The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media.

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Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro made news this week by breaking off relations with Panama following Panama’s proposal for the Organization of American States (OAS) to take up the situation in Venezuela. Panama’s move followed weeks of calls from members of the U.S. Congress, pundits and others to use the OAS against the Maduro government for supposed government repression of “peaceful” protesters.

In remarks yesterday, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized what he described as hypocrisy from both those who support and oppose such a move. Insulza stated:

here we see a swapping of roles: Those who just a few years ago brandished the Inter-American Democratic Charter to demand severe sanctions against the de facto government in Honduras are now saying that even mentioning a crisis that has already led to the deaths of a large number of people constitutes interference; while those who denounced (and still denounce) the steps we took when faced with an obvious coup d’état as an attack on a nation’s sovereignty –I’m referring again to Honduras-, now demand that we help them overthrow a government recently chosen in a democratic election.

It appears that Insulza is playing a role that he has played on numerous prior occasions – most recently in April when he refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, until South American pressure forced him (as well as the U.S. and the right-wing government of Spain) to accept democratic election results.  This is unfortunate, but the manipulation of the OAS by Washington and a diminishing number of right-wing allies is the main reason that Latin American countries created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, to have a region-wide organization without the U.S. and Canada.

While it is important for officials such as Insulza to reaffirm the importance of Venezuela’s democratic processes and remind the OAS membership that Venezuela’s government was recently elected (and had its strong public support reaffirmed less than three months ago in local elections), other remarks equate extreme sectors of the Venezuelan opposition and the Venezuelan government, even though the government has won elections and the opposition has not:

Today, it is undeniable that there is a profound political crisis, characterized above all by a split and confrontation between most political and social actors into irreconcilable bands. When the opposition mobilizes, it does so on a massive scale, and poses strong demands; when the Government’s supporters take to the streets, their numbers and the fervor of their demands are also huge.

But for the last few weeks, it isn’t “massive” opposition protests that are occurring, but rather small protests designed to wreak havoc in a few neighborhoods throughout the country.  In essence, Insulza and the U.S. administration are suggesting that when extremist groups demand the immediate departure of an elected president, and try to achieve their aim by barricading streets and engaging in violent acts, the government has an obligation to dialogue with them.

This is reminiscent of Insulza’s approach to the coup in Honduras in 2009, when he effectively raised up a repressive regime that destroyed democracy with a military coup to the same legitimacy as the elected government. Insulza’s characterization of the OAS role in responding to the Honduran coup is also misleading. In fact, the OAS did little to try to restore democracy to Honduras, and Insulza apparently did not speak out when the U.S. ultimately blocked a measure that would have required the ousted president Manuel Zelaya to be returned to office before new elections were to be held, even though this was a solution supported by most OAS members.

Insulza’s comments on Chile are also troubling:

Both sides are an indispensable part of a country that needs all its people as it forges its future. Seeking to “win” this battle is a sure path to a decades-long national split between the vanquished and the conquerors. History is replete with examples of when division and confrontation destroyed democracy and ushered in long bouts of dictatorship. That is what happened in my country and thousands died.

Those familiar with the history of Chile know that political polarization was not the main problem, but rather that the right wing was by led by fascists who did not respect democratic government and were willing to institute a violent dictatorship that killed, disappeared, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands of people.  (It is also relevant that the U.S. government fueled much of the unrest as well as economic sabotage after then-U.S. president Richard Nixon vowed to “make the economy scream.”)  It is of course good to avoid unnecessary political polarization and pursue dialogue as a general principle.  But Chile’s infamous military coup and dictatorship were not a result of a conflict between two opposing forces representing equally just claims; it was rich against poor, people who did not respect democratic elections versus those who did, people allied with an aggressive foreign power versus those who believed in national sovereignty.

Insulza also refers to OAS support for “democracy and political stability in Haiti”: “during the Haitian crisis, over a decade ago, we gladly accepted U.N. leadership in that country and still maintain our association with it, in support of democracy and political stability in Haiti.”

This also raises very serious questions about Insulza’s idea of democracy. The U.N. mission was deployed to Haiti following the 2004 U.S.-backed coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who also had faced a violent opposition (for years) with whom the international community repeatedly urged him to “negotiate;” while at the same time we now know that U.S. funders of the opposition were telling them not to reach any agreement, that Aristide would be overthrown.  The U.N. has occupied Haiti almost ever since, while the most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas has been arbitrarily excluded from elections and many of its leaders and members hunted down and killed, and others imprisoned on bogus charges.

As we have described in detail, the OAS has played a key role in overturning elections in Haiti twice: in 2000, when the OAS’ rejection – without justification – of the election of seven senators provided the pretext for a political “crisis” and U.S.-led efforts to undermine the Aristide government; and the OAS’ overturning of the first round of the 2010 presidential elections. (Former OAS insider Ricardo Seitenfus has recently provided more details on this sorry episode.)

Considering this background, and the disproportionate influence wielded by the U.S. at the OAS, it should be of little surprise that Venezuela would seek to have UNASUR take up the Venezuelan political situation, rather than the OAS, which it appears UNASUR might, next week.

In a statement before the OAS, U.S. Ambassador Carmen Lomellin described

what appears to be a pattern of security personnel using excessive force.

We are also concerned with increasingly stringent tactics being employed by the government in an effort to restrict the rights of Venezuelan citizens to peaceful protest.

However, violence in recent days has almost exclusively impacted those opposed to the protests or the barricades, which make getting around certain neighborhoods difficult.

If there is a “pattern” of “excessive force” and “increasingly stringent tactics” by the government, it is unclear what these are, considering that the road blockades continue, even after nine people have been killed either trying to get through, or remove, the barricades, and considering that National Guard officers are getting killed. It is hard to imagine such a situation taking place in the United States, with small groups of protesters blockading streets, not for hours, and not even for days, but for weeks, and those attempting to remove the barricades being attacked and sometimes even shot and killed. The Occupy protests just a few years ago were usually violently repressed, and these were mostly in parks and other green spaces – not blocking off streets in major cities. These were actually peaceful demonstrations.  Nor was the police repression of the Occupy protests met with calls for intervention by the OAS, even after Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was almost killed after being shot in the head with a canister by police in Oakland, CA.

The U.S. statement follows a pattern of official statements since Venezuela’s latest wave of protests began that heaps all blame for violence on the government while characterizing the protests only as peaceful (the nine people who have been killed while trying to pass through or remove barricades, or the pro-government demonstrators killed, are testament to a different reality).

While both Lomellin and Insulza (among many others) have stressed the importance of dialogue between the government and the opposition, little attention is paid to the Venezuelan government’s efforts to engage in such dialogue. Maduro invited opposition leaders to a meeting on February 24; opposition leader Henrique Capriles rejected the offer.  Jorge Roig, the head of FEDECAMARAS (the main business federation) and Lorenzo Mendoza, head of major food and beverage company Empresas Polar did attend, however, with Roig saying “We have profound differences with your economic system and your political systems but democracy, thank God, lets us evaluate these differences.”

Insulza’s comments that “it is also essential that the principal party leaders and opposition leaders with the most backing are also parties to the dialogue” could be seen as criticism of Capriles’ refusal so far to speak with Maduro. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot recently noted in Venezuela’s Últimas Noticias, by taking a radical posture and refusing to meet with Maduro despite having shook hands with Maduro just weeks before, Capriles has clearly sided with the more extreme elements of Venezuela’s opposition.

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro made news this week by breaking off relations with Panama following Panama’s proposal for the Organization of American States (OAS) to take up the situation in Venezuela. Panama’s move followed weeks of calls from members of the U.S. Congress, pundits and others to use the OAS against the Maduro government for supposed government repression of “peaceful” protesters.

In remarks yesterday, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized what he described as hypocrisy from both those who support and oppose such a move. Insulza stated:

here we see a swapping of roles: Those who just a few years ago brandished the Inter-American Democratic Charter to demand severe sanctions against the de facto government in Honduras are now saying that even mentioning a crisis that has already led to the deaths of a large number of people constitutes interference; while those who denounced (and still denounce) the steps we took when faced with an obvious coup d’état as an attack on a nation’s sovereignty –I’m referring again to Honduras-, now demand that we help them overthrow a government recently chosen in a democratic election.

