by Pablo Vivanco
1. The students marches are from the right-wing of the student movement
Unlike in places like Chile, there is no single or united student movement in Venezuela. Not only are students groups highly decentralized, but they are also divided along political lines.
Another unique feature of the student groups identifying with the opposition is that they do not organize around accessible or free education (since education has been made accessible to the sector of society that was previously excluded, resulting in an increase of 1,809,432 post-secondary students from 1999 to 2014).
The most recent opposition student demonstrations began in the western city of Tachira near the Colombian border. On the third day of student demonstrations about insecurity on the campus, the State Governor’s house was attacked and four people were subsequently arrested (two of whom weren’t students). These arrests led to student demonstrations in other cities – all of these demonstrations were not shut down by police – which led to the February 12th demonstration, where three people died.
On February 12, however, its important to know that there were thousands of Bolivarian students and youth marching for ‘El Dia de la Juventud’ (Youth Day), on the other side of Caracas. When speaking about the ‘student movement’ the logical question that has to follow is ‘which one’?
2. Most have died due to violence and sabotage of far right ‘protesters’
Number games with deaths of people is unpleasant. However, given how much of the coverage around the violence has been presented – as direct state violence against peaceful protests – an account of how the violence has played out is necessary.
Of the now 13 deaths directly resulting from the protests, at least five of the deaths have occurred at the barricades erected by the protesters at different sites, including motorcyclists who have been decapitated by barbed-wire booby-traps set up.
Other deaths include the murder of Juan Montoya, a leader of the leftist Tupamaros and the assassination of Arturo Alexis Martinez, the brother of a socialist National Assembly member who was shot from a balcony sniper as he cleared debris from the blockades.
Three opposition protesters have been killed, including former beauty contestant Genesis Carmona who other protesters and ballistics reports indicate was shot from behind – that is, from other protesters. Jimmy Vargas, age 34, died when he accidentally fell from his building as confirmed in a video from CNN. His mother blames the government and Maduro. Bassil Dacosta, another student opposition protester was shot on February 12.
A total of nine members of the Venezuelan security forces are under arrest, including three officials from the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN) under investigation in relation to the deaths of Dacosta and Montoya. Three other arrested police officers, two from Chacao and one from Merida (with each city claiming 1 of the dead), are members of police forces under the command of opposition Mayors.
The head of the SEBIN was sacked after February 12 for failing to comply with the specific order from President Maduro to not send SEBIN into the streets on that day.
Some 30 others have died from not receiving adequate medical attention due to the blockades.
All of these deaths are tragic. But even these deaths need to be put into perspective. The vast majority of the deaths are not attributable to agents of Bolivarian government and there is no impunity for those who may be responsible for the deaths or abuse of people.
3. There has been massive media manipulation
When the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, Catholic Church, Military High Command and trade union centre organized their coup back in 2002, there was no Facebook or Twitter. The media in Venezuela at this point, was completely in private hands except for the state-owned VTV (which the opposition stormed during the coup and whose signal they closed down). To justify the coup, the private media manipulated images and footage of street demonstrations to suggest that the government and its supporters had killed unarmed protesters (sound familiar?). It was through informal networks and word of mouth – what people in Venezuela call radio bemba – that people found out about the coup and organized against it.
Today, with the advances in democratizing media (through the hundreds of community-run TV and radio stations) and holding private media accountable, the traditional media does not have a monopoly over information. New and social media however, has demonstrated its power to influence the perspectives of what is happening in Venezuela, especially outside of Venezuela. More than this, it has shown the extent to which events and realities can be distorted.
A recent article by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) highlights this issue. The article calls into question the accuracy and credibility of an article written by Francisco Toro, editor of opposition web site Caracas Chronicles, where the article titled “The Game Changed Last Night” was published. The article claims that there were paramilitary style incursions into wealthy neighbourhoods of Caracas with motorcyclists “shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting.” This article was shared half a million times, including among many leftists and progressives despite the dubious authorship and questionable information. Toro’s defense for publishing unverified rumours: “I am NOT a reporter”.
This is but one of the countless exaggerated, manipulated and uncorroborated tweets, YouTube videos and other postings – even showing images of police brutality in other countries – that are circulating in order to demonize the government and its supporters. This is not a coincidence, but rather version 2.0 of the 2002 media coup.
The propaganda campaign has been relentless, and unfortunately effective.
4. There has been an active campaign to sabotage the Venezuelan economy
Much has been made and said about the causes of these demonstrations and the real challenges Venezuelans face.
There is no doubt that there are real and legitimate grievances and issues concerning crime and access to goods. However, what has been missing from this narrative are the initiatives from the government and social movements to address these and, perhaps more importantly, the contributions of Venezuela’s opposition to creating and exacerbating these problems.
Inflation is often cited as a problem in Venezuela, reaching 56% this January. However, inflation is not a new feature in this oil-exporting country. The inflation rate in Venezuela has averaged 26.78% between 1973 and 2014, reaching an all time high of 115.18% in September of 1996. Inflation was lower than 18% as recently as December of 2012, so inflation is not the cause of scarcity or economic grievances that have been cited.
Indeed, there is scarcity in certain parts of Venezuela. And by scarcity, this means that things are hard to come by in stores. Why is this? The answer is that this scarcity is a deliberate campaign by producers, transporters and vendors to hoard and withhold goods, in collusion with speculators, price gougers and others shipping things to sell for dollars across the Colombian border. Proof? In the first half of 2013, at least 40,000 tons of food has been found hidden in various locations. Later in that year, several large chains such as Daka were fined and ordered to lower their prices for marking up prices by as much as 1,200% on goods and electronics.
The Venezuelan government has looked to tackle this problem, but there has been resistance to their measures. The Institute for the Defence of People in Access to Goods and Services (INDEPABIS) has responded to the thousands of tips and complaints about hoarding and price-gouging, heading up massive investigations of merchants resulting in arrests, fines, price-redressing as well as the recovery of hoarded goods. However, the political opposition has opposed the government measures including price controls and actions to go after this type of abuse and economic sabotage, calling it a plan for ‘anarchy.’ In addition, two people armed with grenades tried to assassinate INDEPABIS President Eduardo Saman.
On the streets, these protests also coincided with the implementation of a new national law for controlling prices. Not to mention that in various places, such as Carabobo and Zulia, protesters have burned trucks stacked with food (produced from the state operated PDVAL) headed for subsidized markets in working class neighbourhoods.
This form of economic sabotage mirrors the campaign against Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, where hoarding was rampant and transportation of goods hampered by a strike and violent attacks from the organized fascist outfit, Patria y Libertad. Goods remained scarce until the day after the coup on September 11, 1973.
5. Crime is a regional problem and the opposition doesn’t pose solutions
So this brings us to crime. It is true that insecurity, especially in working-class neighbourhoods, is an issue of concern to Venezuelans. Crime and especially gun crime have been historic problems in Venezuela. But what accounts for the rise in crime, especially gun crime?
The proliferation of heavy artillery and guns in Venezuela, accompanying the drug trade, is massive. Despite concentrated government efforts to combat drug cartels moving cocaine through the country (ranking 4th in the world in seizures), most accounts recognize that drug trafficking is still prolific. Connected with this are unregistered firearms, with estimates ranging from 1,100,000 to 2,700,000, although this is likely much higher. This is of course a regional problem, with identical problems in similar statistics in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. In Venezuela however, there is an added political motive to at least one important player in the crime and insecurity – paramilitaries from the Colombian conflict.
There are an estimated 4.5 million Colombians residing in Venezuela. The vast majority of these people have immigrated beginning in the 1990s and especially in the early 2000s, escaping the violence of the Colombian conflict and looking for ‘cheaper’ living conditions. The Venezuelan government began a regularization program in 2004.
During this same period, Colombia was ‘demobilizing’ paramilitaries linked to mass murders and drug trafficking. Some of these paramilitaries have gone into Venezuela within the wave of Colombians, to continue their previous activities. Paramilitary groups have been caught in Venezuela on numerous occasions and have assassinated pro-government activists in rural areas as well as in urban centres.
The problem of crime is not a national problem, but a complex regional problem that is inextricably related to drug trafficking.
So what is the opposition asking for to deal with crime? Opposition Mayors and Governors have in certain cases, such as in the rich municipality of Chacao, where much of the rioting in Caracas is taking place, have refused to fold their historically corrupt and brutal police forces and accept the centralized, Policia Nacional Bolivariana (who are provided with extensive training including in sociology and dealing with and relating to the community and peoples they service). So they are not asking for more police.
Instead, the only discernable call is for the disarmament of the ‘colectivos’ – armed, independent political organizations from militant, working-class neighbourhoods. Despite being characterized by the opposition as government sponsored paramilitaries, they pre-date the Chavez government and are known to sharply guard their autonomy from it. Moreover from that, these self-financed organizations are predominantly political in nature, running community programs, media and even beautification projects. Not only are these groups the first line of defense against a coup (as they were in 2002) but they are also on the front lines against crime. In the 23 de Enero neighbourhood for example, these groups came to an agreement with the municipal government to have police removed and operate their own neighbourhood watch. Crime in this neighbourhood is handled effectively, if somewhat severely.
The opposition’s lack of a clear vision for tackling crime betrays their disingenuousness.
6. The claims of ‘state repression’ and ‘media censorship’ are at best, exaggerated
Beyond the fact that the majority of those hurt or killed from the recent violence are victims of the protests, the issue of state repression is something people invariably question when they see an opposition leader jailed, or military deployed.
Leopoldo Lopez, the wealthy, Harvard-educated former Mayor of Chacao, was arrested following his promoting the escalation of street demonstrations against the government to generate ‘La Salida’ (The Exit). This led to three deaths on February 12 and at least seven since. Lopez, who during his time in office was sanctioned for influence-peddling and embezzlement of funds, as well as illegal fund transfers, took active part in the 2002 coup and led mobs searching for and assaulting Chavista ministers. Prior to his arrest, government officials revealed to Lopez’s family that there was a plan afoot to assassinate him, and acted to prevent this from happening (a fact that Lopez’ wife confirmed on CNN).
Aside from Lopez who was particularly brazen in his calls for the streets to take down the government, some 50 others are being held directly in connection with violence causing serious injury, such as the SEBIN officers in question around the murders of Bassil Dacosta and Juan Montoya, as well as a driver who ran someone over trying to avoid a protester barricade.
Importantly, it must be acknowledged that in Tachira and other places, students blocked roads and protested without any government or police interference and it was not until the official residence of Governor of Tachira was attacked that the any arrests were made. These arrests were the apparent catalysts that set off student demonstrations which escalated violence in Tachira and other cities.
So then what about the control and clampdown of media? Despite claims to the contrary, the total broadcasters of the state have a tremendously low share of the market – only 5%. Opposition newspapers and websites operate without restriction, and as evidenced by the extent of falsified posts circulating over social media, these continue to operate freely. A morbid testament to this reality is a tweet sent by former General Vivas, instructing people to set up “nylon rope or galvanized wire at 1.20 meters height in the streets” in order to “neutralize the hordes”. At least two have died from such traps.
This violence also occurs less than a year after the violence following the 2013 presidential elections. Having narrowly lost the elections, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles called for people to go out and “discharge their rage,” leading to the deaths of seven pro-government activists and another 61 injured. In addition, violent opposition demonstrators burned several of the Barrio Adentro medical clinics, offices of the national telephone company, subsidized super markets, social housing as well as other social property. When we talk about context, there needs to be an acknowledgement that this, the assassinations and attempts on leaders (not just Chavez), the oil strike, the 2002 coup and the countless massacres and mass repressions under the previous regime, is the context.
Put into context, the Venezuelan government’s response to this level of reactionary street violence has been quite restrained and balanced by any standard, and would certainly not be tolerated in any part of North America by governments like Canada, the U.S., or Mexico. But the Bolivarian government understands that the opposition and its international backers are looking for just such a pretext to step-up their campaigns.
7. Overall, the opposition has demonstrated itself to be uninterested in democracy, dialogue and has never conceded the government
Over the last 15 years, 19 electoral events have taken place in Venezuela, 18 of which have been won by Chavismo. There are close to 40,000 communal councils, democratic and participatory citizen-initiated and run bodies, that can basically administer their neighbourhood. If Venezuelans think an elected official – any elected official, from bottom to the very top – is failing at their job, they can initiate a recall refendum vote. This was most spectacularly carried out against Hugo Chavez in 2004 (who won the referendum handily with 58% of votes in his favour). So how can Venezuela’s democratic credentials be questioned? Why are the characterization of the government as ‘autocratic’ and ‘totalitarian’ still so common?
Because the opposition says so.
The political opposition, which has not been able to win a presidential election since 1998, has cried ‘fraud’ after virtually every election in spite of testimony of international monitors to the contrary, and they have held all kinds of other posts through the same elections they decry. Capriles, for example, is still Governor of Miranda even while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Venezuela’s electoral system.
