Why are young people dying in Venezuela?

Venezuela's streets are burning in the biggest anti-government protests in a decade. The mainly student-led protests against the government put in place by the late president Hugo Chávez have been met with a brutal crackdown from police that have resulted in over 10 deaths.

Among the protesters' concerns is a lack of basic items thanks to poor central planning by government and the lack of private investment. But critics of the protests call them anti-poor and question the United States' interest in creating unrest in the oil rich, socialist country. And they point out that Chávez's successor Nicolas Maduro is a democratically elected leader. 

The Mail & Guardian spoke to Juan Mejia, a founding member and spokesperson of the Voluntad Popular party that has been at the forefront of the protests, and whose charismatic and sometimes controversial leader Leopoldo Lopez has been arrested. 

Has the violence subsided? 
Violence has continued over the past few days. There have been more than 10 people killed by gunshots, many of them young protesters, with shots in the head. 

Your party is accused of being "right wing" extremists by those supportive of Chávez and Maduro's socialist regime. Where does your party stand ideologically? 
We define ourselves as a progressive movement. We are a very young party, we founded our movement in 2011, but we have already started to participate in the International Socialist Organisation and we look forward to becoming members of this institution. This is not a right-wing organisation; we believe that the government plays a fundamental role in helping people overcome poverty, especially in a country like ours where oil revenues are so important. But we also believe that a government should not try to do everything.

Maduro's government owns enterprises that make mobile phones, food, cars, trucks, milk, cement, steel, airlines, ferries, and whatever you can imagine. They have expropriated hundreds of private companies, not only big ones but also small ones. The consequence is that there is scarcity of everything; even the products that the government makes. At the same time the government is unable to offer security (more than 20 000 people were murdered last year), health and education.

What economic system does your party think would work best for Venezuela?
An economic system where the state has an essential role in guaranteeing that the people have the support to progress and overcome poverty, but a system that also respects and supports private investment.  

Another opposition figure, Henrique Capriles Radonski, has accepted defeat at the polls but Lopez is instigating for an exit for Maduro outside of the election process. Why not follow normal democratic processes and work to win an election?
Democracy is not only about having elections. In a democracy, elections have to be transparent; incumbents should not be allowed to use state resources or media to campaign. There should be no violence and no publicity during election days, and all parties should have equal access to details of the electoral process. This does not happen in Venezuela and after the last elections, Capriles contested the results but there was never a clear answer to his demands.

This government has blocked all means by which the opposition can raise their demands. Opposition congressmen are not giving the right to speak freely in congress, TV and radio stations are controlled by the government and protesting in the streets means facing repression and aggression. That is why we talk about "the exit".

But, we are not talking about "exits" beyond the Constitution, on the contrary; we have always claimed that our struggle is within it. In that sense, Maduro has different means to solve this conflict: he could open a real dialogue and change some of his policies; if he does not feel capable of governing, he could resign and we could have new elections as long as transparency in guarantee; and finally, we could call for a referendum or a reform to the existing constitution. All these "exits" are within the Constitution and are ways Maduro could take to solve the crisis. 

Is Venezuela ready for political change? The majority of people still seem to support Maduro's government.
During the 2013 campaign we denounced repeatedly the abuses by Maduro but we were never had an answer from the judicial system. Despite all that, Maduro only won by 1.5% of the votes, though we believe that was not the real result. What I am trying to say here is that at least half the population, 7.5-million people, supported the opposition back then. Given the deterioration of the economy this number has probably increased.

But we do not want to crush government supporters. We acknowledge that there are people who support Maduro and we respect them. What we claim is that Maduro has to recognise the opposition, meet with us, hear our demands and give clear responses. We strongly believe that the only way to move on is by making agreements and understanding each other. As long as he keeps ignoring us it will be difficult to do so.

Chá​vez's government has reigned on a pro-poor ticket and there are concerns that parts of the opposition want to go back to pre-Chavez Venezuela, which basically ignored the concerns of the poor. Comment?
It is true that when Chávez won for the first time there were many problems to be solved: poverty, inequality and corruption, among others. We do not deny that at all. Many of the things Chávez said he would do back then were right. But 15 years after, our main problem is still very much present: moving away from poverty is almost an impossible task. Public schools are still very bad, hospitals do not work and do not have basic inputs, more people than ever are murdered every year, corruption has reached every government institution and basic services such as electricity and water supply don't work properly. On top of that we have food scarcity and huge inflation.

I recognise that Chávez spoke up for the poorest people in the country, he gave them a voice when they needed it, and I think that is where his main support comes from. But the truth is that after 14 years, he was not able to solve the real problem he was addressing. He implemented an unsustainable model based on public spending, which is now collapsing. 

We're hearing a lot about what Lopez is like: Some say he is arrogant and a dictator in waiting. What is he like in your personal experience?
Leopoldo has very firm ideals and he will never surrender when fighting for those ideals. Leopoldo, and us as a party, believe that Venezuela is a very unequal country, not only in the distribution of wealth but also in the access to he means to overcome poverty. Leopoldo has a phrase that synthesises that belief, which is: all rights, for everyone, without privileges. 

In 2008, when popularity surveys showed that Leopoldo would become the next metropolitan mayor of Caracas, the government accused him of corruption and banned him from running for office for the next six years. There was never a trial or a sentence, but he was still not allowed to run. Despite that, Leopoldo has kept on fighting for democracy and justice. He can be stubborn sometimes, but only because he believes in his ideas. Whenever we have different points of view, we debate and come to agreements. That is what democrats do.

There are allegations of political interference by America. Your leader studied at Havard's Kennedy School for government and another is a recent Yale world fellow. What role has America played in developing the opposition and is it healthy, given oil interests in the country?
The opposition in Venezuela does not follow recommendations or demands of any country or foreign interests. We have a commitment with the Venezuelan people and we would work with and for them. We do not support any intervention in our political affairs by any country.

In that same sense, we also reject the interfering of the Cuban government in our nation. We respect the Cuban people but, it has been pointed out by several former generals of the army (see Antonio Rivero or Rafael Baduel) that the Castro brothers have been involved in issues that only Venezuelans should, like national security.

We do welcome calls of concern from any sovereign nation about our current situation of human rights violations and democracy. In the 1960s and 1970s when most of our region was under military dictatorships, Venezuela always denounced violations of human rights, we only ask for the same. But once again, giving out a opinion is one thing, interfering is another, we do not support the latter.

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