It appears that Insulza is playing a role that he has played on numerous prior occasions – most recently in April when he refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, until South American pressure forced him (as well as the U.S. and the right-wing government of Spain) to accept democratic election results.  This is unfortunate, but the manipulation of the OAS by Washington and a diminishing number of right-wing allies is the main reason that Latin American countries created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, to have a region-wide organization without the U.S. and Canada.

While it is important for officials such as Insulza to reaffirm the importance of Venezuela’s democratic processes and remind the OAS membership that Venezuela’s government was recently elected (and had its strong public support reaffirmed less than three months ago in local elections), other remarks equate extreme sectors of the Venezuelan opposition and the Venezuelan government, even though the government has won elections and the opposition has not:

Today, it is undeniable that there is a profound political crisis, characterized above all by a split and confrontation between most political and social actors into irreconcilable bands. When the opposition mobilizes, it does so on a massive scale, and poses strong demands; when the Government’s supporters take to the streets, their numbers and the fervor of their demands are also huge.

But for the last few weeks, it isn’t “massive” opposition protests that are occurring, but rather small protests designed to wreak havoc in a few neighborhoods throughout the country.  In essence, Insulza and the U.S. administration are suggesting that when extremist groups demand the immediate departure of an elected president, and try to achieve their aim by barricading streets and engaging in violent acts, the government has an obligation to dialogue with them.

This is reminiscent of Insulza’s approach to the coup in Honduras in 2009, when he effectively raised up a repressive regime that destroyed democracy with a military coup to the same legitimacy as the elected government. Insulza’s characterization of the OAS role in responding to the Honduran coup is also misleading. In fact, the OAS did little to try to restore democracy to Honduras, and Insulza apparently did not speak out when the U.S. ultimately blocked a measure that would have required the ousted president Manuel Zelaya to be returned to office before new elections were to be held, even though this was a solution supported by most OAS members.

Insulza’s comments on Chile are also troubling:

Both sides are an indispensable part of a country that needs all its people as it forges its future. Seeking to “win” this battle is a sure path to a decades-long national split between the vanquished and the conquerors. History is replete with examples of when division and confrontation destroyed democracy and ushered in long bouts of dictatorship. That is what happened in my country and thousands died.

Those familiar with the history of Chile know that political polarization was not the main problem, but rather that the right wing was by led by fascists who did not respect democratic government and were willing to institute a violent dictatorship that killed, disappeared, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands of people.  (It is also relevant that the U.S. government fueled much of the unrest as well as economic sabotage after then-U.S. president Richard Nixon vowed to “make the economy scream.”)  It is of course good to avoid unnecessary political polarization and pursue dialogue as a general principle.  But Chile’s infamous military coup and dictatorship were not a result of a conflict between two opposing forces representing equally just claims; it was rich against poor, people who did not respect democratic elections versus those who did, people allied with an aggressive foreign power versus those who believed in national sovereignty.

Insulza also refers to OAS support for “democracy and political stability in Haiti”: “during the Haitian crisis, over a decade ago, we gladly accepted U.N. leadership in that country and still maintain our association with it, in support of democracy and political stability in Haiti.”

This also raises very serious questions about Insulza’s idea of democracy. The U.N. mission was deployed to Haiti following the 2004 U.S.-backed coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who also had faced a violent opposition (for years) with whom the international community repeatedly urged him to “negotiate;” while at the same time we now know that U.S. funders of the opposition were telling them not to reach any agreement, that Aristide would be overthrown.  The U.N. has occupied Haiti almost ever since, while the most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas has been arbitrarily excluded from elections and many of its leaders and members hunted down and killed, and others imprisoned on bogus charges.

As we have described in detail, the OAS has played a key role in overturning elections in Haiti twice: in 2000, when the OAS’ rejection – without justification – of the election of seven senators provided the pretext for a political “crisis” and U.S.-led efforts to undermine the Aristide government; and the OAS’ overturning of the first round of the 2010 presidential elections. (Former OAS insider Ricardo Seitenfus has recently provided more details on this sorry episode.)

Considering this background, and the disproportionate influence wielded by the U.S. at the OAS, it should be of little surprise that Venezuela would seek to have UNASUR take up the Venezuelan political situation, rather than the OAS, which it appears UNASUR might, next week.

In a statement before the OAS, U.S. Ambassador Carmen Lomellin described

what appears to be a pattern of security personnel using excessive force.

We are also concerned with increasingly stringent tactics being employed by the government in an effort to restrict the rights of Venezuelan citizens to peaceful protest.

However, violence in recent days has almost exclusively impacted those opposed to the protests or the barricades, which make getting around certain neighborhoods difficult.

If there is a “pattern” of “excessive force” and “increasingly stringent tactics” by the government, it is unclear what these are, considering that the road blockades continue, even after nine people have been killed either trying to get through, or remove, the barricades, and considering that National Guard officers are getting killed. It is hard to imagine such a situation taking place in the United States, with small groups of protesters blockading streets, not for hours, and not even for days, but for weeks, and those attempting to remove the barricades being attacked and sometimes even shot and killed. The Occupy protests just a few years ago were usually violently repressed, and these were mostly in parks and other green spaces – not blocking off streets in major cities. These were actually peaceful demonstrations.  Nor was the police repression of the Occupy protests met with calls for intervention by the OAS, even after Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was almost killed after being shot in the head with a canister by police in Oakland, CA.

The U.S. statement follows a pattern of official statements since Venezuela’s latest wave of protests began that heaps all blame for violence on the government while characterizing the protests only as peaceful (the nine people who have been killed while trying to pass through or remove barricades, or the pro-government demonstrators killed, are testament to a different reality).

While both Lomellin and Insulza (among many others) have stressed the importance of dialogue between the government and the opposition, little attention is paid to the Venezuelan government’s efforts to engage in such dialogue. Maduro invited opposition leaders to a meeting on February 24; opposition leader Henrique Capriles rejected the offer.  Jorge Roig, the head of FEDECAMARAS (the main business federation) and Lorenzo Mendoza, head of major food and beverage company Empresas Polar did attend, however, with Roig saying “We have profound differences with your economic system and your political systems but democracy, thank God, lets us evaluate these differences.”

Insulza’s comments that “it is also essential that the principal party leaders and opposition leaders with the most backing are also parties to the dialogue” could be seen as criticism of Capriles’ refusal so far to speak with Maduro. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot recently noted in Venezuela’s Últimas Noticias, by taking a radical posture and refusing to meet with Maduro despite having shook hands with Maduro just weeks before, Capriles has clearly sided with the more extreme elements of Venezuela’s opposition.

En español

On Saturday, March 1 the New York Times ran a graphic accompanying its article on Venezuela that showed an “implied inflation rate” of more than 300 percent.

This is a statistic that was manufactured by the Cato Institute. It is not a meaningful measure of inflation, and there are few economists who would accept it as such. I will explain below why the Times has violated both the standards of basic economics and also standard journalistic procedures with this decision, which as of today (March 6), the editors have refused to correct, despite being presented with explanations of why it is wrong. But first, a note on the significance of this kind of misreporting.

If this bogus statistic is picked up by Venezuela’s opposition media and becomes another “fact,” it could have a significant influence on the actual dynamic of inflation in Venezuela. To the extent that this statistic is believed, many Venezuelans would not want to hold domestic currency and would move their money into dollars or other assets, thus fueling both black market currency depreciation and inflation.

(There is a similar problem in Argentina, where the media, which is mostly against the government, often exaggerates the problems of the economy in ways that would make more people flee from the domestic currency there.)

Regarding Venezuela, this is the second time in the past two weeks that the Times has misreported a key fact that has very important political consequences. On February 20, the Times led its article with the sentence “The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government …” As it turns out, all of the private TV stations “regularly broadcast voices critical of the government.” The Times ran a correction. The importance of this kind of mistake can be seen in the statements by actors who have no familiarity with Venezuela, like Kevin Spacey and Jared Leto, who made statements that reached tens of millions of people, about “freedom of expression” in Venezuela that are completely divorced from reality. This is very ugly because it lends support to the rightist movement there that is currently seeking to overthrow the democratically-elected government, and most importantly to their fundamental strategy, which is to portray the government as a dictatorship that is illegitimate. This in turn helps to justify violent demonstrations in Venezuela.

