Amid economic chaos and widespread protest, some believe the government has ‘hit rock-bottom’ – yet key figures remain loyal to the president.
In terms of historical significance, the incident is unlikely to rank alongside the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s 12-metre statue in Baghdad, shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But the destruction of the statue last Friday did not go unnoticed in a country where many public buildings are still adorned with images of Chávez, four years after his death.
Over the weekend, cellphone pictures and footage of the incident went viral in Venezuela, where widespread discontent with President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, has erupted into near-daily protests.
“This showed that the government is hitting rock-bottom,” said Marinelis Soto, an accountant who lives near Villa del Rosario. “This happened in a town that used to be pro-government – and now people are so angry that they are constantly blocking roads.”
Hundreds of thousands have joined near-daily demonstrations, but many ordinary Venezuelans – and the country’s political and military elites – remain loyal to Chavismo, ideology following in the footsteps of Chávez. And according to Luís Vicente Leon, a leading pollster, the collapse of authoritarian regimes is more often caused by internal splits than outside pressure.
“In these processes, what you see are internal fissures that are so deep that they lead to an implosion. They don’t come from the opposition, or from a crisis. They generally come from inside,” he said.
The move was soon put on hold, but Ortega has since become more outspoken. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she condemned the government’s mismanagement of the economy and expressed support for the protesters.
“We cannot demand that the citizens behave peacefully and legally in front of a state that is taking decisions that do not obey the law,” Ortega said.
In recent weeks, Maduro has come under criticism from a number of unexpected sources. The 20-year-old son of the country’s ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, read a letter to his own father on YouTube, in which he pleaded with him to “put an end to the injustices afflicting his country”. Yibram Saab published his message after he had joined a protest in which a 20-year-old student was killed.
Last week, the death of a 17-year-old viola player prompted the conductor Gustavo Dudamel – who had been criticised for not speaking out – to issue a statement criticizing the government and demanding Maduro to put an end to violence.
Maduro’s decision to call for a constituent assembly has also earned him criticism from high-ranking figures on the left of his party, who see the move as an affront to Chávez’s legacy. (Chávez oversaw the drafting of a new constitution in 1999, which he declared was “perfect”.)