy School. Working for the International Republican Institute in 2002 he led the coup plotters' march on the presidential residence.
But now is not 2002: dissident military and police are not involved, security forces control the streets, and by the week's end anti-government protests were losing steam. Government supporters marched by the thousands in Caracas on February 15.
The night before, President Maduro presented a multi-faceted program outlining plans for "a secure country;" demobilization of armed gangs; a "Movement for Peace and Living Together" in each state; nationwide sport, cultural, and musical tours; a "new communications (meaning TV) culture;" "maximum social discipline" in prisons; and action against "drug traffickers and paramilitaries entering the country."
While the United Nations, Organization of American States, and European Union denounced violence and called for dialogue, the U.S. State Department condemned "weakening of democratic institutions in Venezuela." U.S. Senator Marco Rubio accused the Maduro government of creating "an unprecedented wave of repression." Secretary of State Kerry on February 15 threatened "serious negative consequences" should Venezuela's government succeed in arresting Lopez.
Foreign Minister Elías Jaua told reporters on February 17 that his government "confronts a fascist attack at the hands of groups trained specifically to cause violence"
Venezuela expelled three U.S. Embassy officials on February 16th for reaching out to the university students.
Photo: Caracas desborda alegría por la paz y contra el fascismo [Caracas overflows with joy for peace and against fascism ]. Granma.