Now, for the more boring details of the Times’ error on inflation. Inflation is currently running at 56 percent, which is high but not hyperinflation. The Times’ error, taken from Cato, is actually quite simple. They are using a formula to calculate what inflation would be if people had to pay for all of their goods and services in dollars purchased on the black market. But as anyone in Venezuela can tell you, this is not the case. For virtually all of the purchases that make up the basket of goods measured by the Consumer Price Index, Venezuelans use domestic currency. The Cato measure (methodology here) is measuring the change in the black market dollar exchange rate, which very simply, is not the same thing as inflation, even if the two variables may be related. The uselessness of this measure can be seen on the graph itself, where the “implied inflation rate” turns negative in 2008-09, at a time when actual inflation is running at 25-31 percent.

The Times’ error violates standard economic reporting because it is standard to use official statistics, which come from government or international agencies such as the IMF (which of course has not challenged or even criticized Venezuela’s consumer price index). The only exceptions are when the official statistics are not considered by economists to be true, and there are reliable private estimates. An interested party should not be able to simply make up a new statistic for inflation, unemployment, poverty, etc. and expect that a reputable media outlet will report it along with the official statistic that is used by economists and international agencies.

In fairness to the reporter, I am told that he was not responsible for the graph, and the article was otherwise fair and balanced, and an interesting piece.

En español

On Saturday, March 1 the New York Times ran a graphic accompanying its article on Venezuela that showed an “implied inflation rate” of more than 300 percent.

This is a statistic that was manufactured by the Cato Institute. It is not a meaningful measure of inflation, and there are few economists who would accept it as such. I will explain below why the Times has violated both the standards of basic economics and also standard journalistic procedures with this decision, which as of today (March 6), the editors have refused to correct, despite being presented with explanations of why it is wrong. But first, a note on the significance of this kind of misreporting.

If this bogus statistic is picked up by Venezuela’s opposition media and becomes another “fact,” it could have a significant influence on the actual dynamic of inflation in Venezuela. To the extent that this statistic is believed, many Venezuelans would not want to hold domestic currency and would move their money into dollars or other assets, thus fueling both black market currency depreciation and inflation.

(There is a similar problem in Argentina, where the media, which is mostly against the government, often exaggerates the problems of the economy in ways that would make more people flee from the domestic currency there.)

Regarding Venezuela, this is the second time in the past two weeks that the Times has misreported a key fact that has very important political consequences. On February 20, the Times led its article with the sentence “The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government …” As it turns out, all of the private TV stations “regularly broadcast voices critical of the government.” The Times ran a correction. The importance of this kind of mistake can be seen in the statements by actors who have no familiarity with Venezuela, like Kevin Spacey and Jared Leto, who made statements that reached tens of millions of people, about “freedom of expression” in Venezuela that are completely divorced from reality. This is very ugly because it lends support to the rightist movement there that is currently seeking to overthrow the democratically-elected government, and most importantly to their fundamental strategy, which is to portray the government as a dictatorship that is illegitimate. This in turn helps to justify violent demonstrations in Venezuela.

Now, for the more boring details of the Times’ error on inflation. Inflation is currently running at 56 percent, which is high but not hyperinflation. The Times’ error, taken from Cato, is actually quite simple. They are using a formula to calculate what inflation would be if people had to pay for all of their goods and services in dollars purchased on the black market. But as anyone in Venezuela can tell you, this is not the case. For virtually all of the purchases that make up the basket of goods measured by the Consumer Price Index, Venezuelans use domestic currency. The Cato measure (methodology here) is measuring the change in the black market dollar exchange rate, which very simply, is not the same thing as inflation, even if the two variables may be related. The uselessness of this measure can be seen on the graph itself, where the “implied inflation rate” turns negative in 2008-09, at a time when actual inflation is running at 25-31 percent.

The Times’ error violates standard economic reporting because it is standard to use official statistics, which come from government or international agencies such as the IMF (which of course has not challenged or even criticized Venezuela’s consumer price index). The only exceptions are when the official statistics are not considered by economists to be true, and there are reliable private estimates. An interested party should not be able to simply make up a new statistic for inflation, unemployment, poverty, etc. and expect that a reputable media outlet will report it along with the official statistic that is used by economists and international agencies.

In fairness to the reporter, I am told that he was not responsible for the graph, and the article was otherwise fair and balanced, and an interesting piece.

Ecuadorians went to the voting polls last Sunday to participate in municipal and provincial elections for the second time since Rafael Correa was elected president. Early results indicate that 11,682,314 Ecuadorians voted which is equal to a 16.9 percent voter abstention rate; this is nearly 8 percentage points lower than in the previous municipal and provincial elections. Following the elections, UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) issued a statement congratulating the Ecuadorian people for what they called “transparent and normal” elections.

The preliminary election results reveal that governing AP (Alianza PAIS) party candidates won a larger share of mayoral (30 percent) and prefecture (43 percent) elections than any other party.[i] In addition, AP achieved a 4 percent gain in prefecture electoral victories compared to the previous election. Table 1a shows the prefectures where Alianza PAIS won the highest percentage of voter shares.

 Table 1[ii]

nateecuadortable1

The prefecture election results revealed noteworthy tendencies. The data indicates that Alianza PAIS lost in three prefectures (Azuay[iii], Imbabura and Loja) where they had won the majority vote in the previous election. The losses in both Imbabura and Azuay can be explained due to the fact that in both instances, the AVANZA party (newly formed left-of-center political party) reached out to Alianza PAIS in an attempt to form a broad coalition party but the local AP party officials rejected the offer. In a recent public statement, president Rafael Correa admitted that if AP party members had been more willing to form political alliances then they would have done better in the elections. Correa went on to criticize members of his own party and described their actions as overly “sectarian.” Today, as a gesture of solidarity, President Correa is scheduled to meet and congratulate all of the newly elected mayors of the provincial capitals.

Early election results indicate that the AVANZA party won 37 mayoral electoral races (a higher total net gain than any other political party) compared to Alianza PAIS, which suffered a 2 percent loss margin compared to the previous election. Also, AVANZA won four mayoral elections in provincial capital cities compared to Alianza PAIS which only won three (a decline of 41 percent from the previous election).

One of the most significant losses occurred in Quito, where SUMA (Sociedad Unida Más Acción) candidate Mauricio Rodas won the majority vote with 58 percent of the vote. Quito is considered to be very symbolic in terms of determining political sentiment toward the national government. Quito’s status as the political capital of Ecuador has given voters a reputation of voting strategically and unforgivingly; this year’s elections proved to be no different.

It was reported that certain voters were going to cast “anti-Barrera” (referring to the incumbent mayor of Quito Augosto Barrera) votes which would lend support to the opposition candidate, Mauricio Rodas, not because they approve of Mauricio Rodas but because they are unhappy with Augosto Barrera. Augosto Barrera has received mixed reviews during his tenure as mayor of Quito. In fact, prediction polls conducted by Gallup International indicated Mauricio Rodas as a slight favorite. Prior to the elections, Correa made several public appearances in which he encouraged voters to vote for Augusto Barrera.

How will the results from the local elections impact the overall goals of the Citizens Revolution[iv]?

As mentioned earlier, the AP made a slight improvement in the prefecture elections but experienced setbacks in the mayoral contests, most notably in Quito and Cuenca. Nevertheless, this is not likely to have negative overall impact on the goals of the AP political project. While mayors play an important role Ecuadoran politics, by no means do they have total authority over local political policies. Rather it is a collective process made up of the members of the municipal council who also play a very large role in the political decision-making process. Early election polls indicate that that in both Cuenca and Quito, cities where opposition candidates won the mayoral election race, it is unlikely that the new mayors will be able to diverge from the AP political agenda due to the fact that the majority of the elected municipal council members are members of Alianza PAIS.

