On February 12th, (Venezuelan Youth Day and the commemoration of the independence battle of La Victoria) some university students and traditional conservative opposition groups took to the streets in Venezuela. In Caracas students and others attacked a government building, burned cars and damaged the entrance to a metro station. The demonstrations extended for several days, as it quickly became obvious that the principal purpose of the protests was to destabilize the government and seek the ouster of the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro faced a hotly contested presidential election shortly after the death of Hugo Chávez, in which he narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles. To gain support, Capriles promised to continue social programs initiated by the late president becoming what some called a “Chávez lite” candidate. The hard line elements of the opposition, including Capriles refused to accept the results of the elections and street violence generated by conservative forces left close to a dozen people dead.
Last December, Venezuela held municipal elections that the opposition purposely turned into a referendum on the Maduro presidency. Despite the opposition’s winning of several important areas in Caracas and the city of Maracaibo the government sponsored coalition (Polo Patriotico) won over 70% of the country’s municipalities. The election results revealed that the opposition had not won over the majority despite the country’s serious economic problems and the loss of the charismatic Hugo Chávez as leader of the left.
Coming on the heels of a recent electoral defeat the protest by the opposition in early February caught many by surprise. Even though Venezuela has held 19 elections since 1998, with the left winning18, there are actually no elections scheduled during 2014, a rarity in the country’s active electoral cycle. The earliest elections are scheduled for December 2015 when voters will go to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly. The presidential recall provision of the constitution cannot be triggered until 2016.
It quickly became obvious that segments of the radical right wing were not willing to wait for the democratic process to unfold. The opposition feared that the government might have time to address the very real problems that Venezuela faces, including food shortages, inflation that has reached over 56% and crime that takes a toll on all sectors of society. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that when Leopoldo López, (the political figure who hoped to capitalize on the protest and replace Capriles as the de facto leader of the opposition) was asked how long the protest should last, he responded, “hasta que se vaya” until Maduro leaves.
This is not the first time the opposition has resorted to extra-parliamentary means to oust a sitting president in Venezuela. Previously, the opposition staged a coup in 2002 and when that failed, the upper echelon of the oil company led a strike in 2002-2003 that paralyzed the nation. Subsequently the right engaged in efforts at destabilization known as the guarimba in the early part of 2004 that also failed. In essence, the opposition has once again adopted the all or nothing strategy they embraced in 2002 and 2004; --- either Maduro resigns or they will continue to protest.
Who are the students?
It is also misleading to assume that all students in Venezuela support the opposition; in fact many also support the government and its allies. Moreover, student leadership of opposition activities is not new in Venezuela. In 2006, after suffering a series of electoral defeats, students, especially from private universities, became the new face of the opposition. Students were also the leading force protesting the non-renewal of the broadcast license of RCTV (a leading television company) for its involvement in the 2002 coup. The social character of university students in Venezuela has changed significantly since the 1960s and 1970s. The application of neoliberal policy to the educational arena, the continued use of standardized entrance exams and the expansion of private universities transformed the social character of students and a greater percentage are now from the middle and upper classes.
A tale of two cities and two countries
Much of the reporting by the mass media gives the impression that Venezuela faces a national rebellion. The reality is that the protests have been restricted to certain pockets in the country, mostly middle and upper middle class neighborhoods, not entire cities. Most damage to private property and infrastructure has occurred in these neighborhoods. According to the government 18 municipalities have been the center of protest out of 335. And even in municipalities where there are protesters, residents live a tale of two cities, with some areas besieged and others functioning under normal-like conditions. With the advent of carnival, there are also contrasting images of people at the beach and others protesting behind barricades.
To create conditions of un-governability, the so-called “democratic opposition” had taken to barricading the roads to prevent the free movement of people and precipitate a crisis. They have set up barricades using boulders, glass, trees, trash filled bags, and anything else at their disposal. In other cases they are throwing glass and nails (called miguelitos, nails thrust through pieces of garden hose) onto the road to impede traffic. The police and the National Guard have cleaned city streets on numerous occasions. However, protestors hide materials and take over the streets again once the Guard departs.
Walking around areas controlled by the opposition it is impossible not to notice that many streets have been covered with car oil to make the surfaces slick causing motorbikes to skid out of control. The opposition assumes that motorizados, those on motorcycles are government supporters. There has not only been a demonization of the motorizados, but also a racialization of individuals who purchased cheap Chinese motorcycles since most are from lower socioeconomic sectors and tend to be people of color.
It is also impossible not to notice the steel wire and barbwire strung across the roadway and some motorcycle drivers have either been injured or killed by these barriers. Edwin Duran (29 years old) in Caracas was killed by steel wire placed on the street to frustrate traffic. Delia Elena Lobo, a 39 year old mother was also killed as she rode on a motorbike with her son in city of Mérida.
