The protests this week have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.By George Ciccariello-MaherFebruary 22, 2014
An anti-government demonstrator in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, February 21, 2014 (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Ukraine. Bosnia. Venezuela.
Tear gas. Masks. Water cannons.
Ours is an age of riots and rebellions, of radical self-creation in the heady streets: Spain’s indignados, the Occupy movement, Mexico’s Yo Soy 132, and of course the Arab Spring. We are understandably excited when we see people in the streets, and our pulse may even rise at the sight of masks, broken glass and flames, because for so long such images have represented the shards of the old world through which we can catch the perceptible glint of the new. Recent protests in Venezuela against the government of Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro might therefore seem to be simply the latest act in an upsurge of world-historic proportions.
Not so fast.
Despite hashtags like #SOSVenezuela and #PrayForVenezuela and retweets from @Cher and @Madonna, these protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.
Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” leapt forth from the historical collision of radical social movements against a repressive, neoliberal state. Fifteen years ago, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela amid the collapsing rubble of the old two-party system, but the “revolution” over which he would preside has far deeper roots. For decades, armed guerrillas, peasants and workers, women, Afro- and indigenous Venezuelans, students and the urban poor struggled against a system that—while formally democratic—was far from it in practice. These revolutionary grassroots movements, which I document in We Created Chávez, blew a hole in what Walter Benjamin would call the continuum of history in a massive anti-neoliberal riot that began on February 27, 1989.
This event—twenty-five years ago this week—was henceforth known as the Caracazo, and irreversibly divided Venezuelan history into a before and an after. Its importance is not limited to the resistance to imperialism that it embodied, however, but also the slaughter that marked its conclusion. Numbers often fail us in their false equivalence, but there is much that they can make clear: some 3,000 were killed in 1989, many deposited unceremoniously in unmarked mass graves. But the movements struggled forth, building popular assemblies in the barrios and making increasingly militant demands against a flailing state, which responded with targeted killings and the occasional massacre. The mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who today positions himself as an opponent of repression, himself presided over the murder of dozens of students in the streets in the early 1990s, not to mention a notorious 1992 prison massacre at the Retén de Catia.
It was into this gaping wound in history that Chávez stepped, first with a failed coup in February 1992, and with electoral victory six years later. Even then, however, there were still no “Chavistas” but only “Bolivarians”—a loose and all-encompassing reference to the great liberator, Simón Bolívar—or more simply: “revolutionaries.” The revolution predated Chávez, and it was always about more than the individual; so too for Maduro today. The state has become today an important terrain for hegemonic struggle, but it is far from the only trench, and those who felt the searing heat of state violence in the past have not been today miraculously converted to naïve faith. Instead, the movements persist alongside and occasionally in tension with the government: supporting Maduro while building autonomous spaces for popular participation.
The protests that have exploded across Venezuelan cities in recent days—whose most prevalent hashtag calls for #LaSalida, the departure of Maduro from power—have nothing to do with this arduous process of building a new society. While the protests are ostensibly about economic scarcity and insecurity—very real concerns, for the record—these do not explain why the protests have emerged now. Behind the scenes, the protests are a reflection of the weakness of the Venezuelan opposition, not its strength. Reeling from a serious electoral defeat in December’s local elections, old tensions have re-emerged, splintering the fleeting unity behind the presidential candidacy of Henrique Capriles Radonski who was defeated by Maduro last April. Amid the maneuvering so common to this opposition, more hard-line voices, impatient with the electoral game, have outflanked Capriles to the right: Ledezma, as well as María Corina Machado and Leopoldo López.
Rather than a breath of fresh air, the names are all too familiar, not only for their political histories but also because they represent the very thinnest sliver of Venezuela’s upper crust. Machado is most notorious for having signed the “Carmona decree” endorsing the April 2002 coup against Chávez, and for her friendly 2005 sit-down with George W. Bush. But it is López who best exemplifies both the intransigence of this opposition as well as its halfhearted attempts to connect with the poor majority. The very picture of privilege—in a country where Chávez was considered by elites to be unacceptably dark-skinned—López was trained in the United States from prep school to Harvard’s Kennedy School, an elite scion if ever there was one.
The political party in which both López and Capriles cut their teeth—Primero Justicia—emerged at the intersection of corruption and foreign intervention: López would later be barred from public office for allegedly receiving funds from his mother, a state oil executive. Less deniable is the FOIA revelation that the party received significant injections of funding from US government ancillaries like the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, and the International Republican Institute. López is no stranger to street violence, nor does he flinch at taking the extra-institutional route: during the 2002 coup—of which he has said he is “proud”—he led witch hunts to root out and arrest Chavista ministers amid a violent opposition mob.