Conclusion:

Some government supporters are concerned that Alianza PAIS’ mayoral election loss in Quito is indicative of growing discontent with the Correa administration. In recent months, President Correa has approved of many controversial decisions including:

Beginning oil extraction in the Yasuni national park.

Law 1938 that imposes harsher punishments on medical malpractice. This law provoked considerable anger among members of the Ecuadorian medical community. Many members of Ecuador’s Federación Médica threatened a mass resignation if their demands were not met.

-Lastly, President Correa’s threat that he would resign if legislators from the National Assembly passed a proposal to ease abortion restrictions. Correa’s unwillingness to ratify the strict laws on abortion was particularly upsetting to the three legislators that authored the proposal.

These issues have led to many protests and criticisms of Rafael Correa. However, while the local elections in Quito and in Ecuador reveal many things they do not necessarily translated into a growing dissatisfaction with Rafael Correa’s presidency. In a poll conducted by Gallup last January, Correa received a 63 percent approval rating in his job as president. Despite setbacks in the local political arena the most recent popular opinion polls indicate that President Correa continues to be seen favorably by a majority of Ecuadorians.

 


[i] All electoral victories include Alianza PAIS coalition parties

[ii] Election results reflect figures from Consejo Nacional Electoral, as of Wednesday, March 5 2014.

[iii] The winning party was an AP/ MED coalition party.

[iv] The Citizens Revolution is a broad political project launched by Rafael Correa that aims at eliminating corruption, strengthening the constitution, creating healthy and sustainable forms of economic growth and finally, expanding the health and education services within the country.   

*Asterisks indicate Alianza PAIS coalition parties.

 

Ecuadorians went to the voting polls last Sunday to participate in municipal and provincial elections for the second time since Rafael Correa was elected president. Early results indicate that 11,682,314 Ecuadorians voted which is equal to a 16.9 percent voter abstention rate; this is nearly 8 percentage points lower than in the previous municipal and provincial elections. Following the elections, UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) issued a statement congratulating the Ecuadorian people for what they called “transparent and normal” elections.

The preliminary election results reveal that governing AP (Alianza PAIS) party candidates won a larger share of mayoral (30 percent) and prefecture (43 percent) elections than any other party.[i] In addition, AP achieved a 4 percent gain in prefecture electoral victories compared to the previous election. Table 1a shows the prefectures where Alianza PAIS won the highest percentage of voter shares.


[i] All electoral victories include Alianza PAIS coalition parties

Ecuadorians went to the voting polls last Sunday to participate in municipal and provincial elections for the second time since Rafael Correa was elected president. Early results indicate that 11,682,314 Ecuadorians voted which is equal to a 16.9 percent voter abstention rate; this is nearly 8 percentage points lower than in the previous municipal and provincial elections. Following the elections, UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) issued a statement congratulating the Ecuadorian people for what they called “transparent and normal” elections.

The preliminary election results reveal that governing AP (Alianza PAIS) party candidates won a larger share of mayoral (30 percent) and prefecture (43 percent) elections than any other party.[i] In addition, AP achieved a 4 percent gain in prefecture electoral victories compared to the previous election. Table 1a shows the prefectures where Alianza PAIS won the highest percentage of voter shares.

 Table 1[ii]

nateecuadortable1

The prefecture election results revealed noteworthy tendencies. The data indicates that Alianza PAIS lost in three prefectures (Azuay[iii], Imbabura and Loja) where they had won the majority vote in the previous election. The losses in both Imbabura and Azuay can be explained due to the fact that in both instances, the AVANZA party (newly formed left-of-center political party) reached out to Alianza PAIS in an attempt to form a broad coalition party but the local AP party officials rejected the offer. In a recent public statement, president Rafael Correa admitted that if AP party members had been more willing to form political alliances then they would have done better in the elections. Correa went on to criticize members of his own party and described their actions as overly “sectarian.” Today, as a gesture of solidarity, President Correa is scheduled to meet and congratulate all of the newly elected mayors of the provincial capitals.

Early election results indicate that the AVANZA party won 37 mayoral electoral races (a higher total net gain than any other political party) compared to Alianza PAIS, which suffered a 2 percent loss margin compared to the previous election. Also, AVANZA won four mayoral elections in provincial capital cities compared to Alianza PAIS which only won three (a decline of 41 percent from the previous election).

One of the most significant losses occurred in Quito, where SUMA (Sociedad Unida Más Acción) candidate Mauricio Rodas won the majority vote with 58 percent of the vote. Quito is considered to be very symbolic in terms of determining political sentiment toward the national government. Quito’s status as the political capital of Ecuador has given voters a reputation of voting strategically and unforgivingly; this year’s elections proved to be no different.

It was reported that certain voters were going to cast “anti-Barrera” (referring to the incumbent mayor of Quito Augosto Barrera) votes which would lend support to the opposition candidate, Mauricio Rodas, not because they approve of Mauricio Rodas but because they are unhappy with Augosto Barrera. Augosto Barrera has received mixed reviews during his tenure as mayor of Quito. In fact, prediction polls conducted by Gallup International indicated Mauricio Rodas as a slight favorite. Prior to the elections, Correa made several public appearances in which he encouraged voters to vote for Augusto Barrera.

How will the results from the local elections impact the overall goals of the Citizens Revolution[iv]?

As mentioned earlier, the AP made a slight improvement in the prefecture elections but experienced setbacks in the mayoral contests, most notably in Quito and Cuenca. Nevertheless, this is not likely to have negative overall impact on the goals of the AP political project. While mayors play an important role Ecuadoran politics, by no means do they have total authority over local political policies. Rather it is a collective process made up of the members of the municipal council who also play a very large role in the political decision-making process. Early election polls indicate that that in both Cuenca and Quito, cities where opposition candidates won the mayoral election race, it is unlikely that the new mayors will be able to diverge from the AP political agenda due to the fact that the majority of the elected municipal council members are members of Alianza PAIS.

Conclusion:

Some government supporters are concerned that Alianza PAIS’ mayoral election loss in Quito is indicative of growing discontent with the Correa administration. In recent months, President Correa has approved of many controversial decisions including:

Beginning oil extraction in the Yasuni national park.

Law 1938 that imposes harsher punishments on medical malpractice. This law provoked considerable anger among members of the Ecuadorian medical community. Many members of Ecuador’s Federación Médica threatened a mass resignation if their demands were not met.

-Lastly, President Correa’s threat that he would resign if legislators from the National Assembly passed a proposal to ease abortion restrictions. Correa’s unwillingness to ratify the strict laws on abortion was particularly upsetting to the three legislators that authored the proposal.

These issues have led to many protests and criticisms of Rafael Correa. However, while the local elections in Quito and in Ecuador reveal many things they do not necessarily translated into a growing dissatisfaction with Rafael Correa’s presidency. In a poll conducted by Gallup last January, Correa received a 63 percent approval rating in his job as president. Despite setbacks in the local political arena the most recent popular opinion polls indicate that President Correa continues to be seen favorably by a majority of Ecuadorians.

 


[i] All electoral victories include Alianza PAIS coalition parties

[ii] Election results reflect figures from Consejo Nacional Electoral, as of Wednesday, March 5 2014.

[iii] The winning party was an AP/ MED coalition party.

[iv] The Citizens Revolution is a broad political project launched by Rafael Correa that aims at eliminating corruption, strengthening the constitution, creating healthy and sustainable forms of economic growth and finally, expanding the health and education services within the country.   

*Asterisks indicate Alianza PAIS coalition parties.

 

Ecuadorians went to the voting polls last Sunday to participate in municipal and provincial elections for the second time since Rafael Correa was elected president. Early results indicate that 11,682,314 Ecuadorians voted which is equal to a 16.9 percent voter abstention rate; this is nearly 8 percentage points lower than in the previous municipal and provincial elections. Following the elections, UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) issued a statement congratulating the Ecuadorian people for what they called “transparent and normal” elections.

The preliminary election results reveal that governing AP (Alianza PAIS) party candidates won a larger share of mayoral (30 percent) and prefecture (43 percent) elections than any other party.[i] In addition, AP achieved a 4 percent gain in prefecture electoral victories compared to the previous election. Table 1a shows the prefectures where Alianza PAIS won the highest percentage of voter shares.


