Coups, Media and Stalemates: What Violent Protests Mean for Venezuela
Venezuelanalysis.com’s staff writers offer their concise insights on three different angles of the violent protests that have been occurring in the country: the opposition’s strategy, how the media have reacted, and the implications of the protests for the Bolivarian Revolution.
#1: An Opposition Coup Against The Opposition
The Venezuelan opposition has launched a coup against itself, not against the government. Two strains of the opposition movement are vying for dominance over each other, though they both share the same overarching strategy.
The current opposition strategy is to pressure Nicolas Maduro into resigning from office, and prompt another presidential election. They intend to win the next election by terrorising swing voters into capitulating to the opposition.
For now, this is the only real option available to the opposition. The military is firmly aligned with Chavismo, ruling out a repeat of the April 2002 coup attempt. However, a possible recall referendum is still two years away, plus the far right is short sighted and generally apathetic towards democracy anyway.
Maduro’s slim electoral victory last April illustrated that a sizable chunk of the electorate can quickly swing from Chavismo to the opposition if enough pressure is applied. In April 2013, all the opposition needed was a simple carrot and stick. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ well choreographed electoral campaign promising a squeaky clean Chavez-lite was backed by a convenient spike in scarcity. And he almost won.
In the lead up to the 12 February violence, Venezuelans have faced more demoralising scarcity than last April. Along with daily queues outside supermarkets, in places like Merida there has been a steady stream of violence from opposition groups in recent weeks. Now, they’re upping the ante.
Although the vast majority of the opposition appear to back the forced resignation strategy, there are two distinct camps. The moderate majority of the opposition movement have advocated for peaceful demonstrations against Maduro, against a backdrop of growing hostility between the government and the private sector.
In recent weeks Capriles has become something of a poster child of the moderates. He had drifted away from extremism, and expressed willingness to work with the Maduro administration. Yet he has remained firmly on the right, and critical of the government. In the long term, this kind of moderate figure is exactly what the opposition movement needs if it wants to win power. Fringe extremists like lawmaker Maria Machado, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and Voluntad Popular’s Leopoldo Lopez should know they will increasingly become irrelevant as the opposition movement tries to win the centre. Their insurrectionist tactics and uncompromising fanaticism are relics of the last decade, and unappealing to both the moderate opposition and the wavering Chavistas they need.
Like the moderates, the extremist minority is pushing for Maduro to resign. However, they differ from the majority opposition in two respects.
Firstly, they are terrorists. The extremist fringe is willing to employ as much violence and chaos as possible to blackmail Maduro into surrender and terrorise the public. They’re armed, fanatical and they’re trying to provoke a bloodbath. For them, violence is just an additional lever to stall the revolution, along with applying pressure to middle ground voters. After all, if the government can’t maintain basic security on the streets, how can they possibly deal with the economy; let along deepen the revolution?
If they fail in their ultimate goal and Maduro doesn’t break, then the least they can do is continue obstructing the government.
Secondly, the fringe right-wing knows the sun is setting on them, and the current violence is an eleventh hour attempt to cling to political relevance and radicalise the moderates. So far, the vast majority of the opposition movement has failed to condemn the aggression of the extremists. Hence, if we are witnessing an attempted coup, it’s against Capriles and the moderate opposition strain he represents. Power hungry extremists like Machado, Ledezma and Lopez aspire to seize the reigns of the opposition movement. To them, Capriles has become meek and weighed down by two failed presidential bids. If they can provoke the bloodbath they desperately desire, they could replace the moderates as the dominant opposition force.
#2: What the Media Said, and Didn’t Say
There have been mixed responses from both national and international media following Wednesday’s violence in Venezuela, which left three dead and several dozen wounded. In particular, there have been contradictory accounts of exactly what happened in the surrounds of the Attorney General’s office in Caracas, when an opposition activist, Bassil Alejandro Dacosta (24), and a Chavista social activist, Juan Montoya (40), were both killed by gunshots as armed groups emerged on the scene toward the end of the opposition’s march in the area.
Both state owned and independent pro-government outlets alleged that Wednesday’s violence, including the two murders which occurred near the Attorney General’s office, was planned by right-wing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and perpetrated by radical armed opposition groups. In a report titled “Right-Wing Shock Group Causes Death and Chaos”, Caracas-based newspaper Ciudad CCS further said that according to unofficial reports, Juan Montoya was shot from a nearby building, suggesting a premeditated attack. It also mentioned the presence of “violent motorbike riders” who “threw stones and large objects at the police and National Guard”.
