When Nicolas Maduro won a much-contested election to become president of Venezuela in 2013, he sought to ape his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. Perhaps by channeling Chavez’s pugnacious, anti-American spirit, and his vision of so-called Bolivarian socialism, Maduro could reassert the former president’s vision of an oil-rich Venezuela poised to lead a resurgent Latin America. “This is Chavez’s place. Chavez continues as an example for us!” Maduro bellowed in a speech in 2013. “I am ensuring the legacy of my commander, Chavez, the eternal father.”
But Maduro’s version of chavismo has brought chaos to the country and turned voters against him. In last December’s National Assembly elections, Venezuelans issued a clear rebuke to the president, handing the opposition a supermajority. The opposition bloc, led by Henry Ramos, led an attempt to organize a recall referendum—a process enshrined in the constitution—to remove Maduro. That effort suffered repeated delays courtesy of the government, but was moving forward slowly until a court abruptly suspended it altogether last week, defying the wishes of the roughly 80 percent of Venezuelans that want to see Maduro removed from power.
In response, Venezuelans in places like Merida and Maracaibo took the streets, much as they’ve done in the past to protest both the Maduro and Chavez governments. But security forces and people sympathetic to the government have pushed back violently. So far, a police officer has been killed, with at least 120 people reportedly injured and 147 arrested. The Vatican has gotten involved to try to mediate the dispute. Opposition leaders have pledged to march on the presidential palace next week if referendum negotiations don’t resume. A 12-hour opposition-led strike in Caracas and several other cities managed to close down some stores and discouraged students from attending classes on Friday, but it fizzled out with little other effect.