02/21/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

The Lopez Affair and Venezuela's Future

The anti-Bolivarian movement in Venezuela may have found its voice earlier this week with the emergence of Leopoldo Lopez as a leader willing to take personal risks for change. Having intemperately accused Lopez of terrorism and plotting to overthrow the government (charges now dropped, in favor of lesser charges including arson), the regime of President Nicolas Maduro had little choice but to arrest Lopez when he presented himself publicly leading growing protests Tuesday in Caracas. In so doing, the Maduro regime has conferred legitimacy on Lopez by singling him out as leader of the opposition in a manner that only arrest and harassment can do.

Now, the focus of the press and public will be on whether Lopez remains in prison and under what conditions, and his arrest without due process has agitated the street further. The regime is clearly aware of this dilemma of its own making: no less a figure than Diosdado Cabello, the fiercely loyal head of the national assembly, personally escorted Lopez to his confinement. Ominously, the regime has publicly and without any evidence even suggested there is a vast conspiracy of the far right to assassinate Lopez.

The Maduro regime appears to be hoping that it can let the air out of the protest balloon by picking up leaders and harassing participants in the marches. Already several people have been killed and the situation has become more volatile since Lopez' arrest. This is a new phase; until this point regime targeting of opponents mainly came in the form of economic duress and political harangues. But deaths and disappearances, whether conducted by the government or by government-sponsored thugs and hit men, create martyrs. Martyrs are not easily forgotten, providing a rallying point for broader movements both inside and outside the capital city.

That is not to say that Venezuela is headed toward an inevitable period of ungovernability or civil conflict. The regime continues to have a virtual monopoly on the use of force, information, and the economy, and can likely maintain control. It is also receiving real-time advice and muscle from the Castro regime in Cuba, which is well practiced at addressing protests and opposition leaders before they coalesce into broader movements. Of course, that may require further repression and more people might be injured or even die. International bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United States among others have urged restraint from all sides in Venezuela, with a view to political dialogue to diffuse the crisis.

Nonetheless, this will do little to address the issues that brought protesters into the streets in the first place: a sagging economy with galloping inflation, consumer shortages including healthcare, and spiking crime rates. Nor will it solve the dilemma about what to do with Leopoldo Lopez. If the regime ultimately lets him out of jail, he has promised to speak out in favor of additional protests, and he is gaining a large following. If they keep him out of the public eye, the regime turns him into a daily reminder of repression and anti-democratic practices. To this point the Maduro government appears to have been content to allow previous presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Rodanski to speak for the opposition; he is preoccupied with his own issues as governor of Miranda state and has chosen to take a less confrontational approach to the government. Caught off guard by public enthusiasm for Lopez' new approach, which appears to have catalyzed a more generalized sense of dissatisfaction, the regime is clearly at a crossroads, and is perhaps unsure how to respond.

In the meantime, hemispheric governments should make clear that freedom of assembly, peaceful protest, and freedom of speech are democratic values expected by the international community and enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter to which Venezuela is a signatory. Unless these values are respected, it is unclear, for example, why Venezuela should continue to be welcomed in hemispheric forums that require democracy as a condition for membership. Less than one year after Hugo Chavez died, the revolutionary foundation he built for Venezuela appears to be crumbling.

A Portuguese language version of this article appeared February 20, 2014 in Brazil's O Estado de Sao Paulo.