With a clever bit of theatrics, López has placed himself at the forefront of these demonstrations, garnering the title of “opposition leader” in domestic and international media alike. But where are the protests headed? From the beginning, the numbers have not been particularly impressive by Venezuelan standards, and certainly far fewer than the opposition is capable of mustering. But more problematic for the opposition is the makeup of the protesters and the very predictable geography of the protests, largely confined to the wealthiest neighborhoods. Even the ferociously anti-Chavista blogger Francisco Toro of Caracas Chronicles put it bluntly: “Middle class protests in middle class areas on middle class themes by middle class people are not a challenge to the Chavista power system.” Capriles himself has similarly insisted that the opposition will fail if they do not manage to attract the “humble people, the people of the barrios,” and that demanding Maduro’s extra-constitutional ouster will not accomplish this. In other words, even many Maduro opponents recognize that this “exit” hashtagged from Blackberries is nothing of the sort, but instead a callejón sin salida, a dead end.
Hyperbole seems to be the rule of the day on both sides, and among the fearful exaggerations of the opposition, none looms larger than the colectivos. While officially designating the more organized radical sectors of Chavismo, here signifiers float freely in proportion to the fear they represent, with the term colectivos applied to anyone on a motorcycle, anyone wearing a red shirt, anyone too poor-looking or dark-skinned. This is nothing new, either: the 2002 equivalent was the term “terror circles,” a slanderous pejorative used to denigrate members of grassroots popular assemblies who served as the backbone of resistance to the undemocratic coup. These popular grassroots organizers constitute the most direct, organic expressions of the wretched of the Venezuelan earth, the most politicized segment of the previously discarded human mass that the opposition has never cared about for a second.
Even Chavismo is not immune to the deep-seated hatred for the poor barrio residents that such terms represent, and to a certain degree the feeling is mutual. Against the caricatured view that insists that radical popular organizations like colectivos are either blindly devoted or cheaply bought off, these are in reality among the most independent sectors of the revolution, those most critical of government missteps and hesitations, those most familiar with the repressive force of the state and those who demand above all that the social transformation under way move faster.
These forever victims of the state have nevertheless bet on its potential usefulness in the present, or at the very least have insisted that the alternative—handing the state machinery back over to traditional elites and voluntarily returning to a life on the defensive—is really no alternative at all. This is not a decision undertaken desperately or nostalgically, however, but instead with the most powerful optimism of the will, not premised on the good faith of individual leaders—although there are some who deserve this—but instead because to bet on the Bolivarian government is to bet on the people, to wager on the creative capacities of the poor that always exceeds that state.
Many loose threads remain, but few can be easily disentangled from this broad back-and-forth of revolution and reaction that spans decades. If the experience of April 2002 has taught us anything, however, it is to avoid facile explanations fueled by mediatic imagery. Every passing day reinforces this lesson—yesterday’s hyperbole is today’s discredited exaggeration, and while regrettable, the deaths that have occurred on both sides fall far short of what one would expect from reading Twitter. Despite opposition claims of impunity, an official from the Sebin, the government intelligence agency, has been arrested for firing his weapon and the agency head has been sacked. Leaked conversations have suggested coup plots, and even López’s wife admitted on CNN that the Venezuelan government had acted to protect her husband’s life in the face of credible threats.
The media question itself will be urgently debated in the coming days as the conflict between the government and CNN comes to a head. Here too the role of the private media in actively spearheading the 2002 coup looms large in the effort to strike a balance between press freedom and media responsibility (a tension that is not avoided by acting like it doesn’t exist). But these loose threads do not negate the urgency of the phrase that the revolutionary grassroots reserve for those who once governed them, and who today try to do so again, regardless of the death toll: no volverán, they shall not return.
Venezuela is indeed at a crossroads, having—in the words of the militant-intellectual Roland Denis—“llegado al llegadero, arrived at the inevitable.” It is the point at which the Bolivarian process itself—socialism in a capitalist society, thriving direct democracy in a liberal democratic shell—cannot survive without pressing decisively toward one side or the other: more socialist, more democratic, in short, more radical. This is not a crossroads simply between two possible forms of government from above: the Maduro government or its hypothetical right-wing alternative. It is instead a question of either pressing forward the task of building a revolutionary society, or handing the future back to those who can think of nothing but the past, and who will seek to fold the historical dialectic back onto itself, beaten and bloody if necessary.
The only salida is the first, the exit personified in the more than 40,000 communal councils blanketing Venezuela, in the workers’ councils, popular organizations, Afro and indigenous movements, women’s and gender-diverse movements. It is these movements that have struggled to make Venezuela, in the words of Greg Grandin, “the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere.” And it is these movements that—shoulders to the wheel of history—are the only guarantors of progress.
