How Venezuela Became a "Warzone"

Not all those photos you're seeing of burning cities and pitched urban battles are from Kiev. Even as the near-apocalyptic imagery of Ukraine's violent protests have captured the top of the news, Venezuelan cities have gone from dangerous to "warzone" overnight. Here's what you need to know.

First, a handy video explainer from Fusion, the English-language network geared to Latinos and millennials, which is one of only a few outlets in the U.S. doing extensive reporting from Venezuela:

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This is happening, at least in part, because Hugo Chavez is dead.

How Venezuela Became a "Warzone"

Since Chavez's passing, the populist, socialist strongarm leader's mantle has been taken up by a low-key associate, President Nicolas Maduro. Many of Chavez' tactics for mollifying the poorest Venezuelans have proven economically untenable for Maduro; last month, he announced that the government would have to raise gas prices, which had been frozen for a decade and a half in the oil-rich but free-spending nation.

Maduro also continues to enforce a Chavez-era "anti-terror" law that gives the government effective control over media and broad powers to arrest and detain dissidents.

Maduro continues to enjoy broad support in the nation, but his narrow victory in an election after Chavez' death, and Venezuela's continued economic decline, have emboldened opposition factions. Earlier this month, students launched mass protests in the streets of Caracas and several other cities—protests which political opposition parties and the small, squeezed middle class have been quick to support.

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The peaceful protests have turned bloody.

In the past dew days, Venezuela has seen "a spasm of violence that's unlike anything the country has experienced since 1989," Audrey Dacosta writes on the "opposition-leaning-but-not-insane" blog Caracas Chronicles. As fires rage, antigovernment protesters have clashed with motorcycle- and helicopter-borne riot cops, who are responsible for clearing crowds by firing into them and killing at least several bystanders:

In this video, National Guard troops are seen and heard firing on protesters, one of whom is hit and is rumored to have been killed in the action:

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Even beauty queens are not immune from the deadly violence.

Venezuelan protesters were in an uproar earlier this week after learning that Genesis Carmona—a beauty queen with the title "Miss Tourism"—was shot in the head and killed while participating in a demonstration in the city of Valencia.

A relative of Carmona's told Reuters that she was one semester shy of graduating from college, adding: "How long are we going to live like this? How long do we have to tolerate this pressure, with them killing us?"

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You've heard next to nothing about this because Venezuela keeps it that way (and also because of Ukraine).

Earlier this week, Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats, accusing the United States of fomenting unrest to undermine the government. America has long wanted to topple Chavez' socialist party, but Venezuela's leaders have masterfully used its struggles with the U.S. and its allies to keep a tight rein on media coverage in the country. Few English-speaking Western outlets have a strong presence there, and AP and Getty and the big photography distributors don't have the sort of imagery coming out of Caracas that they have from Kiev.

Protesters have been forced to rely on social media, which has also been key to their keeping track of who's arrested and "disappeared":

Even much of the opposition acknowledges that it's working in an international media vaccuum, unable to compete with Kiev, the Olympics, and domestic news in North America. As Caracas Chronicles' Francisco Toro wrote this morning:

I understand that with an even bigger and more photogenic freakout ongoing in an even more strategically important country, we weren't going to be front-page-above-the-fold, but I'm staggered this morning to wake up, scan the press and find…

Nothing.

Toro then offered screenshots of the New York Times, Guardian, BBC, CNN, and Al-Jazeera to emphasize how little coverage was being given to Venezuela's political violence.

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The opposition is not monolithic, and its biggest "leader" is already in jail.

How Venezuela Became a "Warzone"

Leopoldo Lopez, above in white, the 42-year-old Harvard-educated ex-mayor of a small, well-to-do neighborhood in Caracas, vaulted to national notoriety for his role in encouraging the protests. But last Wednesday, police responded to rock-throwers in a crowd with gunfire, killing three (including one supporter of the president), and the government blamed Lopez as a leader of the demonstrations, calling for his arrest.

After several days of tweaking the government on Twitter, Lopez emerged from hiding, turned himself in and now faces multiple trumped-up charges.

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A little toothpaste and vinegar helps minimize the effects of tear gas.

That's according to protesters who gather in Caracas' Plaza Altamira each night:

They show no signs of flagging or surrendering. Against a government that's proven willing to tear gas apartments, fire into crowds, and stampede demonstrators with motorbikes, it's unclear whether that indomitable spirit will be rewarded, or simply crushed.

[AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd]