On March 6, the anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death, a few hundred of the former Venezuelan president’s most loyal followers flocked to his marble tomb at an old military barracks in a slum above Caracas. Afterwards, state officials and military personnel—joined by the presidents of Bolivia and Nicaragua—marched through the streets in Chávez’s honor.
The ceremony also marked a full month since the beginning of the demonstrations against Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. The wave of protests began February 4 with student demonstrations against the police’s failure to investigate a sexual assault case on their university campus in the Andean city of San Cristóbal. When the police suppressed the protestors—spraying tear gas into the crowd—without responding to the institutional failure they targeted, the protests multiplied and spread to other cities.
Protestors are angry about police suppression, and also with Venezuela’s soaring inflation rate; in January, the annual rate was calculated at 56 percent. At the same time, Venezuelans struggle with shortages of basics such as oil, toilet paper, and cornmeal. The supply of the bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, expanded 70 percent in 2013. Critics say Maduro’s government has been spending exorbitantly on social programs only for the purpose of garnering votes.
The president and his supporters counter with accusations of a conspiracy against the government concocted by right-wing politicians and business interests, backed by the United States. They also point to the expansion of social services, which last year impressed even some of the president’s critics. Venezuela’s central bank issued a statement in January, underscoring its concern for citizens’ welfare: "It is important to emphasize that the population continues to receive, with equal or greater intensity, the benefits that the state provides through state-run commerce that offers food at accessible prices.”
According to Francisco Toro, an anti-Chavista political journalist and opinions columnist at the New York Times, the student demonstrations inspired a nation-wide wave of demonstration “in defense of the very right to protest.”
But this interpretation of the protest wave is by no means the consensus. According to a number of left-wing observers, the demonstrations are not spontaneous outbursts of popular power. Instead, they are an attempt by right-wing politicians to consolidate opposition against the Chavista president Maduro, supported by university students—in Venezuela, a much more conservative bunch than in most of its neighbors, “These protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall,” George Ciccariello-Maher, a historian and the author of We Created Chávez, a “people’s history of Venezuela,” wrote in The Nation.
Nine months ago authors of similar leftist stripes applauded what, superficially, seemed like an equivalent display of national participation in Brazil. So is the condemnation of protests in Venezuela a hypocritical response by those who want to preserve Chávez’s—and, by extension, Maduro’s—legacy and believe in the socialist Bolivarian Republic? It’s likely. But these writers also highlight nuances particular to these protests that have largely been overlooked in international coverage. Many of the burning tires and violent confrontations occurred in middle class areas; the student protests happened at private or state universities which have increasingly excluded poorer students; and the new low-cost public bus system, the more broadly accessible Bolivarian University, and the Cuban medical personnel who run the Barrio Adentro welfare program have all been targets of protestors’ violence. Meanwhile, in the poorer areas of the country and its cities, people have largely kept to themselves. The response of the majority of ordinary Venezuelans has been to rally behind Maduro, Mike Gonzales wrote for Jacobin, joining in the president’s “call for ‘peace.’” The repression of the protests has served to detract media attention from their goal, which is far from clear. According to Gonzalez, the orchestrators of the protests want to mobilize large numbers of people in order to destabilize the current regime and bring to power the same people who ran the country in the mid-1990s, before Chávez came to power. In order to gain assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the neoliberal regime of Carlos Andrés Pérez slashed social spending and commodity subsidies, the effects of which were felt almost entirely by the working class.
