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Whither Venezuela?

Marvinia Jimenez is a young, partially disabled mother (35). When spreading protests came to her largely poor neighbourhood in La Isabelica, Valencia (some 200 kilometers from Caracas) on 24 February, she thought that instead of retreating, or running away, she would approach the National Guard, to have a word. What followed was one of the darkest episodes of brutality seen in Venezuela in the last few years. To President Nicolas Maduro's shame, almost every detail of the vile attack on unarmed Marvinia was recorded by many neighbours, who uploaded the gory stuff onto social media in real time. The pictures and video immediately went viral. Not only that, the perpetrator (Josneidy Nayari Castillo Mendoza) was outed, her Facebook profile, pictures and identity exposed, even a passport request was leaked and posted online.

Alas Marvinia's ordeal wouldn't end just there. After having been viciously beaten and dragged around by her hair, she was arrested, was held in solitary confinement, and released about 48 hours later with five charges (you read correctly), among which aggression. I shall spare you the pictures and videos, those so inclined can Google her name and see what she went through.

What about 21-year old Juan Manuel Carrasco Gonzalez? He was protesting in El Trigal, another area of Valencia on 13 February, when he was arrested along with others, and was sodomised with a riffle and beaten up while in custody. This unspeakable action was also perpetrated by the National Guard. Upon release he was taken to hospital. His mother, deeply moved, recounted a tale of excruciating physical and psychological torture that was driving her son to the brink of insanity. Public prosecutors showed up in the clinic to get medical reports and statements. Just imagine Juan Manuel's surprise, when Venezuela's Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz, declared that he had not been beaten up and sodomised by the State's security forces. Perhaps in violation to an absurd no-comment order imposed, Juan Manuel had to relive his ordeal, by refuting statements from the Attorney General and ratifying to the press that he had, in fact, been abused and tortured. Juan Manuel received a 45 days house arrest.

Welcome to Venezuela, the socialist paradise modelled by the late Hugo Chavez and his idol Fidel Castro, whose successor, Nicolas Maduro, has turned rapidly into a failed State. Inflation runs at 56%. Scarcity of food at 26%. In 2013 alone, over 24,000 Venezuelan lost their lives to crime, which compounded with previous years figures (since 1998) takes the toll north of 100,000. The judiciary is beyond useless, 97% of homicides go unpunished. Despite an extraordinary windfall of oil income, the country is a ruin. But dare go out to protest at own peril, for Maduro and his Cuban handlers are not about to allow such insolence. Media reporting on it is censored, ask NTN24. CNN reporter Karl Penhaul, and Colombian Juan Pablo Bieri were assaulted by security forces, their equipment and video recording confiscated. Other journalists, such as CNN's Patricia Janiot, were kicked out of the country. Users reported problems uploading pictures and video onto Twitter, which once online were blocked. Access to blogs and websites critical of the regime has also been blocked.

The current crisis started because of rampant crime. An attempted rape on a student from Universidad de Los Andes, in San Cristobal, capital city of Tachira state bordering with Colombia in Western Venezuela on 4 February, kickstarted a wave of protests, that have since spread nationwide. Use of excessive force and the judiciary as repression mechanisms have fuelled the flames to uncontrollable levels. Protesting students have been joined by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans. 15 people have already been killed, either by security forces or paramilitary thugs supporting the Chavista Revolution. One of the leaders of the opposition, Leopoldo Lopez, has been jailed in a military prison on trumped charges. Another, Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, is the target of a campaign to strip her of parliamentary immunity. All the while, Minister of Education, Hector Rodriguez, claims that the socialist revolution is not about to take people out of poverty into the middle class, so that they turn against his government. Jose Vielma Mora, Governor of Tachira state for the ruling party, voiced strong criticism of the way in which Maduro has dealt with the student protests.

And it is worth explaining, to an international audience largely uninformed on particulars, that, for all its glorified supporter base, Chavismo is yet to win a majority across Venezuelan universities. Not even at the peak of popularity, did representatives aligned with Hugo Chavez gained overall control. Put in other words, where voting is still done manually, Chavismo has gotten nothing but humiliating defeats in poll after poll, since 1998. While the Smartmatics / National Electoral Council have produced a tally of 18 wins and one defeat for Chavismo (2007, in which university students also had an active role) in presidencial, legislative, congressional, gubernatorial and local council elections since 1998, an almost identical but inverse tally, in races for students' bodies and universities' authorities, provides an excellent perspective of how the Bolivarian Revolution is perceived among Venezuelan students, most of whom haven't even lived under a different government.

Unfortunately, no leader, on either side of the divide, can claim control over what people are doing in the streets right now. Yesterday, 463 Members of the European Parliament condemned President Maduro's crowd control tactics. Criticism towards his regime cuts across ideological divides, as exemplified by articles on the topic published both by The Times and The Guardian. In unleashing brutality against unarmed civilians, Maduro has made repulsion to his regime universal. As protests continue unabated for the third week running, it is unclear how will the crisis diffuse.