By Bronwen Beechey, Fightback (Auckland).
Venezuela has experienced a wave of protests over the past few weeks. Demonstrations against the government, largely by university students, began after the hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called for supporters to go onto the streets and demand the exit of President Nicolas Maduro. Food shortages, corruption and crime have been frequently mentioned as reasons for dissatisfaction. While many of the protests have been peaceful, others have resulted in violent clashes with security forces, and on occasion with supporters of the government. A violent element within the opposition has been setting up street barricades, rioting and attacking property and civilians.
The Venezuelanalysis.com website reported on February 11 that in the Andean city of Merida, protestors in balaclavas were forcibly stopping vehicles at one of the main intersections, forcing passengers off buses at gunpoint, and throwing shrapnel at motorists passing through the intersection. Venezualanalysis.com journalist Tamara Pearson was attacked by three protestors, who pushed her to the ground and held her at gunpoint, demanding “Give us your camera or we’ll kill you”. Opposition demonstrators at one barricade told Venezuelanalysis’s Ewan Robertson that they were fighting a war of “attrition” against the government.
On February 22, the government announced that it was sending two army battalions to Tachira state, which borders Colombia, after reports that the state capital San Christobal had been brought to a standstill by street blockades. Press reports stated that almost no transport has been able to circulate, while the great majority of shops and businesses had closed. Authorities warned that the street blockades had blocked the delivery of food and gasoline, and claimed that transport workers had been threatened. The government suspected that “paramilitaries and criminal gangs” were involved in the action, with the complicity of the local mayor, an opposition member.
A British traveller, Jack Johnston, told Venezuelanalysis.com that he had spent nine days in San Christobal. He said that the bus terminal had been closed and he had been lucky to get a bus out. “From Monday morning there were no taxis operating, no public transport, and the city’s bus terminal was closed…on Monday one of the main squares in the city was completely deserted by nightfall, and the only thing open was a Wendy’s restaurant,” he said.
Asked about the authorities’ response to the situation, he said: “Inexplicably non-existent. It’s far from a repressive crackdown, the exact opposite. They’ve allowed a small number of students to occupy a main crossroads and dozens of blocks without any opposition…I explained to them [opposition activists] that there’s no way this would be allowed to continue for more than one day in my country”.
As of February 25, 13 people had died as a direct result of the violence, and at least 137 injured.
The government and opposition have blamed each other for the violence. “Venezuela is victim of an attack by the extreme-right to destabilise us, to take us into civil war,” said Maduro on February 21. He also alleged that the opposition has paid youths from “criminal gangs” to participate in the violent street actions. At the same time, he warned government supporters that they must not use violence against the protestors.
“I want to say clearly: someone puts on a red t-shirt with Chavez’s face and takes out a pistol to attack, isn’t a Chavista or a revolutionary. I don’t accept violent groups within the camp of Chavismo and the Bolivarian revolution,” Maduro stated at a pro-government rally on February 16.
However the opposition says the violence is being perpetrated by security forces and pro-government “paramilitaries”.
“State security forces, accompanied by paramilitary groups, have cruelly attacked peaceful and defenceless protesters…leaving a lamentable tally of citizens assassinated, seriously wounded, tortured and disappeared,” claimed the opposition’s Democratic Unity Table (MUD) coalition in a statement on 21 February.
Following the expulsion of three US consular officials for allegedly conspiring with the opposition, US president Barack Obama said, “In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people.”
The internet has become another battleground, with numerous posts on social media such as Facebook, You Tube and Twitter from supporters of the opposition alleging police brutality and persecution of protestors. Even celebrities have joined in: Cher, Madonna and Paris Hilton being just some who have tweeted protests against the “dictator” Maduro.
Mainstream media has also joined in condemning the government. In fact, as shown by an expose by Dawg’s Blawg of fake images circulating social media portraying the Venezuelan government as repressing peaceful protesters, mainstream outlets such as CNN sometimes took such faked images for its coverage.
So what is really happening in Venezuela? The simple answer: it’s class war.
Is Venezuela worse off under Maduro?
Much of the mainstream and social media coverage of Venezuela is based on what English academic Lee Salter calls the “exceptionalism thesis” – that Venezuela is historically different from the rest of Latin America in that it was stable and democratic. In fact, a large number of Latin American scholars have pointed out that prior to Chavez, in the words of Princeton University’s Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno: ‘Venezuela was marked by extreme poverty set against a narrowly constituted elite of 5-10% of the population’.