Eva Golinger: 'Don't be fooled by what most media outlets are telling you about protests in Venezuela'
February 22, 2014 -- The Real News -- Gregory Wilpert discusses the right-wing protests and their goal overthrowing the progressive gains of the Bolivarian Revolution.
For more on Venezuela, click HERE.
By Eva Golinger
February 21, 2014 -- Postcard from the Revolution via Venezuelanalysis.com -- For those of you unfamiliar with Venezuelan issues, don’t let the title of this article fool you. The revolution referred to is not what most media outlets are showing taking place today in Caracas, with protesters calling for the ouster of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. The revolution that is here to stay is the Bolivarian Revolution, which began in 1998 when Hugo Chavez was first elected president and has subsequently transformed the mega oil-producing country into a socially focused, progressive country with a grassroots government.
The demonstrations taking place over the past few days in Venezuela are attempts to undermine and destroy that transformation in order to return power to the hands of the elite who ruled previously for more than 40 years.
Those protesting do not represent Venezuela’s vast working-class majority that struggled to overcome the oppressive exclusion they were subjected to during administrations before Chavez. The youth taking to the streets today in Caracas and other cities throughout the country, hiding their faces behind masks and balaclavas, destroying public buildings, vehicles, burning garbage, violently blocking transit and throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at security forces are being driven by extremist right-wing interests from Venezuela’s wealthiest sector.
Led by hardline neo-conservatives, Leopoldo Lopez, Henrique Capriles and Maria Corina Machado -- who come from three of the wealthiest families in Venezuela, the 1% of the 1% -- the protesters seek not to revindicate their basic fundamental rights, or gain access to free health care or education, all of which are guaranteed by the state, thanks to Chavez, but rather are attempting to spiral the country into a state of ungovernability that would justify an international intervention leading to regime change.
February 21, 2014 -- Democracy Now! -- George Ciccariello-Maher looks at the recent history of the US role in Venezuela opposing both the Chávez and Maduro governments. He is author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution and teaches political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Before Chavez was elected in 1998, Venezuela was in a very dark, difficult period with a dangerously eroded democracy. During the early 1990s, poverty swelled at around 80%, the economy was in a sinkhole, the nation’s vast middle class was disappearing with millions falling into economic dispair, constitutional rights were suspended, a national curfew was imposed and corruption was rampant. Those who protested the actions of the government were brutally repressed and often killed. In fact, during the period of so-called “representative democracy” in Venezuela from 1958-1998, before the nation’s transformation into a participatory democracy under Chavez, thousands of Venezuelans were disappeared, tortured, persecuted and assassinated by state security forces. None of their rights were guaranteed and no one, except the majority excluded poor, seemed to care. International human rights organisations showed little interest in Venezuela during that time, despite clear and systematic violations taking place against the people.
Those in power during that period, also referred to in Venezuela as the “Fourth Republic”, represented an elite minority -- families that held the nation’s wealth and profited heavily from the lucrative oil reserves. Millions of dollars from oil profits belonging to the state (oil was nationalised in Venezuela in 1976) were embezzled out of the country into the bloated bank accounts of wealthy Venezuelans and corrupt public officials who had homes in Miami, New York and the Dominican Republic and lived the high life off the backs of an impoverished majority.
Hugo Chavez’s electoral victory in 1998 shattered the opulent banquet the Venezuelan elite had enjoyed for decades, while they ran the country into the ground. He was elected precisely to break the hold on power those groups had harnessed for so many years, and Chavez’s promise was revolution -- complete transformation of the economic, social and political system in the country. His electoral victories were solid, year after year, each time rising in popularity as more and more Venezuelans became motivated to participate in their governance and the construction of a new, inclusive, nation with social justice as its banner.
Blow to Washington
Chavez’s election was a huge blow to Washington and the powerful interests in the United States that wanted control over Venezuela’s oil reserves -- the largest on the planet. In April 2002, the Bush administration backed a coup d’etat to overthrow Chavez, led by the very same elite that had been in power before. The coup involved mass marches in the streets of Caracas, composed of the wealthy and middle classes, calling for Chavez’s ouster. Snipers were used to shoot on those in the marches, creating violence and chaos that was immediately blamed on Chavez.
Television, radio and newspapers in Venezuela all joined in the coup efforts, manipulating images and distorting facts to justify Chavez’s overthrow. He became the villian, the evil dictator, the brutal murderer in the eyes of international media, though in reality those overthrowing him and their backers in Washington were responsible for the death and destruction caused. After Chavez was kidnapped on April 11, 2002, and set to be assassinated, the wealthy businessmen behind the coup took power and imposed a dictatorship. All democratic institutions were dissolved, including the legistature and the supreme court.