A retired general, Ángel Vivas tweeted several times giving instructions to his followers on how to place the steel wire on city streets. The government tried to arrest him for inciting violence. The general put on a bulletproof vest, armed himself with an M-16 and pistol and took to the rooftop of this house. The opposition blocked his house while some U.S. Spanish language media rushed to interview him, but never asked how or why he was in possession of an M-16 assault rifle.
Fear is also being used to intimidate the population where barricades disrupt people’s lives. Residents are being told that the barricades are needed to protect the community from marauding bands of government supporters, the National Guard or the motorizados, (motorcycle riders). In some neighborhoods, they use the fear of being attacked by the Tupamaros, a political organization inspired by the Uruguayan group of the same name. In Venezuela, the Tupamaros are a leftist organization that has clashed with opposition forces in the past. Throughout the day the rumor mill generates one potentially calamitous event after another.
The mainstream media is not reporting the dangerous conditions on the streets; in fact many foreign reporters are afraid to leave the comfort and perceived protection of middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods in which they reside. One U.S. journalist tweeted he had not ventured out of Altamira, a wealthy area of Caracas, and therefore could not report on conditions elsewhere.
Likewise, contrary to many reports in some media outlets, the military has not been unleashed to senselessly attack the protestors. Undoubtedly there have been incidents of violence and provocations on both sides and the government recently ordered the arrest of several intelligence officers implicated in the two deaths, one in the opposition and one a chavista activist. The number of killed has now reached double digits, but violence has taken its toll on both protestors and supporters of the government. While too high, the numbers would undoubtedly be much worse if the security forces were trying to suppress the protest with lethal force.
Protest in the western state of Táchira preceded the larger demonstrations in Caracas and elsewhere on February 12th and were purportedly sparked by the attempted rape of a university student. The governor of the state of Táchira insists that no students came forth to file a complaint about the attempted rape. Students took to the streets to protest the rising crime rate and the arrest of two protestors by the police is citied as a factor that enraged students. The protests in San Cristobal quickly spread to Mérida where the main campus of the University of the Andes (ULA) is located.
However, like everything in Venezuela, developments in Táchira are more complicated than they initially appear. Some business sectors in Táchira profit tremendously from the illicit trade of subsidized Venezuelan goods sent to Colombia as contraband where they obtain much higher prices. It is estimated that upwards of 30% of some Venezuelan basic food products exit the country as contraband. Shortages of basic food products have been especially evident in Táchira and Mérida where many stores shelves are empty. Average citizens also engage in the contraband trade to augment their salaries. Gasoline that in Venezuela is heavily subsidized, costing less than 10 cents a gallon is also part of the contraband trade. The subsidy of gasoline, in place since the 1950s, costs the government upwards of $12 billion dollar a year. Táchira is the center of an active remittance trade between Colombians and Venezuelans and money launderers exploit this exchange. Government efforts to control this illicit trade have generated displeasure among certain sectors.
Táchira also represents another challenge, the presence on Venezuelan soil of Colombian and Venezuelan paramilitaries that profit from the illicit trade and are linked to transnational criminal networks. They have already kidnaped one Venezuelan military officer who was visiting his family. They are an ever-present factor in the political protests in Táchira.
A racialized “gocho” identity (Andean and predominantly whiter compared to Venezuela’s predominately mixed race and African heritage population) is also being promoted in the Andean states of Mérida and Táchira. Posters and banners proclaiming gocho power and their role in the protest have been common at rallies in Mérida and Táchira.
From 1898 through 1958, Venezuela was ruled by a series of Andean generals from the state of Táchira. This gocho identity harkens to a time when the Andes, and in particular Táchira and Mérida exercised a prominent role in the governance of Venezuela. Protests centered in Táchira and Mérida raise the specter of a Bolivian Media Luna (half moon), where the conservative opposition using a purported racialized identity promoted the secession of the eastern provinces of Bolivia. Likewise some have suggested that Mérida, Táchira, Trujillo and Zulia might become a Venezuelan version of the Media Luna. However, protests in Zulia and Trujillo have not reached the levels of those in Mérida or Táchira and that scenario has failed to materialize.
Another important feature of the opposition protest marches has been the leadership role of middle and upper class women. On Saturday February 22, 2014 women who support the government rallied in Caracas to promote peace and an end to the violence. On Wednesday February 27, 2014 opposition women dressed in white staged protests against the government and rallied in front of the building of the Guardia Nacional in Caracas. A female officer of the guard came out to receive their demands and urged the protestors to take part in efforts at dialogue proposed by president Maduro.
At various opposition rallies some women have taken to demanding a hyper-masculinity, baiting men to confront the Guardia or the police and when they do not, raising questions about the men’s virility. Opposition social media is circulating the image of a young female protestor at one rally that attached a pair of “testicles” to her shorts and carried a sign that said “Soy Gocha y tengo de sobra lo que algunos de ustedes les falta.” (I am a Gocha and I have in excess what you are all missing.) An arrow on the sign pointed to her purported “testicles.” Other signs at women’s protests state “women with ovaries vs. a symbolic military” and others crudely state, “The men in Venezuela have no balls”
Where the opposition has set barricades, people live by the cell phone, texting each other to see if it is safe to get out and make a mad dash to whatever store may be open for a few hours. Most products can be found, though it may take multiple trips to various stores and the frustration of standing in long queues. Rumors tend to dominate street conversations, where is milk being sold; who has Harina Pan (corn flour used for making arepas, a national dish) and which roadblocks are passable. The opposition communicates mainly by social media, and many spend countless hours on Twitter, Whats-Apps, Facebook and Zello an application that carries live conversations.