According to Julia Buxton of Bradford University, between 1975 and 1995 poverty increased dramatically, with the percentage of persons living in poverty rising from 33% to 70% during that period, the number of households in poverty increased from 15% to 45% between 1975 and 1995, by 2000 wages had dropped 40% from their 1980 levels, and by 1997 67% of Venezuelans earned less than $2 a day. The main difference between Venezuela and other Latin American countries was that Venezuela had oil, but although the petroleum industry was nominally state-owned, the wealth from the oil went to the elite and the successive governments that ruled on their behalf. While the wealthy lived in exclusive gated communities and went on shopping trips to Miami, millions of the poor lived in shantytowns without access to electricity, water and other basic services.
In 1989, neo-liberal reforms introduced by President Carlos Andrés Perez caused sharp increases in costs of basic items and public transport. This led to massive rioting in the capital of Caracas and a subsequent crack-down by the military and the police, which came to be known as the Caracazo. It is estimated that state security forces ended up killing between 300 and 3,000 Venezuelans following the riots, between February 27 and March 5 of 1989. Following the Caracazo a number of progressive military officers, including Hugo Chavez, a paratrooper from a poor working-class family, began organising to overthrow the government. An attempted coup in 1992 failed and Chavez was imprisoned.
After his release from prison in 1994, Chavez began organising a base of support among the poor. His charismatic personality and uncompromising support for social justice gained a massive following, and in 1998, he was elected president and launched the “Bolivarian revolution”, named after the 19th century independence fighter Simon Bolivar. One of his first actions was to call a Constituent Assembly in 1999, with a broad representation from all sectors of the working class and poor, to rewrite the country’s constitution. The new Constitution stressed the values of equality, independence, human rights and the ultimate sovereignty of the people.
In April 2002, Chavez was briefly ousted by a coup organised by his opponents. Following massive demonstrations by his supporters and actions by the military to defend him, he was returned to power after 2 days. In December of the same year, the state oil industry PDVSA was shut down by its management in another attempt to overthrow Chavez. Despite the economic chaos caused, the sabotage was defeated by a mass movement of the poor, oil workers and loyal soldiers. As a result, the elite managers were sacked and the industry was brought fully under control of the elected government. Chavez used the revenue to fund an ever-growing array of “social missions” which brought free health care, education, cheap food, housing and much more to the poor majority.
Since then, more laws affecting corporate interests have been passed, including laws strengthening workers’ rights, the renationalisation of strategic industries privatised by past governments, and introducing price controls.
As a result, poverty has more than halved since 2003 and extreme poverty gone from 16.6% in 1999 to 7% in 2011. The number of doctors increased from 20 per 100,000 population in 1999 to 80 per 100,000 in 2010, or an increase of 400%, and infant mortality dropped by 49% between 1999 and 2012. Massive education programs increased the number of primary school enrolments from 6 million in 1998 to 13 million in 2011, and provided free education to at least secondary level to all adults. Illiteracy has been eliminated, hundreds of thousands of new homes built, and the minimum wage has risen by 2000% since 1998.
Of course, there are still problems – corruption and crime are often cited by the opposition. But both of these issues existed before Chavez, and have been frequently acknowledged by the PSUV. Measures taken against crime have included the setting up of a new police force, as well as the obvious measures of combatting poverty and promoting solidarity. There have been a number of cases where “Chavista” officials found to be corrupt have been sacked and jailed.
The opposition has been unable to defeat the Chavista forces at the ballot box, despite all the backing from their wealthy supporters. Chavez and his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were elected again in 2006 and for a third term in 2012. Each election was conducted with international observers and declared to be fair. Former US president Jimmy Carter described Venezueala’s electoral system as “the best in the world”.
Following the death of Chavez in March 2013, vice-president Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver and trade union leader, narrowly won the election held in April. In December, the PSUV and its allies won a convincing majority of municipal elections. Following the victory, Maduro announced the government’s political priorities for 2014, including : developing the housing mission and the community renovation program Barrio Nuevo, the improvement of public hospitals, the guarantee of drinking water supply to all homes, and the spreading of the anti-crime Safe Homeland Plan.
In the circumstances, the government is seeking political stability. It has no interest in promoting violence; however, the opposition, having failed once again at the ballot box, does.
Who is the opposition?
