Is Caracas Burning?

An anti-government demonstration in Caracas, Feb. 13, 2014. Photo credit: Carlos García Rawlins/Reuters. Source: washingtonpost.com

 (The following is a translated and expanded version of a recent op-ed submission to El Sol de Ohio)

The political polarization that has affected Venezuela over the last 15 years has once again fallen to dangerous levels recently. Student-led protests have taken the city of Caracas and other points around the country by storm, while the government has announced that it would not budge to the pressure. So far, there are four deaths (one among government supporters and three among the demonstrators), many arrests (including that of opposition leader Leopoldo López, one of the organizers of the protests), and few indications as of yet that the atmosphere will calm down and cooler heads will prevail.

Both sides have given their version of the events, especially the bloodiest ones. The government declares that these protests were provoked by “terrorists” and “fascists” intent on carrying out a coup and end the Bolivarian Revolution, and a blog post by David Smilde opines that López and the protestors knew about the risks they were exposing themselves to by staging their protests right inside chavista territory in Caracas, but went on anyway and therefore contributed to the climate of violence. But that same blog also criticizes the government for giving its silent acquiescence to the colectivos, bands of armed, bike-driving supporters of the government who, according to the opposition’s own version, initiated the violence against what was a peaceful demonstration. The opposition also believes that any violent behavior displayed at its demonstrations was not under their responsibility, but orchestrated by infiltrators. Smilde’s verdict is that both sides preach peace but contradict themselves in practice.

It makes sense – indeed, it is necessary – to demand that the opposition carries itself peacefully, either to really show its commitment to peace and claim the moral high ground against the government, or simply for the sake of the more pragmatic objective of not giving a reasonable excuse for more vitriol. I therefore agree with that part of Smilde’s opinion in principle, but the argument behind it is fragile. If we follow that logic to its full materialization, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were foolhardy to organize the voting drive in Selma in 1965, which led to the Selma-to-Montgomery March and “Bloody Sunday”, because they knew that local law enforcement would be brutal against them but went on anyway. (A 26-year-old Black man who participated in that drive was mortally shot by police while protecting his mother, who also participated, from a rampaging officer and his baton.) To follow that logic is like assuming, as many did during World War II, that bombing could win the war on its own. If you want to win the war, you also have to go inside enemy territory and take it. (Please excuse my military-speak.)

On the side of chavismo, there is much more sense in criticizing it. The point is not to insist that there is a smoking gun pointing to the Venezuelan government. They did not order the deaths of the four opposition supporters, although it did respond exactly in the same way Selma authorities did in 1965. Smilde is correct in asserting that the connections between government and colectivos do not put anyone’s mind to rest, but the culpability of chavismo goes beyond the immediate events of the last several days. An old saying, taken from the Bible, says that “they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” What has happened thus far confirms it. As necessary as it was a change in goverment and its institutions back in 1998, and as legitimate as it is to improve the lot of the politically, economically, and socially disenfranchised (as chavismo has always claimed), the polarizing and divisive methods of Hugo Chávez, happily adopted by Nicolás Maduro, are the real origins of these events. It may be to finally fulfill Chávez’s desire to annihilate all opposition to “21st century socialism” or to score points against other factions of chavismo, but the deed is done and they will never be able to distance themselves from it. Moreover, nowhere in Smilde’s assessment is any mention of populism, a Chávez trademark that Maduro now mimicks and that Margarita López Maya has criticized (now repeatedly).

In addition, the government has not owned to its mistakes, as Smilde says. At least not to its economic mistakes: galloping inflation and constant shortages (even of toilet paper). The immediate reason for these protests has to do with both, but under Venezuela’s highly divisive climate the buck does not stop at Maduro’s desk. It stops where the “economic saboteurs” make their profits gouging prices and choking supply lines. A third reason for the protests is an ever-rising crime, which has even reached one of Venezuela’s prized national possessions – beauty queens. The government’s response to the murder last month of former Miss Universe contestant and telenovela star Mónica Spear was to unfurl a “pacification” plan that has seemingly reduced violence where it was implemented and even has the approval of Maduro’s old rival Henrique Capriles, but also raises questions regarding its tendency to militarize law enforcement (with its ancillary weakening of civil and human rights protections) and long-term sustainability. In any case, it should not be any surprise if the Venezuelan government decides one day to combat “fascism” and “terrorism” in the same way it currently does against common crime.

All this leads to a reality that is going under the radar: The Venezuelan government’s position is not as comfortable as it looks. At least, it shows more fear than confidence. Chavismo dominates every bit of political power from the outside (through media dominance and media intimidation) and the inside (for instance, through its control over the judiciary and the electoral system), but just like the Cuban Revolution an existential fear to reactionaries has taken root in Venezuela to such a degree that existing threats are overblown, resulting in political capital to keep the now rickety boat of chavismo floating for the foreseeable future. So long as there is an opposition in Venezuela, that fear will never go away. If there is not anybody else to blame, a straw man will come up. Granted, Smilde is correct when insisting that there is no chance that the protests will topple the government. These demonstrators only represent one half of Venezuelan society because the other half will continue to support chavismo. Therefore, Caracas will not burn as Kiev is as we speak. Nevertheless, the response of the Venezuelan government to these protests, both officially and unofficially, shows that they are seen as a political challenge, like everything else it confronted since the coup of April 2002.

Despite dominating the Venezuelan political system for so long, chavismo still thinks it is under siege.

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