(The following is a guest post by Alissandra Stoyan, a PhD candidate in Political Science at UNC – Chapel Hill. Her research examines how presidents pursue ambitious reform efforts in a democratic context. She has conducted field work in Latin America, and her dissertation examines recent Venezuelan politics as one of her primary cases.)
I am happy and I see a great future for Venezuela… Enough words have been said, enough fighting has occurred, enough disasters have taken place. The failures are over and done with, I feel sure of this and happy about it. I feel optimistic because, as my grandmother used to say, you can smell the wind of change, it is in the air.” – Hugo Chávez, February 10, 2004. Quoted in Guevarra, Aleida. 2005. Chávez, Venezuela & the New Latin America: An interview with Hugo Chávez. New York: Ocean Press. Pp 110.
It started on February 2. In San Cristobal, a city in the mountains near the Colombian border, students from three local universities were outraged over the violent assault and attempted rape of a fellow student. These twenty-somethings have only known the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Socialism of the 21st Century, and the leadership of Hugo Chávez. They were about 4 years old when Chávez won the presidency with an overwhelming 56% of the vote in a single round. The following year, a new Constitution was written to re-found the state and drastically change the political process in Venezuela. They grew up with access to free health care and free education, including their current university education. Political polarization has been a constant; they and everyone they know are either Chávistas or anti-Chávistas because there has never been much in-between. Insecurity and impunity has risen dramatically throughout their lives. The number of homicides tripled in Venezuela between 1996 and 2006, according to the NGO Venezuelan Violence Watch. In 2012, the Venezuelan homicide rate was 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In the same year, neighboring Colombia had a rate of approximately 31 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and the US had a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Likewise, the economy is in a dire condition. As they think about graduation, these students face rising inflation (currently 56%), widespread shortages of goods, and uncertainty over future employment. Eva Golinger, author of The Chávez Code, has referred to the student movement as “Occupy Wall Street in reverse,” implying that Venezuelan students are siding with the 1%. Likewise, Chávez’s ‘old guard’ laments that the younger generation is ungrateful for what they have, without respect for the epic triumph against neoliberalism and entrenched elite interests.
In “Is Venezuela Burning?,” published in Jacobin, Mike Gonzalez rightfully demonstrates that the issues in Venezuela are actually much deeper and more complex than they appear on the surface. The protests in San Cristobal might have remained an isolated incident, never to be reported in international media, if not for the involvement of prominent opposition members and the harsh and disproportionate response of the state. The opposition has seized this moment as an opportunity to channel discontent toward Nicholas Maduro’s removal after only 10 months in office. Leopoldo López, an economist educated in the US, and Maria Corina Machado, an opposition congresswoman, have called for ‘La Salida,’ a strategy to force Maduro to step down. With their involvement, protests have spread to nearly every major city in Venezuela. As one twitter user quipped: “Carlos Andrés Pérez had a Caracazo. Maduro has a Caracazo, Valenciazo, Barquisimetazo, Bolivarazo, Maracaibazo…”
More widespread confrontations have led to new grievances related to the states’ response to protest, particularly surrounding issues of self-censorship of the press and the strong-handed and repressive tactics of the police and other government agencies. Greater focus has also been directed at the violence perpetrated by armed colectivos, motorcycle-riding paramilitary groups in defense of the revolution. One of the largest groups, the Tupumaros, lost one of its own leaders and is also allegedly responsible for another death in these protests. As conflict peaked on February 12, the Venezuelan intelligence service (SEBIN) disobeyed direct orders by taking to the streets with their weapons. Maduro has vowed to hold them accountable, removing the head of the agency and arresting several officials in connection to deaths. On February 19, López was arrested, effectively becoming a martyr for the radical opposition’s cause. President Obama, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all condemned his arrest. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America has an interesting take on the potential political incentives for Maduro to foster confrontation and keep López in the spotlight as the leader of the opposition, and so does Francisco Toro at Caracas Chronicles. Lastly, the military has moved into Táchira to quell protest, and there were reports of an internet and media blackout there. Reading of these developments, I can’t get Simón Bolivar’s words out of my head: “Maldito el soldado que apunta su arma contra su pueblo“: Cursed is the soldier who aims his gun at his own people.
The dead are young, members of both sides of this conflict. El Universal has generated an interactive map (Spanish) of those who’ve died. On February 12 in Caracas, some of the first to die were: Bassil Da Acosta (24), a student protestor, and Juan “Juancho” Montoya (51), a well known colectivo leader and pro-government community activist. Both were shot in the head. A little later on the same day, another protestor, Roberto Redman (31) was shot in the face with rubber pellets. On Feburary 17 in Sucre, José Ernesto Ménedez (17) was run over at a protest by a vehicle driven by a PDVSA worker. On February 19 in Valencia, student and beauty queen, Génesis Carmona (22), was shot in the head. Julio Eduardo González (25), an attorney, crashed his car trying to drive around a barricade. And that evening, Geraldine Moreno (23), a student, was shot in the face with rubber pellets in front of her family’s home. On February 20 in Mérida, Delia Elena Lobo (37) died from injuries sustained when she drove her motorbike into a barb wire barricade. In Lara, Arturo Alexis Martínez (58) was shot in the chest while cleaning up debris in the street. He was the brother of Francisco Martínez, Congressman for the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). On the evening of February 21 in Caracas, Elvis Rafael Durán (29) drove his motorbike into a wire that had been stretched across the road by protesters, slitting his throat. In response, the government has issued an arrest warrant for retired General Angel Vivas, who sent this tweet (Spanish) the day before the incident, suggesting the tactic to the opposition for combating the colectivos. Since then, Vivas has been resisting arrest at his home, dressed in a flak jacket and armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. His supporters built barricades in the street and cheer him on as he vows not to surrender. On February 23 in Caracas, José Alejandro Márquez (43) was beaten by the Bolivian National Guard and was declared braindead. On February 24 in Táchira, Jimmy Vargas (34) was hit in the head with a canister of tear gas launched by the Bolivarian National Guard, lost his balance, and fell from the second story of a building. That same day in Cagua, Johnny Carballo (43) was shot in the head by tupamaros (armed motorists). At least one additional unidentified young man was shot on February 25 during the looting of a grocery store in Maracay. In total, there have been nearly 150 wounded and over 500 detained, though the vast majority have been released.
