CARACAS — As Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó asked supporters on May Day to continue street protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, on Caracas's famed Altamira junction, a resilient group of protesters were throwing rocks and shouting at the soldiers firing tear gas at them from the Francisco de Mirando air base.
Nearby, the parliamentarian Manuela Bolívar tried to persuade them by loudspeaker to abandon this strategy and go listen to Guaidó, about to set out a road map in this "crusade" to remove the authoritarian Maduro from power.
"Keeping the street alive" is now the opposition's chosen method of pushing for free and fair elections in Venezuela. Guaidó's strategy is three-pronged: international backing and sanctions against regime figures, seeking the Venezuelan military's support to give the opposition physical force and movement, and the support of ordinary Venezuelans on the street. They are after all the ones suffering the biggest peace-time slump in Latin American history, without a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami to blame.
International support is solid from the West and liberal democracies. But aside from verbal threats and diplomatic bravado from the United States, and promises to free billions of dollars in international funds to rebuild the debt-ridden country, it does not seem as if it will suffice to topple Maduro and his Bolivarian government.
Juan Guaidó during a speech in Caracas — Photo: La Nacion/ZUMA
The military support has not materialized so far, even after Guaidó, surrounded by a small number of National Guard troops, urged the military to rise against the government. Ironically the National Guard is the most violent and ruthless of the state's security bodies. No garrison responded to his call nor any general with troops at his command.
A source says that it has become very difficult to conspire in Venezuela, thanks to tight security structures created under Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chávez, with advice from an expert in suppressing dissent, the then ruler of Cuba Fidel Castro. These make it more likely to be uncovered before a deserting soldier or general could negotiate any amnesty offer or flee abroad with their family into a safe exile.
Military components are for example divided between Operative Zones and Strategic Regions where officials of similar ranks are in similar positions, observing each other's actions. There are more than 22,000 generals in Venezuela, more than all the generals in NATO, according to the U.S. Southern Command. Most are millionaire businessmen with no incentives for leaving Maduro. People in that world know that betrayal will cost you dear and are mindful of reports of particularly brutal tortures inflicted on some 200 military personnel arrested as suspected conspirators.
"We'll get back on our feet, again and again, in spite of its difficulty," Guaidó said on May 1 in an apparent reference to the previous day's failure, adding "I swear we'll succeed. You can be sure of it. As long as we keep up the pressure on the streets, we'll be closer every day" to toppling Maduro.
Guaidó must offer answers to a general public that is tired and desperate.
He announced a strategy of strikes gradually rising to the level of a general strike. But this is another delicate move in a country heaving under a slump that has halved the size of the economy in five years, and may shrink it another 25-30% in 2019, in line with estimates by economists and the IMF.
Retailers, services, manufacturing and the oil industry are working at half their capacity. Public transport and utilities are in a state of collapse, and the minimum monthly wage is equivalent to $7.60. People need multiple informal jobs just to get food on the table, while the state has become the main employer — so shouting for Guaidó and against Maduro could mean helpless people losing the monthly rations basket sold by the country's ruling party, PSUV.
The opposition is striving to maintain its presence on the street and show people it has a plan for removing Maduro and rebuilding the country. But leaders like Guaidó must offer answers to a general public that is tired and desperate. In Altamira, a young man with his face covered asked me for a "biscuit or water, something energizing to keep fighting." He was picking up stones to throw at soldiers acting against a protest that had begun peacefully. "Let's hope there'll be change, but there is no way of knowing," said another hooded youngster with him.
Under the scorching tropical sun, and weeping from rage and the tear gas, a pensioner recalls the days when he earned $800 a month. It was even enough to take his family on holiday. "We still have the strength and will. We want the country back that we had before."
See more from Opinion / Analysis here