The majority who had voted for Chavez and had finally become protagonists in their own governance were determined to defend their democracy and took to the streets demanding return of their president. Forty-eight hours later, Chavez was rescued by millions of supporters and loyal armed forces. The coup was defeated and the revolution survived, but the threats continued.
A subsequent economic sabotage attemped to bring down the oil industry. 18,000 high level technical and managerial workers at the state-owned company, PDVSA, walked off the job, sabotaging equipment and causing nearly $20 billion in damages to the Venezuelan economy. After 64 days of strikes, barren supermarket shelves due to intentional hoarding to create panic, and a brutal media war in which every private station broadcast opposition propaganda 24/7, Venezuelans were fed up with the opposition. Chavez’s popularity soared. A year and a half later, when the opposition tried to oust him through a recall referendum, he won a 60-40 landslide victory.
Leading efforts to overthrow Chavez were the very same three who today call for their supporters to take to the streets to force President Nicolas Maduro from power. Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles were both mayors of two of Caracas’ wealthiest municipalities during the 2002 coup -- Chacao and Baruta, while Maria Corina Machado was a close ally of Pedro Carmona, the wealthy businessman who proclaimed himself dictator during Chavez’s brief ouster. Lopez and Machado signed the infamous “Carmona Decree” dissolving Venezuela’s democratic institutions, trashing the constitution. Both Capriles and Lopez were also responsible for persecuting and violently detaining members of Chavez’s government during the coup, including allowing some of them to be publicly beaten, such as Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, former Minister of Interior in 2002.
All three have been major recipients of US funding and political support for their endeavors to overthrow Chavez, and now Maduro. The US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its offshoots, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) provided start-up funds for Machado’s NGO Sumate, and Capriles’ and Lopez’s right-wing party Primero Justicia. When Lopez split from Primero Justicia in 2010 to form his own party, Voluntad Popular, it was bankrolled by US dollars.
Over the 10-year period, from 2000-2010, US agencies, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI), set up in Caracas in 2002, channeled more than $100 million dollars to opposition groups in Venezuela. The overall objective was regime change.
When Chavez was reelected in 2006 with an even larger margen of victory, nearly 64% of the vote, the US shifted its support from the traditional opposition political parties and NGOs in order to create new ones with youthful, fresh faces. Over one third of US funding, nearly $15 million annually by 2007, was directed towards youth and student groups, including training in the use of social networks to mobilise political activism. Student leaders were sent to the US for workshops and conferences on Internet activism and media networking. They were formed in tactics to promote regime change via street riots and strategic use of media to portray the government as repressive.
In 2007, these student groups, funded and trained by US agencies, took to the streets of Caracas to demand Chavez’s ouster after the government chose not to renew the public concession of RCTV, a popular private television station known for its seedy soap operas. The protests were composed of mainly middle- and upper-class youth and opposition politicians, defending corporate media and a station also known for its direct involvement in the April 2002 coup. Though their protests failed to achieve their objective, the “students” had earn their credentials as a solid fixture in the opposition. Later that year, their organising helped to narrowly defeat a constitutional reform package Chavez had proposed in a national referendum.
After President Chavez passed away in March 2013 following a brutal battle with cancer, the opposition saw an opportunity to snatch power back from his supporters. Elections were held on April 14, 2013 in an extremely tense and volatile environment. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor, ran against Henrique Capriles, who months earlier in October 2012 had lost the presidential election to Chavez by 11 points. This time, however, the results were much narrower with Maduro winning by a slim margen of just under two points. Capriles refused to accept the results and called his supporters to take to the streets in protest, to “get all their rage out”. During the two days after the elections, 11 government supporters were killed by Capriles’ followers. It was a bloodbath that received no attention in international media, the victims just weren’t glamorous enough, and were on the wrong side.
As 2013 wore on, the economic crisis in the country intensified and the old strategy of hoarding products to provoke shortages and panic amongst the population was back again. Basic consumer products disappeared from the shelves -- toilet paper, cooking oil, powdered milk, corn flour -- staples needed for everyday life in Venezuela. Inflation began to rise and speculation, price hikes, were rampant. While some of this was related to government controls on foreign currency exchange to prevent capital flight, a lot had to do with sabotage. A full economic war was underway against Maduro’s government.
Problems persisted throughout the year and discontent grew. But as the electoral period came around again in December, for mayors, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had sweeping victories. 242 out of 317 mayoralties were won by the PSUV, showing a solid majority of the country still supported the government’s party.