In areas where protests are taking place, workers and other employees cannot enter and are losing income. Businesses, merchants and the tourism industry on the eve of Carnival also suffer the consequences of the blockades. Public transportation is at a standstill in these areas and “moto taxis” have become the primary form of transportation.
Although most business sectors support the opposition they are beginning to distance themselves from the more violent protests. Some appear to recognize that the mobilizations will not topple the government. On Wednesday February 26 the leaders of Fedecamaras (Chamber of Commerce), Fedeindustria (Chamber of Industry) and Eugenio Mendoza the CEO of the country’s leading food company attended the government sponsored “Peace Conference.” Although they criticized the government on many fronts, they also expressed opposition to the blockades and acknowledged the legitimacy of the Maduro government. Though the hierarchy of the Venezuelan Catholic Church was invited, they opted not to attend. The papal nuncio did attend and urged dialogue and negotiations to end the violence. The political leaders of the opposition MUD (Unity Table) coalition also boycotted the event.
There is, however, evidence that some elected opposition political leaders are starting to distance themselves from the street violence as well. This is because people are tired of the disruptions in their lives. The opposition mayors of Baruta, Sucre and El Hatillo all part of greater Caracas have called for an end to violence and disavowed the street protests that create siege-like conditions.
Fighting for political leadership of the right
Capriles appears desperate to reassert his leadership of the opposition coalition particularly since López outflanked him, becoming the most recognized leader of the right. However, López is not widely trusted by many sectors of the opposition, including some students. Capriles spoke at one opposition demonstration indicating his willingness to take part in a dialogue. Maduro convened a meeting of governors at which Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda, should have attended; however, pressured by the far right wing, he refused to attend. Previously, he had attended a meeting and shook Maduro’s hand for which he was roundly criticized by the right wing. Two other opposition governors showed up and openly sparred with Maduro. Capriles absence as well as other opposition voices was a mistake and a lost opportunity to dialogue and attempt to diffuse the violence the country faces.
Overtaken by the protests, Capriles initially asserted that political extremes sought violence, a reference to both the right and the left. He has even publicly criticized López and national assembly member María Corina Machado for raising false expectations that the protests would unseat Maduro. However, he will find it difficult to cast himself as the moderate in the current fracas. Capriles faces a scenario similar to the Republicans in the U.S. as they confront the Tea Party wing of the party. To remain the leader of the opposition Capriles has to appeal to the more radical right wing that refuses to negotiate with the government under any condition. However, to win elections he has to gain the support of disgruntled chavistas and poorer sectors. As opposition to the disruptions caused by protests increases, Capriles will find it harder and harder to portray himself as a moderate.
Venezuela is not facing a Ukraine-like crisis as some in the opposition have suggested. The president retains support throughout the country. Neither is it on the verge of a fratricidal conflict similar to what has taken place in Syria. A large part, but apparently not a majority of the society remains bitterly alienated from the government. Undoubtedly, Venezuela faces real economic and social problems. However, opposition efforts to topple the government will only exacerbate these problems and continue to raise tensions in the country.
On the international front, countries like Brazil and Argentina have called for no foreign intervention in Venezuela, an allusion to United States support of the opposition. Despite recent tensions, and the mutual expulsion of diplomats, the Maduro government recently extended an olive branch by naming a new Venezuelan ambassador to Washington. The countries have not formally had ambassadors since 2008. The U.S. has not formally responded to the gesture. The U.S. however has expressed concern over a potential new immigrant wave from the Caribbean if Venezuela curtails or ceases the sale of oil through Petro-Caribe to the countries of the region.
There is no evidence that broad sectors of society, especially the urban poor who provide the most support to the government, have joined the protests initiated by middle and upper class sectors. This division led one Colombian commentator to state, “Venezuela is an odd country, the only place were the rich protest and the poor celebrate.” It is doubtful the opposition can sustain the present level of protests. By seeking Maduro’s ouster through undemocratic means and without majority support, the opposition has once again entered a “callejon sin salida,” a political dead end. After the debacle of the 2002-03 oil strike that cost the country over 14 billion dollars in lost revenue, they saved face by calling for Chávez’s recall. Under the present electoral calendar they have no such option. The opposition will find it difficult to save face after this round of protests and many question their commitment to democratic principles and their ability to unite all of Venezuela. Having radicalized their base, they now face the daunting task of demobilizing their followers if they are to salvage any credibility in future elections.
Miguel Tinker Salas is professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and author of several books on Venezuela, including The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela (Duke University Press).