On the night of February 22nd, a bizarre incident took place in the Venezuela media-sphere. At around 4:00 pm Venezuela time, a number of the country’s private media outlets posted a release from a protest group identified only as the “student movement.” The rhetoric and tone of the statement matches the positions often expressed by extreme rightwing factions within Venezuela’s opposition over the last 14 years. Venezuela, it alleges, is in the grip of Cuban communists:
Foreign forces have laid a military siege on Venezuela. Their mercenaries attack us in a vile and savage manner. Their goal is to enslave us and be the masters of our existence, dishonoring the flags that we have held up in the street and that we will defend with our lives.
We want our Freedom. To protect it it's vital to defend the Sovereignty of the Nation, expelling the Cuban communists that are here usurping the government and the Armed Forces.
The release demands that “the usurper [Venezuelan president] Nicolas Maduro and all of his cabinet be deposed” and states that the protests will continue until this and other demands are met. The statement also calls for defensive action against state security:
The regime has declared war on any civilian who doesn't accept its marxist ideology. Our call is for defense: to not allow the invaders profane your street, your avenue, your property. Prevent their access so that they don't shoot up your neighborhood, don't destroy your properties, don't hurt your loved ones and, above all, so that they know that here there are battle-seasoned Venezuelans, who won't allow themselves to be enslaved through the use of force.
The rhetoric found in this release is reminiscent of the language used by the promoters of the “guarimba” protests in 2004 which – similarly to many of the protests that have been occurring in Venezuela over the last two weeks – involved protesters blocking major roads with bonfires and barricades and damaging public property. The explicit goal of the 2004 guarimba protests was to create enormous chaos in city streets thereby forcing the government to either step down or engage in mass repression. Or, in the words of Luis Alonso, the main promoter of the guarimba ten years ago:
THE ONLY objective of “THE GUARIMBA” (…) is to create anarchistic chaos on the national level with the help of all citizens and in the main cities of Venezuela, so as to force the CASTRO-COMMUNIST regime of Venezuela to order “PLAN AVILA [a military contingency plan to enforce public order that was used during the 1989 Caracazo protests and that left thousands dead].”
If mass repression occurred, the guarimberos believed that elements of the military opposed to the “Castro-communist” project would rebel and oust the government.
Needless to say, the terminology and goals of the students’ release probably doesn’t reflect the point of view of most Venezuelan opposition supporters and it certainly doesn’t reinforce the common portrayal of the young protesters as peaceful and reasonable.
But then, as if by magic, the original release of the unnamed “students’ movement” was removed from many sites and in a few cases replaced with a much less polemical text. Here is a link to the early version of an El Nacional article on the student movement release that contains the text of the original statement. Later that evening the editors quietly replaced the original statement with the second one, as you can see in this updated version of the same article. El Nacional, one of the largest newspapers in the country, and other outlets that made the switch, never informed their readers of having done so. Here’s a translation of a few key excerpts from the second release:
[Venezuela's] youth can't stay silent in the face of the profound pain in all Venezuelans' hearts resulting from the hate and division that is being sowed. Our consciences remain clear in protesting those who wish to establish violence, ignore the country's most urgent problems and trample human rights.
The exacerbation of insecurity, the deterioration of the quality of life of Venezuelans, the economic crisis, the repression and criminalization of citizens' protests cause us to raise our voices. We want reconciliation and respect for democratic principles and the Constitution.
(...) We dream of a Venezuela where inclusion, peace and prosperity are possible.
No more talk of “Cuban communists” that have taken over the government and army or of the need to remove the “usurper” Nicolás Maduro. Instead, we see a series of demands that, while based at times on highly questionable premises, appear to be more reasonable, e.g., “liberty for all of the detained young people, (…) the disarming of violent groups, (…) the end of media censorship [regarding the claim of censorship, I recommend reading Mark Weisbrot’s latest post on the Venezuelan media].”
However, one demand from the re-worked release is similar to the main demand of the original release: the second release calls for “the renovation and re-legitimizing of public powers.” Though this language may seem innocuous at full glance, the basic meaning is clear: those in power are not legitimate and should be removed. In the most charitable interpretation, this can be read as a call for immediate elections, despite the fact that Maduro was elected less than a year ago and that his popular legitimacy was reaffirmed in municipal elections last December in which pro-government parties won the total vote by a ten-point margin.
It is also interesting to note that, unlike most recent youth protest movements like the 2011-2013 Chilean movement, the 2012 Quebec student protests or even the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement, the demands of the Venezuelan students who have taken to the streets focus neither on social justice issues nor on the government’s education policies. It is telling that the University of Chile Student Federation which was instrumental in ending the Pinochet dictatorship and played a key role in the 2011-2013 protests, released a statement which had the following to say about the Venezuelan student movement:
We reject any attempt at destabilization, hoarding of food and of coup-mongering that aims to bypass the sovereign decisions of the people of Venezuela (…) Similarly, we don’t feel represented by the actions of Venezuelan student sectors that have taken the side of the defense of the old order and are opposed to the path that the people have defined.