Venezuela opposition struggles to expand appeal

But don’t expect a Ukraine-style street revolution anytime soon in this South American nation, where the frequently outmaneuvered opposition hasn’t united behind a single strategy or managed to broaden its appeal beyond the largely middle-class, educated followers it’s had on its side all along.

The man they are up against, President Nicolas Maduro, has a near-complete grip on the military, broadcast media and institutions from congress to the judiciary after 15 years of socialist rule.

That could change if the protests continue and unrest gets further out of hand. But for many Venezuelans, the opposition’s two highest-profile leaders, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and the jailed Leopoldo Lopez, are still viewed as part of an elite detached from the working-class life.

For years the opposition has failed to build bridges across class lines, reinforcing perceptions that it hasn’t evolved since it backed a failed 2002 coup against then-President Hugo Chavez.

“The opposition is always convinced that it’s a majority and therefore it thinks that the government wins elections by fraud,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who spends part of the year conducting research in Caracas. But “it’s a government that has considerable support.”

Maduro’s party handily won municipal elections in December that were seen as a referendum on his first year in office. An economic decline has accelerated since then, but he continues to funnel government resources into poor neighborhoods. While people there are suffering from the country’s economic woes, they still feel little connection with the protesters they watch on television burning trash and setting up barricades in leafy neighborhoods that they could never aspire to live in.

Capriles conceded the demonstrations may have strengthened Maduro’s hand in the short term by giving him a convenient scapegoat on which to blame a coming economic crisis caused by heavy-handed government policies.

Indeed, Maduro has trained state-run television cameras on the barricades of trash and furniture erected by the opposition.

“Now they want to blame me if there are shortages, but they are the ones who don’t let through the trucks with rice, grains, milk and flour,” Maduro said this week.

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