Maduro called opposition governors and newly elected mayors to a meeting at the presidential palace in late December in an attempt to dialogue and create a space to work together to improve the situation in country. The meeting was generously received by a majority of Venezuelans. Nevertheless, extremists, such as Machado and Lopez, saw the meeting as a threat to their goal of ousting Maduro well before his term ended in 2019. Once again they began to call for street protests and other actions against his government.
Crackdown on economic sabotage
In January 2014, as Venezuelans arrived back from their Christmas vacations, economic difficulties continued. Maduro began cracking down on businesses violating newly enacted laws on price controls and speculation. Towards the end of January, new measures were announced regarding access to foreign exchange that many perceived as a devaluing of the national currency, the bolivar.
Sentiment built among opposition groups rejecting the new measures and calls for Maduro’s resignation increased. By February, small pockets of protests popped up around the country, mainly confined to middle and upper-class neighborhoods.
During the celebration of National Youth Day on February 12, while thousands marched peacefully to commemorate the historic achievements of youth in the nation’s independence, another group sought a different agenda. Opposition youth and “students” led an agressive march calling for Maduro’s resignation that ended in a violent confrontation with authorities after the protesters destroyed building façades, including the Attorney General’s office, threw objects at police and national guard and used molotov cocktails to burn property and block transit. The clashes caused three deaths and multiple injuries.
The leader of the violent protest, Leopoldo Lopez, went into hiding following the confrontation and a warrant was issued for his arrest due to his role in the deadly events and his public calls to oust the president. Days later, after a lengthy show including videos from a “clandestine” location, Lopez convened another march and used the event to publicly turn himself over to authorities. He was taken into custody and held for questioning, all his rights guaranteed by the state.
Lopez became the rallying point for the violent protests, which have continued to date, causing several additional deaths, dozens of injuries and the destruction of public property. Relatively small, violent groups of protesters have blocked transit in wealthier zones of Caracas, causing traffic delays and terrorising residents. Several deaths have resulted because protesters refused to let ambulences through to take patients to the emergency room.
Ironically, international media has been portraying these protesters as peaceful victims of state repression. Even celebrities, such as Cher and Paris Hilton have been drawn into a false hysteria, calling for freedom for Venezuelans from a “brutal dictatorship”. The reality is quite different. While there is no doubt that a significant number of protesters in the larger marches that have taken place have demonstrated peacefully their legitimate concerns, the driving force behind those protests is a violent plan to overthrow a democratic government. Lopez, who has publicly stated his pride for his role in the April 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez, continues to call on his supporters to rally against the Venezuelan “dictatorship”.
While dozens of governments and international organisations, including UNASUR and Mercosur have expressed their clear support and solidarity for the Venezuelan government and President Maduro, Washington was quick to back the opposition protesters and demand the government release all those detained during the demonstrations. The Obama administration went so far as to threaten President Maduro with international consequences if Leopoldo Lopez were to be detained. In the aftermath of the first wave of violent protests, Maduro expelled three US diplomats from the US embassy in Caracas, accusing them of conspiring to recruit students in Venezuela to engage in destabilisation.
As the violence continues in some areas around the country, Maduro has made widespread calls for peace. A movement for peace was launched last week, led by artists, athletes and cultural figures, together with organised communities seeking to end not just the current chaotic situation, but also the high crime levels that have plagued the country over the past few years.
Most Venezuelans want peace in their country and a majority continue to support the current government. The opposition has failed to present an alternative platform or agenda beyond regime change, and their continued dependence on US funding and support -- even this year Obama included $5 million in the 2014 Foreign Operations Budget for opposition groups in Venezuela -- is a ongoing sign of their weakness. As a State Department cable from the US embassy in Caracas, published by Wikileaks, explained in March 2009, “Without our continued assistance, it is possible that the organisations we helped create ... could be forced to close ... Our funding will provide those organiations a much-needed lifeline.”
During the past decade in Venezuela, poverty has been reduced by over 50%, healthcare has become free and accessible to all, as has quality education from primary through graduate school. State subsidies provide affordable food and housing for those who need it, as well as job training programs and worker placement. Media outlets, especially community media, have expanded nationwide, giving more space for the expression of diverse voices. Internet access has increased significantly and the state also built hundreds of public infocenters with free computer and Internet access throughout the country. Students are given free laptops and tablets to use for their studies. The government has raised minimum wage by 10-20% each year leading Venezuela to have one of the highest minimum wages in Latin America. Pensions are guaranteed after only 25 years of work and those who work in the informal economy are still guaranteed a pension from the state.