[i] All electoral victories include Alianza PAIS coalition parties

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.

Guarimba

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.

Why Táchira?

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.

Gocho Identity

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”

Daily Life

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.

Conclusion

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).

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.

Guarimba

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.

Why Táchira?

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.

Gocho Identity

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”

Daily Life

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.

Conclusion

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).

Members of Congress and the Obama administration have consistently placed the blame for the violence stemming from protests on the Venezuelan government, while overlooking or ignoring violent incidents by opposition protesters, including the decapitation of motorcycle riders, the burning of government buildings and metro stations, attacks against state media companies, and the killing of individuals seeking to dismantle barricades, including a National Guard officer. Officials have referred instead to “systematic” human rights abuses and government repression, without citing evidence.

Based on these assertions, momentum is building to implement sanctions on members of the Venezuelan government. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) told the press on Monday that, “There should be sanctions on individuals. … The administration is looking at those.” Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, cited a “high-level” State Department official that she had recently spoken to.

That the administration is considering sanctions comes on the heels of demands from members of congress that the Obama administration go further in its application of pressure on the Venezuelan government. After introducing legislation “supporting the people of Venezuela as they protest peacefully for democracy,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) stated that:

“But this resolution can only be the first step to hold Maduro and his fellow regime thugs accountable for their violent response and their abuses of the Venezuelan people’s liberties and human rights. I have already begun circulating a letter amongst my colleagues in the House, addressed to President Obama, asking him to take immediate actions against Maduro and other Venezuelan officials who are responsible for violations of their people’s human rights. We are calling for the President to enact immediate sanctions against these officials, under authorities granted to him under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), including denying them visas to enter the United States, blocking their property and freezing their assets in the U.S., as well as prohibiting them from making any financial transactions in the U.S.”

Ros-Lehtinen also plans to introduce a bill that would require the administration to take these steps. The moves from the House of Representatives have been echoed in the Senate, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have introduced a resolution calling for sanctions. Menendez stated:

“Now is the time to pursue a course of targeted sanctions by denying and revoking visas, and freezing the assets of Venezuelan officials complicit in the deaths of peaceful protestors. Human rights violators should be held accountable for the crimes they committed and their presence should not be welcome in our nation. Venezuelans today are denied basic rights, freedoms, and the ability to peacefully protest the dire economic circumstances caused by President Maduro and his government. We stand with the Venezuelan people and the brave opposition leaders in their pursuit to build a more hopeful Venezuela that embraces a bright future while discarding a failed past.”

Marco Rubio even made the case for sanctions on NBC News’ “Meet The Press,” telling host David Gregory that, “I would like to see specific U.S. sanctions against individuals in the Maduro government that are systematically participating in the violation of human rights and anti-democratic actions.” Florida Governor Rick Scott has also called for sanctions. Although neither the House nor the Senate have passed these resolutions calling for sanctions, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last week that, “with respect to Venezuela, Congress has urged sanctions.”

The call for sanctions has also been trumpeted by the press, with Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer saying that if Venezuela does not respond to “international diplomatic pressures,” then the Congress “should revoke the U.S. visas of Venezuelan government and military leaders.” Further, Otto Reich, the former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the time of the U.S.-backed coup of 2002, wrote an opinion piece for the National Review titled “It’s Time for Sanctions in Venezuela.”

None of the members of congress nor any of the resolutions mention the fact that of the 18 tragic deaths in Venezuela since the protests began, many were not protestors, but individuals removing barricades and motorcyclists killed by wires strung across streets, or by crashing into barricades. In one case, a member of the Venezuelan National Guard was shot and killed. The Senate resolution makes no call for both sides to refrain from violence nor does it condemn the violent actions of some from the protest movement, however it does deplore “the use of excessive and unlawful force against peaceful demonstrators in Venezuela and the inexcusable use of violence…to intimidate the country’s political opposition.”

While, undoubtedly, excessive force has been used by members of the Venezuelan security forces, over 10 individuals have been arrested for these actions and further investigations are under way. According to the Attorney General (AG) of Venezuela, there are currently 27 investigations into violations of human rights. The AG, Luisa Ortega Diaz, stated that her office “will not tolerate violations of human rights under any circumstance and that any official turns out to be responsible will be sanctioned as established by the laws of Venezuela.” Far from censoring information or trying to hide the extent of the arrests or of those killed in the last few weeks, Diaz has provided regular updates to the press and has kept the public informed about the status of investigations.

Members of Congress and the Obama administration have consistently placed the blame for the violence stemming from protests on the Venezuelan government, while overlooking or ignoring violent incidents by opposition protesters, including the decapitation of motorcycle riders, the burning of government buildings and metro stations, attacks against state media companies, and the killing of individuals seeking to dismantle barricades, including a National Guard officer. Officials have referred instead to “systematic” human rights abuses and government repression, without citing evidence.

Based on these assertions, momentum is building to implement sanctions on members of the Venezuelan government. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) told the press on Monday that, “There should be sanctions on individuals. … The administration is looking at those.” Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, cited a “high-level” State Department official that she had recently spoken to.

That the administration is considering sanctions comes on the heels of demands from members of congress that the Obama administration go further in its application of pressure on the Venezuelan government. After introducing legislation “supporting the people of Venezuela as they protest peacefully for democracy,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) stated that:

“But this resolution can only be the first step to hold Maduro and his fellow regime thugs accountable for their violent response and their abuses of the Venezuelan people’s liberties and human rights. I have already begun circulating a letter amongst my colleagues in the House, addressed to President Obama, asking him to take immediate actions against Maduro and other Venezuelan officials who are responsible for violations of their people’s human rights. We are calling for the President to enact immediate sanctions against these officials, under authorities granted to him under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), including denying them visas to enter the United States, blocking their property and freezing their assets in the U.S., as well as prohibiting them from making any financial transactions in the U.S.”

Ros-Lehtinen also plans to introduce a bill that would require the administration to take these steps. The moves from the House of Representatives have been echoed in the Senate, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have introduced a resolution calling for sanctions. Menendez stated:

“Now is the time to pursue a course of targeted sanctions by denying and revoking visas, and freezing the assets of Venezuelan officials complicit in the deaths of peaceful protestors. Human rights violators should be held accountable for the crimes they committed and their presence should not be welcome in our nation. Venezuelans today are denied basic rights, freedoms, and the ability to peacefully protest the dire economic circumstances caused by President Maduro and his government. We stand with the Venezuelan people and the brave opposition leaders in their pursuit to build a more hopeful Venezuela that embraces a bright future while discarding a failed past.”

Marco Rubio even made the case for sanctions on NBC News’ “Meet The Press,” telling host David Gregory that, “I would like to see specific U.S. sanctions against individuals in the Maduro government that are systematically participating in the violation of human rights and anti-democratic actions.” Florida Governor Rick Scott has also called for sanctions. Although neither the House nor the Senate have passed these resolutions calling for sanctions, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last week that, “with respect to Venezuela, Congress has urged sanctions.”

The call for sanctions has also been trumpeted by the press, with Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer saying that if Venezuela does not respond to “international diplomatic pressures,” then the Congress “should revoke the U.S. visas of Venezuelan government and military leaders.” Further, Otto Reich, the former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the time of the U.S.-backed coup of 2002, wrote an opinion piece for the National Review titled “It’s Time for Sanctions in Venezuela.”

None of the members of congress nor any of the resolutions mention the fact that of the 18 tragic deaths in Venezuela since the protests began, many were not protestors, but individuals removing barricades and motorcyclists killed by wires strung across streets, or by crashing into barricades. In one case, a member of the Venezuelan National Guard was shot and killed. The Senate resolution makes no call for both sides to refrain from violence nor does it condemn the violent actions of some from the protest movement, however it does deplore “the use of excessive and unlawful force against peaceful demonstrators in Venezuela and the inexcusable use of violence…to intimidate the country’s political opposition.”