(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)
Maduro is not Chávez. He is politically weaker and lacks the charisma of his predecessor. Still, he has gone to great lengths to invoke the iconic leader. On February 17, in the midst of this conflict, he resurrected Chávez’s tweets from a year ago: “Sigo aferrado a Cristo y confiado en mis médicos y enfermeras. Hasta la victoria siempre!! Viviremos y venceremos!!!“: I am still clinging to Christ and trusting in my doctors and nurses. Toward victory always!! We’ll live and we’ll overcome!!! Though cancer would take Chávez’s life in less than a month, his words promise immortality – the immortality of his revolution. These days, it seems, Maduro sigue aferrado a Chávez. The picture below recently appeared in Slate with the caption: “Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hold a protest…” It’s telling that, a year later, the imagery of the revolution still belongs to Chávez. The crucial question is whether Chávistas are abandoning Maduro. Is the ‘son of Chávez,’ losing support among his base? The answer will determine where these protests are headed and whether they might slip out of Maduro’s control. So far, the Chávista governor of Táchira has distanced himself from the government (Spanish). He reacted against the government’s repression, particularly the decision to send fighter jets over his state. He said: “When Chavez was in government I had autonomy in my language and my thoughts, and I will maintain it now more than ever.” But the blog post by Francisco Toro, linked above, indicates that it’s unlikely that this will spread beyond the middle class.
(Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)
Another key issue is the inability of the opposition to develop a coherent plan. As Jorge Ramos Ávalos, a Mexican journalist and news anchor for Univision, put it (Spanish): “The old and rotten is dying, but the new has not yet been born.” His sentiment is clearly biased toward the opposition but it also illuminates a central problem with all this protest. The radical opposition has failed to develop a useful dialog beyond ousting Maduro. On this point, Maduro is an upstanding democrat. He has stated that the opposition should instead be preparing signatures for a 2016 recall referenda, a legal mechanism in the 1999 Constitution, to remove him from office with a majority of the popular vote. Ultimately, what are protestors trying to achieve and can Maduro respond adequately to their grievances? Capriles has begun to develop an agenda and at least a preliminary list of demands (Video in Spanish, list begins at 15:51), which includes: freeing all detained students and López; ending persecution, repression, and permitting exiled Venezuelans to return; disarming the paramilitaries; among other things. Some are reasonable, some are vague, and some are very unlikely.
The Maduro government and its supporters are maintaining that these protests are a plot by the radical opposition to draw international intervention (Spanish). Early on, there were reports of the opposition destroying its own neighborhoods to make it look like the work of the colectivos and to incite more protest. Steve Ellner, social scientist and author of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon, has underscored the idea that the opposition is primarily responsible for violence. Moreover, Eva Golinger spoke of an international conspiracy to commit economic sabotage, with elites hoarding products to provoke shortages and promote panic among the population. In this view, the United States is trying to “make the economy scream” in Venezuela, a la Nixon and Allende. More recently, the Maduro administration has contended that the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, is playing a role in the violence. They claim that the opposition is working with Colombian mercenaries to fuel violence and caste blame on the government.
It’s hard to determine what’s going on from a desk in Chapel Hill, NC. The degree of misinformation as these events have unfolded demonstrates that Venezuela is perhaps more polarized than it has ever been. No one tells both sides of the story; everyone has an angle. In the chaos of early protests, even Venezuelan scholars and experts tweeted more questions than answers: “Can we confirm this? Is there proof?” On February 13, I scanned my twitter feed for news and a repeating image caught my attention. There were two men, one with a camera and the other with a gun trained on each other. It turned out that it was taken in Singapore and had nothing to do with Venezuela (see this and other examples of false tweets debunked here and here). Today, Maduro and his supporters are using the hash tag: #MaduroHombreDePaz. Meanwhile, outside on UNC’s campus, someone has diligently scrawled in chalk: #SOSVenezuela #PrayForVenezuela. Searching twitter for those hash tags unleashes a string of images and YouTube videos (like this one) that make me feel sick and helpless. Even if I was among the barricades in the streets of Caracas, I’m not sure if I’d know what to believe. The truth in Venezuela, as in many places, always seems to lie somewhere in between.
(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)
The situation is all the more dangerous given that there appears to be no tractable middle ground in Venezuela. Both sides are calling for peace but it’s unclear what they mean. Capriles appeared to be willing to negotiate with Maduro, but on Monday he rejected a meeting with the president. Demanding López’s release, Capriles said: “I’m not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic. I’m not the musician. The boat is sinking, and I’m the one who’s playing the music? No sir, Nicholas, you’re not going to use me.” Is that really the wind of change in the air? I’m not sure, but one thing is certain. Where there is no room for compromise, where there are only Chávistas and anti-Chávistas, fascistas and anti-imperialistas, as it has been for fifteen years now, it’s difficult to envision a peaceful and democratic way forward.