The main opposition, the MUD, is a coalition of parties ranging from nominally socialist to the extreme right. Its main spokeperson, Henrique Capriles, stood as presidential candidate against Maduro in the 2013 election. Caprilies represents the more moderate wing of the opposition, which has called for peaceful demonstrations against the government. However, the main forces behind the street protests are from the extreme right. They include Lopez, the leader of the extremist Popular Will party, member of parliament Maria Machado and Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma.
Both Machado and Lopez were involved in the 2002 attempted coup, signing the Carmona Decree, which temporarily dissolved the Chávez government. López, meanwhile, orchestrated the violent clashes in front of the Presidential Palace, which led to dozens of deaths and provided the pretext for the coup. The acclaimed Irish documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised shows how faked news footage was used to claim that Chavistas had fired on a peaceful demonstration, much as faked photos have been circulated on social media to portray the government as repressing opposition protestors.
While Capriles has in the past expressed willingness to work with the government, Lopez and Machado have made it clear that their aim is to force Maduro to resign. The term “salida” (exit) has been used to express the aim of the protestors – to overthrow the “illegitimate” government which has won 18 elections.
The real aim of the opposition, both “moderate” and extreme right, is to restore the privileges of the former ruling class who benefited from the old regime. What really angers them is not crime, corruption or food shortages, but the expansion of participatory democracy.
The social missions are run by communities in which they operate. The government has established grassroots communal councils that group between 200 to 400 families. These are expanding into communes which are based on elected representatives from the communal councils and make decisions over a larger area. Previously marginalised groups such as women, youth, indigenous and LGBT people have been bought into political life. And workers have been empowered to form cooperatives, play an equal role in management of nationalised industries and in some cases, to take over enterprises which have been abandoned or closed by their owners.
As Salter says, “the ‘opposition’ is as concerned with poverty as its leaders were when they presided over massive levels of poverty. They are as concerned with human rights as they were during the Caracazo Massacre. They are as concerned with democracy as they were when there was de facto exclusion of most of the population from political life. The big fear is the change in this latter. And it is this fear of the ‘plebs’ that drives the ‘opposition’.”
Lopez and other opposition figures have also been receiving funding from the US government. As Venezuelan journalist Eva Golinger explains: “Through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a congressionally created entity funded by the State Department, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Washington has channelled more than $100 million to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela since 2002. A majority of those substantial funds have been used to run opposition candidates’ campaigns, as well as finance those well crafted media campaigns against the Chavez government that flood the national and international press.
“In February 2011, President Barack Obama requested $5 million for opposition groups in Venezuela in his 2012 National Budget. It marked the first time a sitting US president openly requested money in the national budget to fund Chavez’s opposition, especially during a time when domestic funding is being cut. Apparently, Obama prefers to spend US taxpayer dollars on efforts to oust the Venezuelan President – elected democratically and supported by the majority – instead of investing in the health and wellbeing of the US people.”
The opposition, and much of the mainstream reporting, has blamed shortages of some basic goods on government policies, but the government says capitalists are sabotaging the economy to destabilise the country. This has been dismissed as an excuse, or “conspiracy theory”, but there is a clear precedent.
In 1970, Chile elected a government headed by left-wing president Salvador Allende. Declassified documents later showed that then-president Richard Nixon instructed the CIA to “make the economy scream”. The US and Chilean capitalists conspired to manufacture shortages and sabotage the economy. The resulting economic chaos laid the groundwork for the 1973 military coup that installed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which killed thousands of people and imposed extreme neoliberal policies.
A coup of the Chilean type does not seem likely in the short term. The army has so far remained loyal. The right-wing officers who took power in 2002 have been removed, and the government has sought to incorporate the army into the process of change.
The government has also taken measures to combat hoarding and speculation. Early in February, the Law for the Control of Fair Costs, Prices and Profits aims to prevent price speculation, product hoarding and other activities deemed to be “destabilising” the economy. It also established a maximum profit margin of 30% to prevent companies from overcharging.
It is not surprising that the latest round of right-wing violence began after these new steps in what Maduro has called an “economic revolution.”
Where is the news coming from?
The predominance of opposition views on both social and mainstream media reflect the fact that those with greatest access to social media and more likely to speak English are the middle and upper classes. They also have more contacts with mainstream media – in fact, three of the major television stations in Venezuela are owned by private companies hostile to the government. The Venezuelan state television station VTV has been targeted by opposition demonstrators who have surrounded it with blockades and attacked the building with firebombs. Three of the four major newspapers in Caracas are also privately owned and two of them, El Nacional and El Universal are strongly anti-government.