While, undoubtedly, excessive force has been used by members of the Venezuelan security forces, over 10 individuals have been arrested for these actions and further investigations are under way. According to the Attorney General (AG) of Venezuela, there are currently 27 investigations into violations of human rights. The AG, Luisa Ortega Diaz, stated that her office “will not tolerate violations of human rights under any circumstance and that any official turns out to be responsible will be sanctioned as established by the laws of Venezuela.” Far from censoring information or trying to hide the extent of the arrests or of those killed in the last few weeks, Diaz has provided regular updates to the press and has kept the public informed about the status of investigations.

On Wednesday, Brazilian ex-president Lula Da Silva spoke out regarding recent events in Venezuela:

I think that in the first place, Venezuela needs peace and tranquility, so that it can recover all its potential insofar as creating wealth and well-being for its people. All Venezuelans, both pro-government and opposition supporters, should understand that a country can only grow and develop with a lot of peace, with a lot of dialogue. [President Nicolás] Maduro has the best intentions; he wants to give his best for Venezuela.

These remarks come just a day after two other statements from Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff commented on Venezuela’s “advances …in terms of education and health for its people” and a representative of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said that he sees the situation as one in which “the principle of non-interference must be respected.”

As we have noted, Brazil has not been the only country in the region to make statements in support of President Maduro, but there remains the question of which multilateral forum would most effectively allow for a fair and representative consideration of the situation in Venezuela.  The Venezuelan government itself has, in statements made by Foreign Minister Elías Jaua, indicated its support for UNASUR over the OAS.  The Venezuela representative there, Ambassador Roy Chaderton, has blocked, for the time being, a special request by Panama’s representative to the OAS who had called for a meeting on Venezuela while the president of the Permanent Council was absent.

Uruguay’s foreign minister Luis Almagro said in a press conference that his government agrees with Venezuela that UNASUR would be the preferred forum:  “UNASUR has been the natural arena for addressing these regional issues.  If we have the possibility of a request [for discussion] at UNASUR, for us that would be fine.” Most of the region, especially South America, recognizes that the United States has too much power in the OAS, because of its disproportionate funding and control over the bureaucracy, as well as a few allied right-wing governments.  That is one of the reasons that Latin America created CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations), which excludes the U.S. and Canada, and also UNASUR, in recent years.

On Wednesday, Brazilian ex-president Lula Da Silva spoke out regarding recent events in Venezuela:

I think that in the first place, Venezuela needs peace and tranquility, so that it can recover all its potential insofar as creating wealth and well-being for its people. All Venezuelans, both pro-government and opposition supporters, should understand that a country can only grow and develop with a lot of peace, with a lot of dialogue. [President Nicolás] Maduro has the best intentions; he wants to give his best for Venezuela.

These remarks come just a day after two other statements from Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff commented on Venezuela’s “advances …in terms of education and health for its people” and a representative of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said that he sees the situation as one in which “the principle of non-interference must be respected.”

As we have noted, Brazil has not been the only country in the region to make statements in support of President Maduro, but there remains the question of which multilateral forum would most effectively allow for a fair and representative consideration of the situation in Venezuela.  The Venezuelan government itself has, in statements made by Foreign Minister Elías Jaua, indicated its support for UNASUR over the OAS.  The Venezuela representative there, Ambassador Roy Chaderton, has blocked, for the time being, a special request by Panama’s representative to the OAS who had called for a meeting on Venezuela while the president of the Permanent Council was absent.

Uruguay’s foreign minister Luis Almagro said in a press conference that his government agrees with Venezuela that UNASUR would be the preferred forum:  “UNASUR has been the natural arena for addressing these regional issues.  If we have the possibility of a request [for discussion] at UNASUR, for us that would be fine.” Most of the region, especially South America, recognizes that the United States has too much power in the OAS, because of its disproportionate funding and control over the bureaucracy, as well as a few allied right-wing governments.  That is one of the reasons that Latin America created CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations), which excludes the U.S. and Canada, and also UNASUR, in recent years.

The Wall Street Journal today published a report trashing Argentina based on an economic mistake which renders the article meaningless. The headline:

Devaluation Hurts Argentina’s Regional Standing: Colombia Has Likely Overtaken Argentina as Latin America’s Third-Largest Economy

The article is laden with gloating and derogatory language such as the opening sentence: “Following Argentina’s humbling currency devaluation, the country is suffering another economic embarrassment …” and “’This is symptomatic of a broader trend that is seeing Argentina’s economic model unravel..’”

Actually, it’s not symptomatic of anything, including the relative living standards in Argentina and Colombia or the rest of Latin America.  When the peso is devalued against the dollar, the size of the Argentine economy measured in dollars is smaller.  This does not mean that the living standards of Argentines have fallen.

If the U.S. dollar falls against the euro, Americans who travel in Europe will find it more expensive.  But most Americans get their income in dollars and spend it in dollars, and will only be affected negatively by the exchange rate to the extent that some imports become more expensive. (In fact, there is a very strong argument that most Americans would be better off with a significantly lower dollar, as we would reduce our trade deficit, increase employment and therefore wage growth, and cease to be dependent on asset bubbles for growth as we have in the past two decades.)  U.S. GDP measured in euros will be smaller, but who cares?

The same is basically true for Argentina, and most economies in the world.  That is why economists have developed another measure for comparing the GDP of different countries, called purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars.  This compares GDP and living standards across countries by taking into account differences in prices and the exchange rate, so that a PPP dollar, converted to the currency of each country, will buy approximately the same basket of goods and services.

In terms of PPP GDP, IMF figures for 2013 show Argentina to be the third largest economy, with a margin of 28 percent over Colombia.  Much more important though, since having a bigger population doesn’t make your people richer, is comparing PPP per capita GDP.  Here Argentina ranks second in the Americas, again according to IMF data, with PPP per capita GDP of $18,582, to Colombia’s rank of 11, with PPP per capita GDP of 11,088.

Ironically, the most recent devaluation that this article reports as causing “humiliation” and “an economic embarrassment” will very likely help the Argentine economy, as it has helped the government to stabilize the both the official and black market rate of the dollar – which is essential to stabilizing the economy and bringing down inflation. And it will also give the economy a boost by reducing the trade deficit.

The article also makes reference to a study, apparently not yet published, which claims that Argentina’s GDP is 12 percent less than official figures indicate.  This is possible, since inflation had been underestimated since 2007. (As the article notes, a new inflation index went into effect in January which should correct this underestimation).  If we assume this estimate to be accurate, Argentina’s economy  (in real, i.e. inflation-adjusted terms) grew by 81 percent from 2002-2013, or 5.6 percent annually.  This puts Argentina in 3rd place of 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries, with only Panama and Peru showing faster GDP growth over this period.  

The Wall Street Journal today published a report trashing Argentina based on an economic mistake which renders the article meaningless. The headline:

Devaluation Hurts Argentina’s Regional Standing: Colombia Has Likely Overtaken Argentina as Latin America’s Third-Largest Economy

The article is laden with gloating and derogatory language such as the opening sentence: “Following Argentina’s humbling currency devaluation, the country is suffering another economic embarrassment …” and “’This is symptomatic of a broader trend that is seeing Argentina’s economic model unravel..’”

Actually, it’s not symptomatic of anything, including the relative living standards in Argentina and Colombia or the rest of Latin America.  When the peso is devalued against the dollar, the size of the Argentine economy measured in dollars is smaller.  This does not mean that the living standards of Argentines have fallen.

If the U.S. dollar falls against the euro, Americans who travel in Europe will find it more expensive.  But most Americans get their income in dollars and spend it in dollars, and will only be affected negatively by the exchange rate to the extent that some imports become more expensive. (In fact, there is a very strong argument that most Americans would be better off with a significantly lower dollar, as we would reduce our trade deficit, increase employment and therefore wage growth, and cease to be dependent on asset bubbles for growth as we have in the past two decades.)  U.S. GDP measured in euros will be smaller, but who cares?

The same is basically true for Argentina, and most economies in the world.  That is why economists have developed another measure for comparing the GDP of different countries, called purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars.  This compares GDP and living standards across countries by taking into account differences in prices and the exchange rate, so that a PPP dollar, converted to the currency of each country, will buy approximately the same basket of goods and services.

