Venezuela’s rocky ride

February 19, 2014 - 3:45:03 am

Anti-government protests in Venezuela offer an opportunity to its president to introduce reforms.


Protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s rule have rocked the capital Caracas, signifying pent-up rage against his socialist government. Yesterday, key opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was not seen for several days, handed himself in to police. With the reappearance of Lopez, who has been spearheading the anti-government protests, the opposition against Maduro’s rule is set to get a boost. Though Lopez will likely remain under detention, his presence should keep the protesters’ morale high.

The socialist regime of Maduro, a protégé of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, has been up against odds after he took over as president following the death of his mentor after bouts of sickness. A former bus driver, Maduro vowed to tread on the path set by Chavez who enjoyed a cult status among his supporters. The Venezuelan leader’s political path has been criss-crossed by anti-government protesters who want to bring about change, and Lopez has come up as the prospective driver of that change. 

There are pro-government supporters in the streets of the capital Caracas and planned marches by the pro and anti-Maduro supporters have ratcheted up tensions in the South American nation.  The chaos in the nation, which is a major oil producer and an important member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, embodies the shakeup in authoritarian regimes once a charismatic leader, like Chavez, is out of the political arena. Nascent polities are unable to hold themselves in place and struggle hard to find traction in the absence of strong political structures.

The democratic structures of polities like Venezuela take time to mature after they have been rid of the charismatic sheen of highly populist politicians, in this case Chavez. Lopez is a Harvard University economist and a distant relative of Venezuela independence hero Simon Bolivar. Maduro’s humble background — he was a bus driver— contrasts starkly with Lopez’s.  The politics of the country will have to pass through several unstable phases that will help it emerge from a quasi-authoritarian state to a responsible democracy. Maduro has an important role to play. He has to choose between continuing Chavez’s controversial but populist strategies and adopting a saner path to development. Shunning the limelight, which was the leitmotif of Chavez, will do Maduro a lot of good. 

Taking up problems and solving them should be the highlight of Maduro’s rule. This should inform all policy debate in the country instead of the folksy legacy of the late Socialist leader haunting Venezuelans every now and then. 

Lopez, who is now in custody, represents a force that can shape Maduro’s future path. Instead of trying to get even, Maduro’s regime should deal humanely with anti-government protesters and their leader. This is a crucial moment for Maduro. By acting with sagacity, he will pave the right way for Venezuela and Venezuelans.