It is also important to note that the students involved in the protests make up a small minority of Venezuelan students. As commentator Jorge Martin points out, “There are 2.6 million university students in Venezuela, a massive increase from less than 800.000 in 1998, as a direct result of the social programs of the Bolivarian revolution. Only a small minority of students have been involved in protesting, mainly from private and “old” state universities, which tend to be elitist. None of the new Bolivarian Universities have been involved in protests and there are a number of student organisations in the traditional institutions which openly reject the opposition campaign.”
Thousands march in support of the government
Large marches in support of the government have generally been ignored by mainstream media. On February 18, thousands of oil workers, with other workers and the poor, marched through Caracas to oppose the right-wing protests and defend the elected government. At another large “march for peace” in Caracas on February 22, Maduro repeated his call for dialogue between the government and opposition, calling for a “National Peace Conference” to resolve the ongoing violence. He also said that he was prepared to talk to the US government, who he has accused of supporting the protests.
However Maduro also told supporters that, “If due to the circumstances of fascist violence [the opposition] take power, I authorise you to go onto the streets and defend the nation, to rescue every millimetre of the homeland”.
At a pro-opposition rally on the same day, Capriles presented a list of “demands” to be resolved before dialogue could begin. They included the release of Lopez and all “students and youth” arrested during the protests. At the same time, Capriles was critical of the violent protests, saying that they “make it easy for the government”. “What do you achieve closing yourselves in within your own street? It’s in the government’s interest that the protests are in Altamira [a wealthy area of Caracas] and not Catia [a working class area of Caracas]”.
Capriles’ remarks, as well as showing the divisions in the opposition itself, reflect the reality that the protests are not supported by the working class and poor. In a recent poll undertaken by a private consultancy firm with a sample of 1,400, only 29% of Venezuelans feel that the government should be forced from office through street actions.
Meanwhile 29% feel a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency should be organised in 2016, and 42% feel that Maduro should be allowed to serve out his full mandate uninterrupted, until 2019.
It is clear, though, that the desperate elite and its US backers will not give up and accept the democratic decisions of the majority. The challenge for the government and its supporters is to strengthen the organisations of the poor and working class, to build a movement that will defend and extend the ongoing socialist revolution in Venezuela. For supporters of the Bolivarian revolution in countries like NZ, the best response is to counter the lies and distortions of the right-wing, and be prepared to organise in solidarity against any attempts by the US to interfere in Venezuela’s affairs.
Join the 2014 solidarity tour to Venezuela
Tour dates: December 2 – 13, 2014
Registrations are now open for the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network’s 2014 solidarity tour to revolutionary Venezuela. Participants from all countries are welcome to apply to join the tour.
The solidarity tour – to run from Tuesday December 2nd to Saturday December 13th (inclusive) – will be a unique an opportunity to observe first-hand, learn about and be inspired by a grassroots movement that is transforming not only Venezuela, but all of Latin America, and is challenging the greed and destructiveness of global capitalism by showing that a better world is possible.
Since 1998, Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution has achieved remarkable things by putting control of the nation’s politics and economy back into the hands of the poor majority. Despite the challenges created by the United States-backed opposition’s campaign to stall and destroy the revolution, this people-powered process of change continues to flourish.
The 2014 study tour is the 15th international delegation to Venezuela organised by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network. The detailed itinerary will be planned over coming months, but the 12-day tour will include visits to social missions, communal councils and communes, as well as production cooperatives, agro-ecology projects, public health and education services, community controlled media, and women’s and Indigenous organisations and projects.
A report on last December’s AVSN tour is attached for your information.
The 2014 delegation will meet with a wide range of grassroots organisations, community activists and government representatives to learn more about the participatory democracy and “socialism of the 21st century” being created by the Venezuelan people.
Accommodation and transport within Venezuela, and English-Spanish translation throughout the brigade, will be organised for all participants by the AVSN. Participants will need to book their own international flights to and from Venezuela.
In addition to your international airfare, you will need to budget for approximately $1200. This will cover your brigade registration fee ($500 for waged workers or $350 for students/pensioners), and your food, transport and accommodation for the 12 days in Venezuela.
The registration deadline is October 3, 2014.
For a registration form or more information, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.