In terms of PPP GDP, IMF figures for 2013 show Argentina to be the third largest economy, with a margin of 28 percent over Colombia.  Much more important though, since having a bigger population doesn’t make your people richer, is comparing PPP per capita GDP.  Here Argentina ranks second in the Americas, again according to IMF data, with PPP per capita GDP of $18,582, to Colombia’s rank of 11, with PPP per capita GDP of 11,088.

Ironically, the most recent devaluation that this article reports as causing “humiliation” and “an economic embarrassment” will very likely help the Argentine economy, as it has helped the government to stabilize the both the official and black market rate of the dollar – which is essential to stabilizing the economy and bringing down inflation. And it will also give the economy a boost by reducing the trade deficit.

The article also makes reference to a study, apparently not yet published, which claims that Argentina’s GDP is 12 percent less than official figures indicate.  This is possible, since inflation had been underestimated since 2007. (As the article notes, a new inflation index went into effect in January which should correct this underestimation).  If we assume this estimate to be accurate, Argentina’s economy  (in real, i.e. inflation-adjusted terms) grew by 81 percent from 2002-2013, or 5.6 percent annually.  This puts Argentina in 3rd place of 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries, with only Panama and Peru showing faster GDP growth over this period.  

Roger Cohen, what a disappointment.  He is not Tom Friedman or David Brooks, and shouldn’t be insulting an entire nation based a clump of tired old clichés and a lack of information.  Argentina is “the child among nations that never grew up” he writes, and “not a whole lot has changed” since he was there 25 years ago.  OK, let’s see what we can do to clean up this mess with a shovel and broom made of data.

For Cohen, Argentina since the government defaulted on its debt has been an economic failure.  Tens of millions of Argentines might beg to differ.

For the vast majority of people in Argentina, as in most countries, being able to find a job is very important.  According to the database of SEDLAC (which works in partnership with the World Bank),  employment as a percentage of the labor force hit peak levels in 2012, and has remained close to there since.  This is shown in Figure 1.

FIGURE 1
Argentina: Employment Rate, Percent of Total Population

cohenfig1finaleoSource: SEDLAC (2014).

We can also look at unemployment data from the IMF (Figure 2).  Of course the current level of 7.3 percent is far below the levels reached during the depression of 1998-2002, which was caused by the failed neoliberal experiment that the Kirchners did away with – it peaked at 22.5 percent in 2002.  But it is also far below the level of the boom years of that experiment (1991-1997) when it averaged more than 13 percent.

FIGURE 2
Argentina: Unemployment Rate
cohenfig2Source: IMF WEO (Oct 2013).

How about poverty?  Here is data from SEDLAC (Figure 3), which does not use the official Argentine government’s inflation rate but rather a higher estimate for the years after 2007. It shows a 76.3 percent drop in the poverty rate from 2002-2013, and an 85.7 percent drop in extreme poverty.

FIGURE 3
Argentina: Poverty and Extreme Poverty
cohenfig3Source: SEDLAC (2014).

Most of the drop in poverty was from the very high economic growth (back to that in a minute) and consequent employment. But the government also implemented one of the biggest anti-poverty programs in Latin America, a conditional cash transfer program.

Finally, there is economic growth.  In a terribly flawed article today, the Wall Street Journal reported on a soon-to-be published study showing that Argentina’s real (inflation-adjusted) GDP is 12 percent less than the official figures indicate.  (As the article noted, the government, in co-operation with the IMF, implemented a new measure of inflation in January, which should resolve this data problem that has existed since 2007).  If we assume that the 12 percent figure is correct, then using IMF data Argentina from 2002-2013 still has real GDP growth rate of 81 percent, or 5.6 percent annually.  That is the third highest of 32 countries in the region (after Peru and Panama).  And incidentally, very little of this growth was driven by a “commodities boom,” or any exports for that matter.

Despite current economic problems, the country that Cohen ridicules has done extremely well by the most important economic and social indicators, since it defaulted on most of its foreign debt and sent the IMF packing at the end of 2002. This is true by any international comparison or in comparison with its past.  Many foreign corporations and the business press, as well as right-wing ideologues, are upset with Argentina’s policies for various reasons.  They don’t really like any of the left governments that now govern most of the South America, and Washington would like to get rid of all of them and return to the world of 20 years ago when the U.S. was in the drivers’ seat.  But there’s really no reason for Roger Cohen to be jumping on this bandwagon.

Roger Cohen, what a disappointment.  He is not Tom Friedman or David Brooks, and shouldn’t be insulting an entire nation based a clump of tired old clichés and a lack of information.  Argentina is “the child among nations that never grew up” he writes, and “not a whole lot has changed” since he was there 25 years ago.  OK, let’s see what we can do to clean up this mess with a shovel and broom made of data.

For Cohen, Argentina since the government defaulted on its debt has been an economic failure.  Tens of millions of Argentines might beg to differ.

For the vast majority of people in Argentina, as in most countries, being able to find a job is very important.  According to the database of SEDLAC (which works in partnership with the World Bank),  employment as a percentage of the labor force hit peak levels in 2012, and has remained close to there since.  This is shown in Figure 1.

FIGURE 1
Argentina: Employment Rate, Percent of Total Population

cohenfig1finaleoSource: SEDLAC (2014).

We can also look at unemployment data from the IMF (Figure 2).  Of course the current level of 7.3 percent is far below the levels reached during the depression of 1998-2002, which was caused by the failed neoliberal experiment that the Kirchners did away with – it peaked at 22.5 percent in 2002.  But it is also far below the level of the boom years of that experiment (1991-1997) when it averaged more than 13 percent.

FIGURE 2
Argentina: Unemployment Rate
cohenfig2Source: IMF WEO (Oct 2013).

How about poverty?  Here is data from SEDLAC (Figure 3), which does not use the official Argentine government’s inflation rate but rather a higher estimate for the years after 2007. It shows a 76.3 percent drop in the poverty rate from 2002-2013, and an 85.7 percent drop in extreme poverty.

FIGURE 3
Argentina: Poverty and Extreme Poverty
cohenfig3Source: SEDLAC (2014).

Most of the drop in poverty was from the very high economic growth (back to that in a minute) and consequent employment. But the government also implemented one of the biggest anti-poverty programs in Latin America, a conditional cash transfer program.

Finally, there is economic growth.  In a terribly flawed article today, the Wall Street Journal reported on a soon-to-be published study showing that Argentina’s real (inflation-adjusted) GDP is 12 percent less than the official figures indicate.  (As the article noted, the government, in co-operation with the IMF, implemented a new measure of inflation in January, which should resolve this data problem that has existed since 2007).  If we assume that the 12 percent figure is correct, then using IMF data Argentina from 2002-2013 still has real GDP growth rate of 81 percent, or 5.6 percent annually.  That is the third highest of 32 countries in the region (after Peru and Panama).  And incidentally, very little of this growth was driven by a “commodities boom,” or any exports for that matter.

Despite current economic problems, the country that Cohen ridicules has done extremely well by the most important economic and social indicators, since it defaulted on most of its foreign debt and sent the IMF packing at the end of 2002. This is true by any international comparison or in comparison with its past.  Many foreign corporations and the business press, as well as right-wing ideologues, are upset with Argentina’s policies for various reasons.  They don’t really like any of the left governments that now govern most of the South America, and Washington would like to get rid of all of them and return to the world of 20 years ago when the U.S. was in the drivers’ seat.  But there’s really no reason for Roger Cohen to be jumping on this bandwagon.

Kudos to the New York Times for correcting its error regarding TV media in Venezuela.  I had written about this error here on Monday (Feb 24).  It was an important mistake–the Times had led its Friday report with this statement:

“The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”

The Timescorrection reads:

Correction: February 26, 2014 

An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Globovision. Before its sale last year, it broadcast more voices critical of the Venezuelan government than any other TV station, but it was not the only one to regularly feature government critics.

It sure wasn’t, and it still isn’t during the current protests, as documented here.  This is important because the opposition leadership is trying to say that they are living under a dictatorship, and they are justifying their demands for the overthrow of a democratically elected government on this basis.

Many other news outlets have made the same error in reporting on the TV media in Venezuela.  Hopefully they will be more accurate in the future.

Many thanks to Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy and the nearly 13,000 people who quickly signed a petition to the New York Times asking for this correction.

