Not all protests are born equal. Some people take to the streets to protest because they see the country is doing well, but they are being excluded. In other countries, people believe the country is moving in the wrong direction and they want to change course. The student protests in Chile in 2011 and the protests against the World Cup in Brazil represent two cases of inclusion-demand protests, the riots in Argentina in late 2013 and the current street demonstrations in Venezuela attempt to force the government to implement drastic economic policy change.
Venezuelans have taken to the streets because of economic, rather than political, concerns. The out of control inflation and the inept government efforts to prevent price increases have led to food shortages. Venezuelans who could hardly make ends meet are facing an even more difficult time finding food in supermarkets. In addition to a worsening crime crisis in the streets, people now cannot be certain that they will have enough Bolívares Fuertes to put food on the table. “Strong Bolívar” is the name of the currency, no pun intended. Even if they have enough money, they will have trouble finding the goods in supermarkets and local stores.
The opposition remains divided over the best course of action. The more radical wing has seized the opportunity to demand the resignation of President Nicolás Maduro. The arrest of Leopoldo López, the emerging leader of the radical group, is a calculated bet that seeks to expose the authoritarian traits of the government. Though Maduro was elected democratically (in an election not free from tampering and irregularities), his administration has fallen short of regular democratic standards. The moderate opposition, led by Henrique Capriles, wants to ease a change in government without undermining democratic values. Since the opposition supported a failed military coup against Chávez in 2002, Capriles wants to avoid the label of golpista (coup-plotter), fearing that moderate Venezuelans will side with the government rather than lend support to a non-democratic opposition. However, after Capriles lost the 2012 presidential election to Chávez and lost again—amid allegations of fraud—against Maduro in the 2013 special election (held weeks after Chávez’s death), many Venezuelans have lost hope that a regime change can be achieved through institutional and fully democratic means. Street protests might be more effective in ending the crisis than waiting for the next presidential election in 2018.
Discontent against the government has grown in recent weeks. After Maduro claimed victory in municipal elections held last December (and the opposition was unable to benefit from a protest vote given the worsening economic crisis), the massive protests have shaken the political arena. But Venezuelans are not taken to the streets for political reasons, they are protesting because of the economic crisis. In most other countries in Latin America, governments have managed the economy better, though people have taken to the streets demanding more inclusion. In Argentina, where concerns over the worsening economy have also triggered protests, people have to wait less than Venezuelans for the next election (2015 in Argentina, 2018 in Venezuela).
Street protests in Venezuela will have little effect on the rest of Latin America. Though there might be discontent in other countries too, the cause of the distress is different. In Latin America, people want inclusion. In Venezuela, people want to avoid falling off a cliff, and many believe that they cannot afford waiting until the next presidential election in 2018.
Patricio Navia is a master teacher in Liberal Studies and adjunct assistant professor in the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. He is also a researcher and full professor of political science at the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile. He holds a Ph.D. in Politics from New York University, an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Political Sciences and Sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has been a visiting professor at Princeton, New School University, Universidad de Salamanca, Universidad de Chile and NYU Buenos Aires, and a visiting fellow at the University of Miami. He has published scholarly articles and book chapters on democratization, electoral rules and democratic institutions in Latin America. He is a columnist at the Buenos Aires Herald and previously penned columns for La Tercera, Capital and Poder magazines in Chile and regularly writes for the Infolatam website. Since 2009, he has been a Fellow in the Americas Business Council.