The protests’ leader also helps to demonstrate their upper-class nature. Leopoldo López, who has positioned himself as the country’s opposition leader, is the Harvard-educated son of an oil executive; he currently sits in prison for “inciting violence” after encouraging protests and speaking at a rally in February. He served as mayor of one of Caracas’ eastern districts before being barred from running for public office for allegedly accepting bribes and misusing public funds. Lopez, 42, also has shiny hair, fair skin, and a pearly-white smile—characteristics that many analysts point to in explaining his popularity among the student movement and to distinguish him from the dark-skinned Chávez, who was long considered too indigenous for the elite to fully endorse. The party through which Lopez rose to politics, Primero Justicia (Justice First), received financial support from USAID—the international development agency with roots in the US government’s Cold War-era Good Neighbor Policy—throughout Chávez’ time in office. Meanwhile, among those still hoping to overthrow Maduro through electoral politics, Lopez’ charisma and maverick persona carry the threat of a new demagogue’s rise to power—or at least the outward appearance of one, enough of a threat for Maduro’s government to act to crush all his enemies. Lopez “is giving the government the perfect excuse to accuse the opposition of destabilising the country," Carlos Romero, an opposition-leaning political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, told the BBC.
It is wise to pause here and remember that a large spontaneous uprising, whether directed by an entrenched elite or an angry populace, is highly unlikely to be completely uniform. Certainly not all those who are taking to the streets oppose the government’s socialist ideology, worry about its economic future, or hope for greater freedom and accountability. It’s likely that many protestors are bringing their own personal issues to the forum, intending to give voice to a generalized discontent rather than topple the government. In the slums of San Cristóbal, lower-class citizens who may not have originally sympathized with the student protests have risen up against the militarized crack-down and siege-like conditions throughout the city. At the same time, not all who blame Venezuela’s abysmal economic situation on its current government applaud the protestors. For the government, journalist Rafael Osío Cabrices wrote in a Times op-ed, they may be “a welcome deflection of public attention from a faltering economy and rising crime. They may even invigorate this flaccid dictatorship.”
International observers can be forgiven for not having a clear picture of the events on the ground, and not only because of their complexity. Venezuela’s government acted quickly to censor sources giving voice to the protests. On February 20, President Maduro told CNN’s team that they would have to leave Venezuela, after about a week of threats to expel them if they did not “rectify” their reporting of the protests. In a press conference, the president accused United States-based media of “calling for civil war.” A day later, after CNN published a lengthy story about its pending expulsion, he reversed the decision and allowed the news team to stay in the country. Still, the threat lingers in journalists’ minds. In part—at least according to some protestors—the lack of coverage is a national problem as well and is the fault of Venezuela’s national media; “Damn the media that turn their backs on the people,” read a sign at one protest in Caracas. Shortly after the protests began in February, the government ordered outlets to limit any discussion of violence that could "foment anxiety." The next day, only five out of 38 radio stations monitored by the Press and Society Institute carried any news of a demonstration where two protestors and one government supporter died.
When reports of supposed events on the ground do get out, they can be more illustrative of observers’ prejudices than of what is truly happening in Venezuela. On Twitter, a number of images have circulated along with messages favorable to the protests; the images themselves, however, come from older protests in Chile, Spain, Brazil, Bulgaria, and Spain—serving to further the confusion about the true nature of the protests. Meanwhile, in trying to paint the protestors as the vanguard of a new coup, the government has fallen into the same practice. On March 1, Vice President Diosdado Cabello revealed a photograph on national television that showed a wall of assault rifles, claiming they belonged to a retired general who clashed with police over his vocal opposition to Maduro. In reality, the photo came from the site of a gun rental shop in Wisconsin.
But violence is also real. On Monday, March 10, 23-year-old student Daniel Tinoco was shot late at night by a group of gunmen. He was a student and at the center of the protests in San Cristóbal. Protestors claim the shooters were government-backed paramilitaries; Maduro argues that this and more of the 20 deaths of individuals on both sides of the protests are part of a growing coup d’etat. Before his death, Tinoco was in charge of defending a camp, used by protestors, that held gas bombs, stones, and other makeshift weapons—to protect themselves from police, they claimed.
Powerful members of the opposition disturb the governmental machine, which sputters into action and strikes wildly in response. People whose lives are disrupted by police interference become disillusioned; the Right harnesses that disillusionment in fueling further attempts to undermine the Leftist regime. The game seems endless; if anyone wins, it will only be at a cost too high to fully fathom yet.
Emma Wohl B’14 might be a hypocrite.