People often ask what they can do to change U.S. foreign policy, and one important thing that almost anyone with an internet connection can do is hold the media accountable for these kinds of misrepresentations.  On the one hand, the mass media can play a huge role in legitimating terrible crimes, as in the run-up to the Iraq War, which cost more than a million lives and probably wouldn’t have happened if the media had done its job.  On the other hand, there are thousands of reporters and editors who are trying to do their job and adhere to basic journalistic standards of accuracy and balance.  Readers and listeners can help them do this.

Now, what about the Committee to Protect Journalists?  Their statement was more outrageously false than the one corrected by the Times: “Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests.”

Will they correct it?  Ask them.

Kudos to the New York Times for correcting its error regarding TV media in Venezuela.  I had written about this error here on Monday (Feb 24).  It was an important mistake–the Times had led its Friday report with this statement:

“The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”

The Timescorrection reads:

Correction: February 26, 2014 

An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Globovision. Before its sale last year, it broadcast more voices critical of the Venezuelan government than any other TV station, but it was not the only one to regularly feature government critics.

It sure wasn’t, and it still isn’t during the current protests, as documented here.  This is important because the opposition leadership is trying to say that they are living under a dictatorship, and they are justifying their demands for the overthrow of a democratically elected government on this basis.

Many other news outlets have made the same error in reporting on the TV media in Venezuela.  Hopefully they will be more accurate in the future.

Many thanks to Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy and the nearly 13,000 people who quickly signed a petition to the New York Times asking for this correction.

People often ask what they can do to change U.S. foreign policy, and one important thing that almost anyone with an internet connection can do is hold the media accountable for these kinds of misrepresentations.  On the one hand, the mass media can play a huge role in legitimating terrible crimes, as in the run-up to the Iraq War, which cost more than a million lives and probably wouldn’t have happened if the media had done its job.  On the other hand, there are thousands of reporters and editors who are trying to do their job and adhere to basic journalistic standards of accuracy and balance.  Readers and listeners can help them do this.

Now, what about the Committee to Protect Journalists?  Their statement was more outrageously false than the one corrected by the Times: “Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests.”

Will they correct it?  Ask them.

On January 25, during the Third Social Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre, representatives of urban social movements affiliated with the National Urban Reform Forum started a campaign to support a referendum for removing political reform power from Congress, passing authority over to a newly-created, democratically-elected and sovereign body.

The referendum represents the largest concession that President Dilma Rousseff announced after last year’s June and July protests. Although critics say that it could end up giving too much power to the incumbent PT party, it is supported by 76 social movements and labor unions because it addresses one of the most important problems in Brazil: the fact that a full transition to democracy was never made when the military dictatorship ended in 1985.

Unlike other former dictatorships in South America, the Brazilian government refused to disband the brutal military police. It also gave full amnesty to the military and its puppet government. This meant that most congressmen and senators from the two legal political parties of the dictatorship era, ARENA [the National Renewal Alliance Party] and MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement], were able to stay in power and benefit from the advantage of incumbency in future elections. ARENA changed its name to PFL [Liberal Front Party] and then to DEM [Democratas], and MDB changed its name to PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party]. Every president between 1985 and 2002 governed in coalition with these two parties. President Lula broke with DEM but was only able to maintain a majority block in the house and senate with PMDB, led by the widely-hated former President José Sarney.

The social movements believe that, due to the inherent structural problem of a congress that is controlled by representatives of the former military dictatorship, it is incapable of reforming the political system. Instead, they support a bottom up process of change. During the next few months they will organize a series of national protests in favor of the referendum. On April 1, on the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964, the social movements will create neighborhood and village committees across the country to discuss the issue.

For Evaniza Rodrigues from the National People’s Housing Union (União Nacional de Moradia Popular, or UNMP), “The referendum is important because it doesn’t just deal with electoral issues. It proposes reflection about society’s participation in the political process. Political participation should become part of the people’s daily lives. It should be part of all of the important political decisions in Brazil. The only way for the majority of our society who are excluded from formal spaces of political participation to have a voice is through deep organizational and representational changes.” She says that the UNMP is meeting later this week to create a national mobilization plan for the referendum.

Gegê, from the People’s Movements Central (Central de Movimentos Popular, or CMP) says, “There is no way that we can fail to take part in this important referendum. It is the key to ending corruption, guaranteeing rights for workers and especially to guarantee a life of dignity in the cities and in the countryside and guarantee our right to live as citizens.  We know that there are many congressmen who are against this referendum because it will put an end to private campaign funding and if the field is leveled they will never be reelected.”

Although referendums in Brazil are not legally binding, they wield strong political pressure. The most memorable referendum in recent history took place in 2002 when President Fernando Henrique Cardoso wanted Brazil to enter the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).  The social movements, that unanimously opposed it, organized a referendum. 150,000 people volunteered to work the polling stations, over 10 million people turned out and 98.3 percent of them voted against entering the FTAA, effectively killing the proposal.

Brian Mier is a geographer and freelance journalist who lives in Brazil and works as a policy analyst at the Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais. He has a blog, focused on news reported in the Brazilian alternative media, at http://progressivebrazil.tumblr.com/

On January 25, during the Third Social Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre, representatives of urban social movements affiliated with the National Urban Reform Forum started a campaign to support a referendum for removing political reform power from Congress, passing authority over to a newly-created, democratically-elected and sovereign body.

The referendum represents the largest concession that President Dilma Rousseff announced after last year’s June and July protests. Although critics say that it could end up giving too much power to the incumbent PT party, it is supported by 76 social movements and labor unions because it addresses one of the most important problems in Brazil: the fact that a full transition to democracy was never made when the military dictatorship ended in 1985.

Unlike other former dictatorships in South America, the Brazilian government refused to disband the brutal military police. It also gave full amnesty to the military and its puppet government. This meant that most congressmen and senators from the two legal political parties of the dictatorship era, ARENA [the National Renewal Alliance Party] and MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement], were able to stay in power and benefit from the advantage of incumbency in future elections. ARENA changed its name to PFL [Liberal Front Party] and then to DEM [Democratas], and MDB changed its name to PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party]. Every president between 1985 and 2002 governed in coalition with these two parties. President Lula broke with DEM but was only able to maintain a majority block in the house and senate with PMDB, led by the widely-hated former President José Sarney.

The social movements believe that, due to the inherent structural problem of a congress that is controlled by representatives of the former military dictatorship, it is incapable of reforming the political system. Instead, they support a bottom up process of change. During the next few months they will organize a series of national protests in favor of the referendum. On April 1, on the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964, the social movements will create neighborhood and village committees across the country to discuss the issue.

For Evaniza Rodrigues from the National People’s Housing Union (União Nacional de Moradia Popular, or UNMP), “The referendum is important because it doesn’t just deal with electoral issues. It proposes reflection about society’s participation in the political process. Political participation should become part of the people’s daily lives. It should be part of all of the important political decisions in Brazil. The only way for the majority of our society who are excluded from formal spaces of political participation to have a voice is through deep organizational and representational changes.” She says that the UNMP is meeting later this week to create a national mobilization plan for the referendum.

Gegê, from the People’s Movements Central (Central de Movimentos Popular, or CMP) says, “There is no way that we can fail to take part in this important referendum. It is the key to ending corruption, guaranteeing rights for workers and especially to guarantee a life of dignity in the cities and in the countryside and guarantee our right to live as citizens.  We know that there are many congressmen who are against this referendum because it will put an end to private campaign funding and if the field is leveled they will never be reelected.”

Although referendums in Brazil are not legally binding, they wield strong political pressure. The most memorable referendum in recent history took place in 2002 when President Fernando Henrique Cardoso wanted Brazil to enter the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).  The social movements, that unanimously opposed it, organized a referendum. 150,000 people volunteered to work the polling stations, over 10 million people turned out and 98.3 percent of them voted against entering the FTAA, effectively killing the proposal.

Brian Mier is a geographer and freelance journalist who lives in Brazil and works as a policy analyst at the Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais. He has a blog, focused on news reported in the Brazilian alternative media, at http://progressivebrazil.tumblr.com/

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