While problems persist in the country, as they do everywhere, most Venezuelans are wary of giving up the immense social and political gains they have made in the past 14 years. An opposition with nothing to offer except foreign intervention and uncertainty does not appeal to the majority.
Unfortunately, the capitalist media fails to see this reality, or chose not to portray it in order to advance a political agenda.
In Venezuela, the revolution is here to stay and the interests of the 1% are not going to overcome those of the 99% already in power.
Lee Salter argues our understanding of the recent upheavals in Venezuela must be placed in its proper, larger context. It's not about economics, corruption or crime, he insists, but about the ultra-rich and their supporters trying to overthrow the will of the people.New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, February 22, 2014
By Lee Salter
Thousands of Chavistas marched through central Merida, ending at Plaza Bolivar. Chants condemned the recent spate of violence and called for support for Nicolas Maduro. (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis)
To explain events and developments in Venezuela at the moment is no mean task. Like most things, this is a complicated, vast subject, and regardless of the attempts by myriad political protagonists, human rights groups and news media outlets to paint things in simple, starkly black and white terms, they are not. In order to fully understand what is happening in the country, one must delve deep.
Take, for instance, a recent, particularly galling video on YouTube which explains that millions of students took to the streets to protest against the crime and security situation. The online comments left by a number of Venezuelans on the video are themselves quite telling, specifically in that they are mostly made in English and, bar the usual exceptions, English-speaking Venezuelans tend to generally be from the rich minority that has been fighting to overthrow democracy since 1998. Another curious thing about such comments is that they know what terminologies to deploy, as well as where and when to use them. They know, for instance, to mention “communism”, “Cuba”, “democracy” and “human rights”.
Naturally, the Venezuelan elite’s cultural networks of communicative power give them an enormous ability to set the news agenda (the Venezuelan news media has traditionally been controlled by the ultra-rich minority, of around 5-10% of the population), especially as there has been no real alternative to this media dominance beside the odd under-funded community radio station. Needless to say, in order to become a journalist in the first place, one needs the sort of training and contacts afforded only to the rich, alongside the cultural associations and linguistic ability that accompany such privileged backgrounds. As the U.S. political scientists Ronald Sylvia and Constantine Danopoulos explain, the availability of such cultural capital is restricted: ‘Weekend shopping trips to Miami were the order of the day for the bourgeois classes. The oil riches, however, did not trickle down to the bottom of Venezuelan society. A sizeable portion of Venezuela’s population remained desperately poor’.
Moreover, Venezuela’s ultra-rich have historically been well connected to Miami – and the US more generally – as well as to the international jet-set world. They have media interests and media contacts and they dominate international communications about Venezuela. So when a story needs to get out about, for instance, alleged abuses of journalists, the lines of communication are open, and a primed international media is ready to accept anything that conforms to expectations. (On one occasion, I noted a human rights group’s release about such an abuse. Upon investigation, I found that the original footage of the incident was of a camera operator being jostled on a picket line.)
In this context, the views and opinions of the vast majority of Venezuelans continue to go largely unreported, as coverage focuses on those of the – generally well-off and ‘on message’ - international diaspora. A few weeks ago, I read comments by such an ’exile’ to the effect that “Chavez hates the people, he hates anyone with money. He is trying to stop the dams from producing electricity so that rich people can’t have televisions and things. In Caracas they only have 4 hours of electricity per day”. To which I pointed out that I had just come back from ten days in Venezuela, and experienced a single power cut of about 20 minutes. Another time, I found myself sharing a Caracas cable car with an English-speaking Venezuelan. She and her partner began talking to me and to my Irish friend about lightbulbs: “you know anything about Venezuela, about Chavez? He’s a communist, you know? He’s trying to destroy the country. He’s trying to force everybody to have energy-saving lightbulbs…but this isn’t Cuba”. After five minutes, my friend felt compelled to point out they used energy-saving lightbulbs in Ireland, too, and that he didn’t feel particularly oppressed by them.
I found the fury about electricity and lightbulbs rather baffling. After all, the situation is rather reasonably easy to explain: Venezuela was experiencing a long, extended drought and water levels in the hydro-electric dams were therefore low, impacting upon the country’s power generation figures. To compound matters, there were not enough engineers with the right expertise working on the dams and rivers to ensure proper maintenance. The key factor, however, was the jump in sales of consumer electrical items, such as refrigerators, encouraged by the government to improve the quality of life among the population. As such, adopting energy-saving policies as a short-term solution seems quite straightforward.
When quizzing Thomas Muhr, a researcher on Venezuela at the University of Bristol, about the lightbulb stories, he told me that it was all led by a rumour that Chavez was placing video cameras in them to spy on people at home. Quite.
