Could Crime Topple Chavez?

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has spent much of his recent time and energy trying to export his Bolivarian leftist revolution across Central and South America, doling out windfall oil profits to his allies and exchanging strong rhetoric with the United States. At home, he has done his best to expand his revolution, most recently seizing oil fields from two multinational companies that refused to sign joint ventures with his government. But judging by the protests in Caracas this week against rampant crime and police corruption, Chavez may want to plow more money into basic necessities like law and order if he wants to keep his revolution alive.

In the wake of the murder of three Canadian-Venezuelan brothers and the fatal shooting of a news photographer, protesters, many of them middle-class families fed up with widespread crime, have been marching since early Wednesday. The brothers, all teenagers ranging in age from 12 to 17, and their chauffeur were found dead late Tuesday, after they were kidnapped at a phony checkpoint on Feb. 23. by men dressed in police uniforms. The victims were found only one week after a prominent Italian-born business owner was murdered after being abducted by people also dressed as police. The Mayor of Caracas responded by appointing a new police chief, and interior minister Jesse Chacon acknowledged that major reforms were needed in the police ranks.

That may not be enough to satisfy the angry protesters. Processions of public buses painted with the word "mourning" have circulated around the capital, while protesters held signs with pictures of masked men shooting children that read "Venezuela is the country of impunity." Journalists marched to the Attorney General's office to demand justice on Thursday after a photographer for a Caracas newspaper was shot and killed on his way to cover the protests on Wednesday.

Some of the protests that began as peaceful vigils for the victims have become platforms for the recently dormant opposition movement. On Wednesday night, troops responded with tear gas and rubber bullets as protesters blocked a major highway in eastern Caracas and set trash bins and tires afire in an affluent neighborhood. "This doesn't solve the [security] problem, but it mobilizes people," said Jostan Carvajal, a doctor who held rocks in his hand while other protesters threw objects toward the National Guard. "I think this will be a little spark that will restart the opposition movement."

That is debatable, however. The majority of the population in the world's fifth largest oil exporter continues to support Chavez as he funnels billions of dollars of oil revenues into social programs for the poor. The opposition movement remains fragmented and has only presented one candidate for December's presidential elections. And since the largest opposition parties pulled out of last December's parliamentary elections in protest over the electoral system, the National Assembly is made up completely of Chavez's allies. All of which means that for the moment at least, Venezuela's middle-class protests won't become a revolution capable of competing with their President's.