Venezuelan media also reported Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz’s statement, which said that “political operators” and “50 hooded people” had appeared at the end of the opposition march and engaged in acts of violence against those present. Ortega said that the nature of the violence appeared “planned” by “fascists”, which suggests that she suspects that radical opposition groups were behind the crimes.
Several politically-neutral private Venezuelan media sources, such as newspaperUltimas Noticias and website Noticias 24, chose not to comment in detail on the events surrounding the violence. They reported the government’s and opposition’s reactions to the events, without attempting to attribute the violence to either side.
Some pro-opposition media outlets accused security forces and pro-government groups called colectivos of perpetrating violent acts and the murders yesterday. Conservative newspaper El Universal said that Montoya and Dacosta died from “shots by colectivos and SEBIN (the national intelligence service)”. National opposition newspapers El Nacional and Tal Cual made similar accusations, in editorials titled “Brutal Attack” and “Absurd Violence”, in which they claimed that police forces or colectivos (depending on the version) opened fire on anti-government protesters.
Perhaps due to conflicting reports of Wednesday’s violence and with the official investigation just beginning, many international media outlets did not take a strong partisan line in their coverage. CNN Español wrote a rather neutral reportwhich didn’t document the violent events in detail, however mentioned both the government’s and radical opposition’s interpretations of the day. Meanwhile Spanish-language network Telesur, which is favourable to the Venezuelan government, led with a piece arguing that police involvement in yesterday’s killings was ruled out, however it also did not offer a conclusion as to who the assassins were. The article further lamented that, “The events yesterday reflect that the opposition has once again chosen the path of destabilisation”.
In English-language media, Reuters news agency wrote a fairly straightforwardarticle which despite having journalists on the scene, could only report that the two murders occurred in “chaotic scenes” during post-protest violence. The agency also mentioned the current division within the opposition between moderates and hardliners, and that violent hardliners have been blocking roads and creating unrest (although it didn’t mention that these groups are sometimes armed and attack civilians) as part of a strategy to try and force President Maduro from office.
Other international outlets took a more interpretive angle on yesterday’s violence, either tacitly or openly nodding to the opposition’s line of “authorities cracking down on peaceful student protesters”. Britain’s Sky News led its article with hard-line opposition leader Maria Corina Machado’s claim that two student protestors had been killed for “raising their voices” against the government. Associated Press’ (AP) piece, re-printed in a variety of sources such as Fox News, hinted the same line, leading with, “Armed vigilantes on motorcycles attacked anti-government demonstrators in Venezuela”. AP said the attackers were “unidentified”. The BBC meanwhile seems to have simply borrowed its article from Associated Press. The article de-contextualised yesterday’s events by omitting to explain the hard-line opposition’s “exit” strategy to force Maduro’s resignation, or the presence and actions of armed opposition radicals at protests in recent weeks. Al-Jazeera went further, stating what some other international media have implied but have not said due to lack of evidence, by writing of Wednesday’s violence, “Armed members of a pro-government vigilante group arrived on motorcycles and began firing at more than 100 anti-Maduro student protesters”.
As Venezuelan authorities begin to investigate those responsible for Wednesday’s violence, international media have suddenly turned their attention to events in the country. However these reports have often failed to explain the context of yesterday’s protests, such as the hard-line opposition’s “exit” strategy to try and force the government’s resignation, or the violent actions of radical opposition groups on city streets over the past week and a half building up to yesterday’s protests. Some reports also failed to mention the peaceful pro-government demonstrations that occurred on the same day.
Perhaps eager to brand the Venezuelan government with the “repressive” tag, at least a few international outlets have even suggested that Wednesday’s violence and deaths were due to “pro-government vigilantes” at a time when such a conclusion is far from clear, as the debate within Venezuela over the events highlights. In several of the articles the radical opposition’s violent actions, both on Wednesday and in recent days, have been whitewashed from the story. The BBC was a case in point. These outlets should be more responsible in their reporting so as not to mislead the global public on what is currently happening in Venezuela. As the radical wing of the opposition once again attempts to force the government’s “exit” through street actions and violence rather than more democratic mechanisms, accurate reporting will be key for international observers to understand this crucial political juncture for the country.
