Six weeks after the Nicolás Maduro regime declared a “national emergency,” protests are beginning to escalate throughout the country, including acts of vandalism and looting in some cases.
Incidents such as those in Cumanacoa, a community in Sucre state, 900 kilometers east of Caracas, and Upata, 800 km southeast of the capital, where stores were vandalized, leaving at least seven people injured and one dead (Upata), point to what Rafael Uzcátegui, coordinator of nongovernmental organization (NGO) Provea, described as “the beginning of mass demonstrations.”
“We are concerned about the conditions in which this quarantine is being managed. There are no water or power services, which was also the case before the epidemic. There is no fuel, either. But now, we also have a higher rate of informal labor, more than 50 percent, which complicates food provision for the population,” said the spokesperson for the human rights entity.
According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, the lack of fuel since March was a trigger for the protests, especially in the north-central, Andean, and western regions of the country. Lines to fill up on gasoline are long in the Capital District, with more than half a day-reported wait times to get 20 liters of fuel.
The National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB, in Spanish) and the police have had to deploy units to avoid confrontation and aggressions. Although the situation in Caracas and Miranda state seems to be a prelude to protests similar to those in Sucre and Bolívar, experts believe that the military response will be much faster and more forceful.
“In Upata and Araya, authorities allowed for protests to take place, and then took action. But these are remote communities. The FANB uses force at their convenience. It would be different if this were to happen in large cities,” said Venezuelan Army Major General (ret.) Gonzalo García Ordóñez, referring to two municipalities in Sucre state, where protests erupted.
This officer commanded five garrisons — current Comprehensive Defense Operational Zones (ZODI, in Spanish) — before going on to lead the National Armed Forces’ Unified Command (CUFAN, in Spanish), equivalent to the current FANB Strategic Operational Command.
According to the officer, the government manages the situation differently in the capital, compared to the rest of the country. He said that fuel scarcity has been a recurrent issue in Andean states since 2015, happening in Caracas only since late March 2020. He warned that any protest in the Capital District like those reported in Sucre and Bolívar will be blocked at any cost, since Caracas is the center of political decisions and has greater visibility.
Rocío San Miguel, director of Venezuelan NGO Citizen Control, also noted this difference. She said that until 2017 repressive forces were taking action to “squash” protests.
“The forces might adopt a passive role in this dynamic, as their members and their families might also be affected. Now, the drill is to hold off at the beginning,” she said.
As the quarantine continues and the demand grows for greater control, fatigue will also escalate among security forces charged with enforcing that control.
According to San Miguel, this will be a “key factor” in the regime’s decision-making.
“There are other security forces besides the National Guard. They are implementing a concept of civil-military-police union. This is what Maduro will resort to, through the National Bolivarian Militia,” she said.
For CUFAN’s former chief, the regime might attempt to mitigate the physical fatigue among the military and police forces with a relief scheme. However, he thinks that the greatest pressure for officials is on the psychological side. He said that absolute loyalty to the government is required; otherwise, counterintelligence bodies could go against the relatives of those who express any discontent.
“We are facing a military command that is completely politicized, and this also generates exhaustion in the National Armed Forces’ lower ranks […]. It’s no longer enough to fulfill the mission. You have to go the extra mile to remove any doubt,” he said.
Another factor that influences fatigue is the possibility of extending the quarantine that Maduro has already pushed until May 13. García Ordóñez said that the regime’s inability to effectively tackle the pandemic and fuel scarcity will force it to extend the measure until at least July.
Provea expects a longer mandatory confinement.
“We had made a three-month work plan, until June. But we already estimate an extension of this period until August,” Uzcátegui said.