CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – One year has passed since Venezuela’s streets were rocked by anti-government protests that left 43 people dead and neighborhoods choked by flaming barricades.
The unrest culminated with the arrest of Leopoldo Lopez, a former Caracas-area mayor and key opposition leader, who waved goodbye to thousands of supporters before being hauled away for what he and his family expected to be a short time in custody.
Wednesday marked the anniversary of his 2014 detention, but there were no marches or raucous protests on view.
Even though Venezuela’s oil-based economy is in tatters and polls show support for socialist President Nicolas Maduro at an all-time low, demonstrations against the government have been small and sporadic.
The opposition’s momentum dissipated after last year’s demonstrations failed to produce anything other than division, with ranks split over whether to push for change through the street protests like those favored by Lopez or by trying to win elections later this year.
Lopez’s wife had asked Venezuelans to show their support for him by wearing white, but at midday, people in the plaza that was the epicenter of the protests in 2014 went about their daily routines.
Homemaker Laura Narvais paused to look at photos honoring the students who died in last year’s violence as she passed through on her way to a market to search for milk.
“I hate to say it, but their sacrifice was in vain because the government continues just as it did before,” Narvais said.
Some Venezuelans have said they are too busy to demonstrate, their time spent trying to find basic goods at the markets that receive only a trickle of specific scarce items due to the country’s cash-crunch and price controls. Many also are afraid of landing in jail like the thousands hauled away during last year’s crackdown.
A few dozen protesters remain detained, and lately the government has begun arresting even retail executives accused of creating the shortages and people posting anti-government messages on Twitter.
“Outside of Venezuela, the opposition looks very strong because you hear their voice a lot,” Caracas-based political consultant Dimitris Pantoulas said. “But here, you see that people have lost their hope that there might be change on the horizon.”
Lopez, meanwhile, has made sporadic appearances in court, where he is accused of inciting last year’s violence and faces up to 13 years in prison if convicted.
The 43-year-old Harvard alum has spent the last year in a rundown military prison outside Caracas reading political tomes, cooking meals using ingredients his family brings him, learning to play the cuatro, a traditional four-string instrument, and exercising in a battered basketball court on the occasions he’s allowed outside. With his young daughter, he decorated his prison walls with drawings of a large tree surrounded by birds and other animals.
Former police chief Salvatore Lucchese occupied a neighboring cell for much of that time, and recalled it as dark and rat-infested, with a mattress full of cockroaches.
Lucchese, who served time for failing to remove street barricades erected at the height of the protests, was released this month. He said his year in the prison gave him “the opportunity to know Hell.”
The United Nations and world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama have called for Lopez’s release. But it’s unclear what international pressure can accomplish in Venezuela, where the administration has made anti-Western screeds a cornerstone of its rhetoric. Longstanding hostilities mean that the U.S. has little sway over what happens in Venezuela, and with the exception of Colombia, neighbors such as Brazil and close allies like China have shown no desire to confront Maduro.
If the malaise continues, it could make it harder for the opposition to rally support for legislative elections expected in December, their surest opportunity for change.
“It could go on like this for years,” Pantoulas said. “In politics, it’s not like today we’re unhappy and tomorrow we have a change. It can take months, but it can also take a decade.”