Such stories go on and on and on. One of the most striking things, however, is that when one gets to the subject of corruption and crime, there is general consensus among most Venezuelans. Almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to, including in and around the Venezuelan government, says the same things: there’s too much corruption, we don’t seem to be able to do anything about crime, the revolution isn’t fast enough, the people don’t seem to realise what they can do, and so on. Clearly, neither the government, nor the Bolivarian movement at large, is blind to these (or other) shortcomings and issues.
The other big problem facing the country is one over which the ultra-rich probably don’t lose much sleep: How to stop the CIA, and reactionary forces inside Venezuela, from overthrowing the democratically-elected government. This is the lens through which the situation in Venezuela must be understood. Most of the coverage of the country in the Western corporate media plays on what is called the “exceptionalism thesis”: the idea that Venezuela is historically different to the rest of Latin America insofar as it was stable and democratic. This thesis has been challenged by Steve Eller and Miguel Salas, alongside an array of other Latin American scholars such as Princeton’s Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno who pointed out that before Chavez ‘Venezuela was marked by extreme poverty set against a narrowly constituted elite of 5-10% of the population’.
Indeed, there’s very little in the data that distinguishes Venezuela from the rest of the continent in this regard: According to Julia Buxton, of Bradford University, between 1975 and 1995 poverty increased dramatically in Venezuela, with the percentage of persons living in poverty rising from 33% to 70% of the population during that period, (the number of households in poverty increased from 15% to 45%). By 2000, wages had dropped by 40% from their 1980 levels. By 1997, 67% of Venezuelans earned less than $2 a day. Add to that the historically airbrushed atrocity of the Caracazo Massacre, where thousands of poor people were slaughtered – in the same year as Tiananmen Square – for protesting IMF dictats. In short, for most Venezuelans, contrary to the exceptionalism myth, there is very little if anything in the country’s pre-Chavez past to hark back to.
And yet, such an understanding is virtually lost in international media coverage, which instead continues to reflect back on an imagined era, prior to Chavez, when the country was “unified” (presumably happy in poverty and oppression) and “stable”. Indeed, my own research has outlined the narrative that the BBC inadvertently plays on, which masks the history as experienced by the majority of Venezuelans. (I say “inadvertently” partly because one of the correspondents whose work makes up the bulk of the sample we analysed is a committed Chavista)
This narrative begins way back in December 1998 – before Chavez had a chance to do anything – when the BBC told us that “Venezuela is proud of its democratic record”; that “many” see Chavez as a kind of autocratic military leader (remember that he had hardly done anything by then); and that in the good old days a high proportion of government spending went on social programmes. (Amazing, really, that so many were still in poverty or voted for this demon from hell). It took less than a year for the Beeb to remind us that “There is a dictatorship” in Venezuela. For those idiots who thought Chavez’s elected-status gave him legitimacy, the BBC was quick to remind them that “Adolph Hitler was elected too”. This framing of Chavez, and the Bolivarian Revolution, went on unchallenged for the ensuing ten years: Chavez came from nowhere, he’s a grave danger for Venezuela and the world, and … oh wow, how did he get elected again?!
By 2002, the emboldened “opposition” – a term inherently understood by Western outlets as conferring legitimacy – had deployed its vast private media access to launch a bloody coup. That they did so with their allies in the private media is incontestable: with characteristic arrogance, right-wing reactionaries in Venezuela explicitly told us so on air. And yet, for the BBC, Chavez had “quit” due to his “mishandling” of “strikes” (in actual fact, a management lockout) and a demonstration in which Chavez had apparently decided to murder his own supporters. Fortunately, the BBC explained, “Venezuela … looked not to an existing politician but to the head of the business leaders’ association”, Pedro Carmona.
In the world of the BBC, the coup was actually “Venezuela” forming a transitional government and “restoring democracy”. On this account, democracy appears to be something that involves the ultra-rich shooting people and seizing power. (To be fair to the BBC, its coverage was substantially dependent on international news agencies, which in turn depended on local journalists, who in the main work for the private media that helped launch the coup… and so on)
The situation never changed. No matter how many democratic elections Chavez, the movement he led or the party he helped form won, no matter what level of electoral legitimacy Venezuelans (rather than the BBC’s “Venezuela”) bestowed on Chavez, the government could not stand, and the implacable reactionaries would not cease until the Old Order was restored (unless, of course, they are talking to the rest of the world, in which case the line tended to be, “oh, I’m sure they’re well-meaning and the social programmes are good, but there are too many bad people around and too much mismanagement”).
