What the Hell Is Going on in Venezuela? A Guide To Understanding the Chaos in Caracas

Even if you're not Venezuelan, with the number of venezolanos in Miami soaring since Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, chances are by now you've got plenty of friends and co-workers who are from the oil-rich South American country.

And for the past two weeks, all those friends and co-workers have been talking about is the student protests setting Venezuela on fire. Eight people have been reportedly killed, including a 22-year-old beauty queen. Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez's successor has expelled American ambassadors and international news stations.

This afternoon there is a rally in Doral to protest the violence in Venezuela. So before you show up screaming "¡Qué se caiga Fidel!" here is a guide to the chaos underway in Caracas.

See also: Caracas Protests: Three Dead, Maduro Warns of Miami Plans "To Fill Venezuela With Blood"

What are the protests all about?

Most of the protesters appear to be Venezuelan college students in their teens and twenties. They are upset about a number of things, but the main concern is insecurity. Violence has plagued Venezuela since long before Chávez, but the number of homicides has soared since he took over. The country's official homicide rate (39 per 100,000) puts it in the top five in the world, and independent observers think the real rate is twice as high.

Even the government has tried to clamp down on violence recently by reigning in motorcycles riders, notorious for drive-by robberies and assassinations. Now, however, newspapers report squads of National Guardsmen on motorcycles are patrolling Caracas, "terrorizing" residents by firing rubber bullets at their buildings.

For many outsiders, the January 7 killing of soap opera star and beauty queen Monica Spear signaled that security had reached an all-time low. But Venezuelans have been dealing with rising death tolls for a decade.

The protesters' second main complaint is the country's sick economy. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- government price controls intended to help the poor, inflation hit a record 54 percent last year. Shortages of basic goods like sugar and toilet paper are now common, and apagones-- or blackouts -- remain a problem.

What's going on?

It's hard to tell, exactly. Videos of students being kicked, punched, and allegedly shot by government forces have spread on YouTube and other websites. Perhaps the clearest evidence of a crime is this video put together by newspaper Últimas Noticias. It shows government agents opening fire on protesters armed with rocks. One student was killed.

But objective reports on the violence are few and far between. Ever since a 2002 coup against Chávez -- one tacitly backed by the U.S. and enabled by right-wing TV stations -- the government has cracked down on opposition media. Under government pressure, opposition station Globovision was sold to chavistas last year. And in the past week, the government has banned a Colombian cable station and CNN for supposedly impartial reporting.

Who are the main players?

Nicolas Maduro: Maduro is the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chávez, who died last March after a long and mysterious battle with cancer. A former bus driver, Maduro is not nearly as charismatic as Chávez, who could talk for entire days and often burst into song on live television, but Maduro does sport an enviable mustache. Whatever doubts remain about Maduro, he has twice successfully rallied chavistas: first to elect him in April and again in December when his socialist party dominated local elections.

Henrique Capriles Radonski: A handsome fitness fanatic and state governor, Capriles narrowly lost to Chávez in October of 2012 before again coming up just short against Maduro six months later. Capriles contested the results, however, alleging fraud.

Leopoldo López: Another young, handsome state governor, López hails from one of Venezuela's most powerful political families. But he is a divisive figure. According to a 2009 U.S. embassy cable titled "The Lopez 'Problem,'" he is "arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry -- but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer."

Whereas Capriles eventually accepted his December defeat, López started a movement called "La Salida" which openly aims to unseat the president through protests. When Maduro accused López of fomenting violence, López taunted him by tweeting "don't you have the guts to arrest me?" Maduro did just that earlier this week, arresting López on charges of inciting violence and even murder (for the deaths of protesters, a charge that has since been dropped).

"I'm fine, I ask you not to give up, I won't," López said in a note smuggled out of a Caracas prison. "To the youth, to the protesters, I ask you to stay firm against violence, and to stay organised and disciplined. This is everyone's struggle."

Diosdado Cabello: President of Venezuela's National Assembly and a powerful figure in the military, Cabello was instrumental in returning Chávez to power after a 2002 coup. His name literally translates to "God-given hair," and many were surprised that he was not tipped to replace fallen icon Chávez. It was Cabello who personally negotiated López's surrender and drove him to jail.

Venezuelans in Miami: Over the past decade, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have moved to the Miami area. While all of them are glued to the unrest across the Caribbean, some are also intimately involved in planning the protests. Just last week, Maduro claimed there were "plans coming out of Miami to fill Venezuela with blood."

What's at stake?

Probably the only thing that both sides agree on is that the future of the country is up for grabs. Maduro has blamed violence not on students (or soldiers) but on "Nazi fascists" who want to undo Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, in which billions of dollars of oil wealth have been redistributed to poor Venezuelans. "We're facing an evolving coup d'etat, and the Bolivarean revolution will triumph," Maduro announced on national TV.

The students, meanwhile, blame Chávez, Maduro, and their socialist policies for the country's slide into insecurity and hyperinflation. Now that people are dying on the streets, they will blame Maduro for that too.

Also at stake is the country's vast oil reserves. Chávez wrested control of oil production away from the opposition in 2002 shortly after the coup, and those petrodollars have fueled the Bolivarian Revolution. While running for president, Capriles promised to continue some of Chávez's social programs, but root out corruption among the so-called boliburguesía.

What happens now?

López's arrest -- and defiant jail comments -- are only likely to inspire further protests. Meanwhile, Venezuelans in exile are beginning to sense Maduro's vulnerability. Today's rally in Doral is just one of dozens taking place this week around the world.

But Chavistas have had more than a decade to learn from the 2002 coup, and have solidified their control over the military, judiciary, and media. Even without Hugo at the helm, the government is not going to give up without a long and costly battle.

Today's rally, "S.O.S Venezuela, for the world to see," will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. in JC Bermudez Park, 3000 NW 87th Ave., Doral.

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