This is the same opposition whose leading members organized and carried out the massacres that paved the way for their short-lived 2002 coup. This is the same opposition that took part in the coup which abolished the constitution, the national assembly, the judiciary, the ombuds, etc. At the time, Capriles was the Mayor of Baruta in Caracas and Lopez the Mayor of Chacao in Caracas. They both took active parts in the coup, including leading roving mobs looking for Chavista ministers and also participating in aggressions against the Cuban Embassy. Maria Corina Machado, a leader of the opposition, was a signatory to the Carmona decree which abolished the rule of law under the junta created by the 2002 coup.
This is also the same opposition that was government for 40 years prior to the election of Chavez – governments that were responsible for countless human rights violations and massacres. Under the Punto Fijo Pact, three parties agreed to a corporatist ‘power-sharing’ agreement. Many of the opposition players descend from these three parties. Antonio Ledezma for example, another major opposition leader and Mayor of the Greater Caracas area, was a Deputy of the National Assembly during the Caracazo massacre of 1989 that claimed 3,000 lives, and was also Governor of Caracas in 1992 when police were sent in to kill 200 prisoners in the Retén de Catia jail to quell a prison riot. These are the ‘democrats’ in Venezuela. These are the defenders of ‘human rights’ we are being presented with in the media here in North America.
This is an opposition that openly receives at least US$40 million per year from the United States to undermine the Bolivarian Revolution.
This is the also the opposition that has refused talks with Maduro.
This is an opposition that has never conceded that they are, in fact, the opposition. This is an opposition has simply refused to acknowledge that the majority of Venezuelans have opted to not have them in power. This is an opposition that has never let go of their entitlement, their privilege, their scorn for the poorer, darker majority that they saw reflected in Chavez, and now Maduro – a former bus driver.
8. Fascism and imperialism are very present threats to Venezuela
As much as it would be great to characterize the current situation as a small group of privileged extremists against a 99%, that is not the situation. While the opposition is undoubtedly under right-wing leadership and there is no – this bears repeating – no left or revolutionary tendency within the political opposition, there is a mass of people that have been won over to the political opposition.
More importantly, there is a section of the masses within the opposition that has demonstrated its willingness to use lethal violence to achieve its political ends.
Undoubtedly there are sincere elements within the ranks of the opposition and students who may be frustrated, disillusioned or simply duped by the haranguing about ‘cubanization.’ But there also also those who have been burning primary schools, supply trucks, public transportation, public institutions, blocking ambulances and setting up booby traps to kill and maim.
These are reactionary activities with reactionary ends. Fascism doesn’t simply involve a state oppressing people, but has historically implicated mobilization of a mass of people and using a section of that mass as a violent shock troop. This was true of Germany, as in Italy, as in Spain. In closer proximity to Venezuela, it was also true of Chile. The Colombian paramilitaries, who have been actively killing trade unionists, campesino organizers and anything ‘communist’ since the 1980s, are also an example of this and a player in this conflict.
It is simply not tenable to allow this activity and these groups to operate, to terrorize a population. Given the numerous avenues and channels for Venezuelans to organize themselves, replace politicians, run their spaces and communities outside of bourgeois institutions, violence against institutions of the people are unacceptable.
This is where imperialism fits in. Violence is being fomented in order to illicit a disproportionate and violent response from government or its supporters – a response that would justify a possible intervention of some sort. So far that has not happened.
However as events in Syria and Libya show, coupled with revelations yesterday of a captured, foreign mercenary in Aragua with plans to set off car bombs, the threat that cries of state ‘violence’ will be used to justify foreign intervention is real.
9. The majority of people still support the Bolivarian process and government – and we should side with them
Forget about whether Venezuela’s economy is still capitalist, or whether its government is socialist or communist. The fact is that the majority of Venezuelan people still support it and the institutions of government.
Just this past December 2013, the Socialist Party and its allies won 76% of mayoralties. Just this week, the private consultancy firm Hinterlaces confirmed that 71% of the country feels that Venezuela’s political future should be decided through the constitutional electoral process. Only 29% support the government’s forced “exit” through street actions.
Perhaps more importantly, it is still evident on the streets and communities of Venezuela, where hundreds of thousands of oil workers, women, pensioners, youth, motorcyclists, community activists, peasants and other sectors have taken to the streets in separate marches across the country demanding peace and respect for their will.