In this context, the most recent protests are indeed about a lot of things, and no doubt reflect a plethora of voices, just as there’s a variety of voices within the movement itself. Indeed, Venezuela still has problems, a lot of problems. Yet the “opposition” is as concerned with poverty today as its leaders were when they presided over massive levels of it. They are as concerned with human rights today as they were during the Caracazo Massacre. They are as concerned with democracy today as they were when there was a de facto exclusion of most of the population from political life. It is this fear of the “plebs” that drives the “opposition” today.
There’s a familiar story about states that sit outside the sphere of US hegemony – they tend to face campaigns of destabilisation, coups and invasions where necessary. The invariable response to such threats is to “clamp down” on previously enjoyed freedoms. The notion of a “strategy of tension” demands that a government is put in a defensive position – a “state of emergency” as it’s called in a friendly state. It is also this reaction, the context of which is rarely mediated, that motivates a number of the protesters.
It is worth reflecting how other states of emergency are mediated. After the 2011 riots in the UK, 3000 young people were swept up in a dragnet and sent to kangaroo courts for what would no doubt be called in Venezuela, a protest against an out of touch and corrupt government. The repressive clampdown was cheered on by the British media. Yet if the current President Maduro, or Chavez before him, had received as small a proportion of the vote as Cameron, Venezuela would probably have been invaded by now.
Contrast the conduct of broadcast media in the UK with that in Venezuela. It’s not simply that the private media in Venezuela have been “biased” in their coverage of national politics, which British broadcasters are forbidden by law to engage in, it is that they actively initiated a coup against democracy in 2002 that led to the deaths of hundreds. Were a TV anchor to appear on ITV News and counsel the army and navy to rise up against the government, he’d be gone in the blink of an eye. Were his bosses to support his position and continue to encourage such action on a daily basis for years, (as happened in Venezuela,) it would be hardly outlandish to suggest that the ITV licence would not be renewed.
In a sense, the Venezuelan government is playing into the hands of the reactionaries and their supporters in the US. Some of the measures taken to ward off coup threats and enable a government – that has never garnered less than 50% of the vote – to carry out its mandate have been clunky to put it mildly. Yet at the same time, it is difficult to see how else, other than through such emergency measures, the will of the people could be fulfilled in these circumstances.
Indeed, this is the crux of the situation in Venezuela: It is not about a sudden emergence of economic problems, corruption or crime. It is about the ultra-rich and their supporters, especially among the middle class, who for 15 years have spent their time, energy and resources trying every possible measure to overthrow the will of the people. Again, there are problems aplenty in Venezuela, but the trick is to understand these in the context of the bigger picture.
A version of this essay first appeared on the author’s personal blog.
Lee Salter is a lecturer and researcher at the University of the West of England. His research focuses on activism, protest and its representation in the media. His research on Venezuela looked at 10 years of BBC News reporting, finding that there was a clear and systematic misrepresentation of the Bolivarian revolution that stems from the class and cultural background of the BBC, ideological frameworks and the communicative power of the old elites.
A Call to Americansby DANNY GLOVER
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars”… Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a Citizen-Artist, I have always assumed a responsibility to take public positions on difficult and controversial domestic and foreign affairs issues that challenge honest people of principle to find positive negotiations to justly resolve passionately held opposing positions. In this context, I urge my fellow citizens to join me in calling for a stop to the violence now perpetuated by some disgruntled sectors of Venezuelan society and foreign supporters. I firmly believe that honest passionate debate is indispensable to a progressive participatory democracy. Please take a stand and communicate with your networks, the media, and the U.S. State Department.
Resorting to indiscriminate violence inflames passions to the point of incivility and assaults the highly acclaimed transparent, fair democratic process that Venezuela has been perfecting for a decade. Neither Venezuelans nor foreign governments or citizens should attempt to supplant through violence or manipulation the electoral will of the Venezuelan majority.
I urge citizens of the United States and the United States government to stand with the 33 countries of the Community of Latin America and Caribbean Nations in their support of the Venezuelan government and the Constitutional democratic measures by which they manage the self-determination of their country. As citizens of the Americas, we and our government should support the recent resolution of Latin America and the Caribbean to be region of peace and non-interference in sovereign affairs.
Join me and millions of others inside Venezuela, across Latin America and the Caribbean, and around the world to call upon the perpetrators and supporters of public violence against the elected Venezuelan government to cease and desist with violence and all non-electoral means to overrule the majority electoral voices of the Venezuelan people.
Danny Glover is an actor and activist.
"Patria est communis omnium parens" - Our native land is the common parent of us all. Keep it beautiful, make it even more so.
Blessed is all of creation
Blessed be my beautiful people
Blessed be the day of our awakening
Blessed is my country
Blessed are her patient hills.
Mweh ka allay!