#3: A Complex Psychological War, and What This Means for the Bolivarian Revolution
Over the past six weeks, since the opposition lost the municipal elections, and then after the Christmas and New Year period that followed, things have gotten worse here. Prices have skyrocketed, with shops charging the black market exchange rate rather than the official one, despite most of them buying products at the official rate. The usual products are scarce (hard to find, if not impossible: milk, oil, sugar, margarine, cornmeal) and a few more have been added to the list: mayonnaise, and most soaps. Metronidazol, for common gastric infections has also become scarce. There are alternatives to Metronidozal, and the reality is you can wash most things with cheap shampoo; you don’t need all the different dish and clothes soaps and so on. Most people also have most of the scarce products like sugar and margarine stocked up at home. In some barrios gas, for cooking, has been harder to get. The economic reality is a little bit tough, but what is tougher is the psychological effect all of this has on people. That feeling of insecurity, of not being sure you will be able to get the product you need, or be able to afford it. This causes people to form huge queues when a product does arrive, which in turn deepens the psychological impact. At the same time, the black market rate – not at all based on the real value of the bolivar – continues to climb, and there’s a ‘what if’ if one’s head… what if they manage hyperinflation?
On top of this, we have the media constantly lying about what is going on here and about what the government does, as well as the verbal abuse towards Chavistas on social networks. Then, over the last few weeks, in some parts of Venezuela, the most violent sectors of the opposition have been active. Here in Merida it started off with a few “students” blocking the main road; burning tires and garbage on it, and throwing rocks at anyone who tried to get close. They had no placards. From last Friday those protests escalated, both in terms of violence, people involved, and roads closed. It has been hard to get to school, work, and the hospital, and the frustration, inconvenience, and fear that comes with these sorts of actions combines with the aforementioned economic insecurity. The cacerolas (pot banging protests) that started last night in my barrio and in a few others here and in other cities also cause anxiety.
Sometimes, the extent to which these sorts of war of attrition strategies affect people depends on where you live or work. Many workplaces, for example, have access to Mercal food products. Other barrios are much calmer, and other parts of the country are peaceful.
Now, the government has made mistakes, but purchasing power has basically continuously risen until mid last year, and inflation has also been around the 15-30% mark until mid last year. The worsening of above measures since then are clearly intentional, both for their political aims and the fact that they drastically increase the wealthy sector’s profits. They came at a time when, with Chavez gone, the revolution was perceived to be more vulnerable. They are destructive measures that aim to wear people down and for collective fear and anxiety; three solid ingredients for paving the way for conservative forces. The political opposition may have lost all except one election in the last fifteen years, but the economic opposition is in a stronger position. And the hard thing about that opposition is they are less visible, and also seemingly less divided than the political opposition.
One consequence of this three pronged attack (economic, media, and violence) on the Bolivarian revolution is that the national government has been forced to go on the defensive; constantly trying to counter the price speculation, the media attacks and so on. Though the government has also tried to get on with things; with science programs, housing, cultural programs, the street government, and so on, too much of its effort has had to go into trying to just stay above water. Maduro emphasised in his address tonight (13 February) the importance of ruling by law – fair enough – yet it is hard to imagine this Law of Prices and the 30% profit limit being enforced in the thousands of shops in each city. If the grassroots were more organised to defend our rights, perhaps we could.
Maduro also said, “The most important thing is to keep governing, to keep working”. Most movement activists, mission workers, and public sector workers have been doing just that, despite the climate. At the alternative school where I teach for example, we’ve had all sorts of activists over the last few weeks coming and wanting to do workshops, mural painting, and help out. A group started a rehabilitation program, and the state foundation for science and technology met with us and provided us with a worker for our computing and internet room. However, in this sort of climate it is still harder to deepen revolutionary organisation in the way that we’d like.
The question is how this will work out in the long term. While perhaps a few Chavistas, affected by the real drop in purchasing power, might tire and change sides, most people are firm in their convictions, with government supporters largely (but often with constructive criticism) believing the public press, and opposition supporters believing (and being manipulated by) the private media. It seems unlikely that the far right, violent sector of the opposition will achieve its goal of forcing Maduro to resign, yet it is also hard for the revolution to move forward. At worse, it could be seen as a kind of checkmate, and at best, a determined revolution that is being slowed down, but little by little is actually building the communes and worker run production units, and so on, that it would like. On the one hand, the level of organisation of the bases here is incredible, but organisations tend to work (very hard) in their own trinchera – trench, and there is a lack of real regional and national articulation between the bases. As we’ve seen in 2002/3, situations like this don’t have to make things worse, they can be the crisis that pushes grassroots and national politics to radicalise, however this lack of broader articulation makes that difficult, if not impossible.