A 14-year-old boy was killed by security forces Tuesday while participating in anti-government demonstrations in San Cristobal, Venezuela. Police Officer Javier Ortiz confessed to the crime, saying he fired on unarmed student protesters with plastic bullets. Many dispute this, claiming that photos that surfaced of the slain teen in a pool of blood suggest the shots must have been live rounds. Police clashes with protests lasted long into the night, and resulted in several more injuries of teenagers who allegedly threw rocks at police.
The death of young Kluiverth Roa (whose name has been reported differently by various outlets) caps off a year of some of the most heated protests Venezuela has witnessed in over a decade, heightening tensions between President Nicolas Maduro’s regime and his increasingly exasperated constituents. Though, Venezuelan authorities, including Maduro, have been swift to condemn Roa’s death, public anger seems poised to reach a breaking point.
One reason that protests in Venezuela are on the rise in the wake of the death of former President Hugo Chavez in 2013 is that President Maduro is seen as less skilled and charismatic than his predecessor; bad governance drove his approval rating down to 24% in November. Analysts cite unchecked street crime, indefensible fiscal policies and Maduro’s paranoid and heavy-handed crackdowns on opposition for the unrest that began in earnest in early 2014.
In recent months, the political situation in Venezuela has deteriorated even further. Despite last year’s criminal prosecution of opposition protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been in prison for one year, street protests now seem more impassioned than ever. The Venezuelan economy — long a major contributing factor to national unrest — took a major plunge this winter that has hit citizens hard.
Indeed, according to some analysts, the much-discussed fall in global oil prices has hit Venezuelans harder than anyone else in the world. The largely socialist economic policies of President Maduro relied on an export income that was 95% oil sales. Now that prices have fallen by around 40% a barrel, the Venezuelan economy is reeling. Rates of inflation hover around 67%, and security forces have been unable to halt the increase in petty street crime. Food shortages have also permeated the public consciousness, leading to riots and panic — three Venezuelan states have passed provisions forbidding overnight queues in front of stores. While last year’s protests involved mostly the upper-middle class, this year’s downturn has had a serious impact on all levels of society.
Instead of reexamining the state budget or enacting other potentially helpful economic measures, Maduro thus far seems focused instead on cracking down on dissent. Roa’s death comes a mere week after the regime passed legislation enabling police to open fire on protesters, a move he defended despite swift criticism. Last week, the mayor of Caracas was famously arrested and accused of plotting a coup, charges which are largely believed to have no basis. (Still, the accusation rang true for many — the U.S. did back a failed coup against Chavez in 2002.)
Roa’s death could well prove to be a lightning rod in a political situation that is already akin to a powder keg. Maduro may have made it clear that he is unwilling to change, but it being outnumbered could lead to his undoing.