What lies behind the protests in Venezuela?

The protests began in early February in the western states of Tachira and Merida when students demanded increased security after a female student alleged she was the victim of an attempted rape. Venezuela has the fifth highest murder rate in the world. Insecurity and crime are rife in many urban centres.

They also complained about record inflation (official figures suggest yearly inflation in December 2013 stood at 56.2%) and shortages of basic food items.

The protests in Tachira turned violent, triggering the arrest of several students.

At this point, two hardliners within Venezuela’s opposition movement, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, joined in the protests.

When the student movement organised a march in the capital, Caracas, Mr Lopez and Ms Machado used the hashtag #lasalida, which in Spanish means both “the exit” and “the solution”, to call on their supporters to join in the demonstration.

The protests in Caracas started on 12 February and quickly turned deadly when three people were shot by gunmen following a largely peaceful march that same day. There have been daily demonstrations since then.

Students were the first to take to the streets. Unlike many Latin American countries, Venezuela’s student movement is largely conservative in its outlook.

When the protests spread to Caracas, the students were joined by hardliners from within the umbrella opposition group Table for Democratic Unity (MUD). Mr Lopez, a former mayor and political maverick, and Ms Machado, an MP, are the main political figures behind #lasalida.

The elected leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to President Nicolas Maduro in April last year, was opposed to the initial marches.

After more than 500 people were arrested and more than a dozen killed, Mr Capriles and a more moderate sector of the opposition also took to the streets asking for peaceful demonstrations. According to many observers and to Mr Capriles himself, the protests are made up of a middle-class majority, with middle-class concerns.

Given the breadth of people demonstrating, the demands are varied.

They are urging the release of all those detained during previous marches. More than 500 protesters have been arrested, of which about 200 remain in jail, according to the association of human rights lawyers, Foro Penal Venezolano. Officials say the number is much lower.

The demonstrators allege some of those detained have been tortured and haveprotesters-ven2 demanded a government investigation. While President Maduro initially denied the allegations, Venezuela’s Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega has since announced that an investigation is under way.

They also want increased security and have called for pro-government groups of activists, also known as colectivos, or collectives, to be disarmed.

The say the government has enforced a media blackout and have called for a free flow of information.

Some more hard-line protesters say they will not leave the streets until Mr Maduro resigns.

The government accuses the opposition of trying to stage a coup with backing from the United States.

Several members of the government have warned of a “slow coup”, in which protests slowly lead to increasing chaos until the situation boils over and the government is toppled.

The government has drawn parallels between the protests and a brief coup that took place against Hugo Chavez in 2002. President Maduro has called the protesters “fascists”.

At the same time, the government has been calling on its supporters to show their strength. Different groups such as oil workers and motorcycle drivers have marched in support of the president, suggesting that he continues to have strong backing among his core constituency, especially the poorer sections of Venezuelan society.

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