By Miguel Tinker Salas:
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
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
A tale of two cities and two countries
Much of the reporting by the mass media gives the impression that
Venezuela faces a national rebellion. The reality is that the protests
have been restricted to certain pockets in the country, mostly middle
and upper middle class neighborhoods, not entire cities. Most damage to
private property and infrastructure has occurred in these
neighborhoods. According to the government 18 municipalities have been
the center of protest out of 335. And even in municipalities where there
are protesters, residents live a tale of two cities, with some areas
besieged and others functioning under normal-like conditions. With the
advent of carnival, there are also contrasting images of people at the
beach and others protesting behind barricades.
To create conditions of un-governability, the so-called “democratic
opposition” had taken to barricading the roads to prevent the free
movement of people and precipitate a crisis. They have set up barricades
using boulders, glass, trees, trash filled bags, and anything else at
their disposal. In other cases they are throwing glass and nails (called
miguelitos, nails thrust through pieces of garden hose) onto the road
to impede traffic. The police and the National Guard have cleaned city
streets on numerous occasions. However, protestors hide materials and
take over the streets again once the Guard departs.
Walking around areas controlled by the opposition it is impossible
not to notice that many streets have been covered with car oil to make
the surfaces slick causing motorbikes to skid out of control. The
opposition assumes that motorizados, those on motorcycles are government supporters. There has not only been a demonization of the motorizados,
but also a racialization of individuals who purchased cheap Chinese
motorcycles since most are from lower socioeconomic sectors and tend to
be people of color.
It is also impossible not to notice the steel wire and barbwire
strung across the roadway and some motorcycle drivers have either been
injured or killed by these barriers. Edwin Duran (29 years old) in
Caracas was killed by steel wire placed on the street to frustrate
traffic. Delia Elena Lobo, a 39 year old mother was also killed as she
rode on a motorbike with her son in city of Mérida.
A retired general, Ángel Vivas tweeted several times giving
instructions to his followers on how to place the steel wire on city
streets. The government tried to arrest him for inciting violence. The
general put on a bulletproof vest, armed himself with an M-16 and pistol
and took to the rooftop of this house. The opposition blocked his house
while some U.S. Spanish language media rushed to interview him, but
never asked how or why he was in possession of an M-16 assault rifle.
Fear is also being used to intimidate the population where barricades
disrupt people’s lives. Residents are being told that the barricades
are needed to protect the community from marauding bands of government
supporters, the National Guard or the motorizados, (motorcycle riders). In some neighborhoods, they use the fear of being attacked by the Tupamaros,
a political organization inspired by the Uruguayan group of the same
name. In Venezuela, the Tupamaros are a leftist organization that has
clashed with opposition forces in the past. Throughout the day the rumor
mill generates one potentially calamitous event after another.
The mainstream media is not reporting the dangerous conditions on the
streets; in fact many foreign reporters are afraid to leave the comfort
and perceived protection of middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods
in which they reside. One U.S. journalist tweeted he had not ventured
out of Altamira, a wealthy area of Caracas, and therefore could not
report on conditions elsewhere.
Likewise, contrary to many reports in some media outlets, the
military has not been unleashed to senselessly attack the protestors.
Undoubtedly there have been incidents of violence and provocations on
both sides and the government recently ordered the arrest of several
intelligence officers implicated in the two deaths, one in the
opposition and one a chavista activist. The number of killed has now
reached double digits, but violence has taken its toll on both
protestors and supporters of the government. While too high, the numbers
would undoubtedly be much worse if the security forces were trying to
suppress the protest with lethal force.
Protest in the western state of Táchira preceded the larger
demonstrations in Caracas and elsewhere on February 12th and were
purportedly sparked by the attempted rape of a university student. The
governor of the state of Táchira insists
that no students came forth to file a complaint about the attempted
rape. Students took to the streets to protest the rising crime rate and
the arrest of two protestors by the police is citied as a factor that
enraged students. The protests in San Cristobal quickly spread to Mérida
where the main campus of the University of the Andes (ULA) is located.
However, like everything in Venezuela, developments in Táchira are
more complicated than they initially appear. Some business sectors in
Táchira profit tremendously from the illicit trade of subsidized
Venezuelan goods sent to Colombia as contraband where they obtain much
higher prices. It is estimated that upwards of 30% of some Venezuelan
basic food products exit the country as contraband. Shortages of basic
food products have been especially evident in Táchira and Mérida where
many stores shelves are empty. Average citizens also engage in the
contraband trade to augment their salaries. Gasoline that in Venezuela
is heavily subsidized, costing less than 10 cents a gallon is also part
of the contraband trade. The subsidy of gasoline, in place since the
1950s, costs the government upwards of $12 billion dollar a year.
Táchira is the center of an active remittance trade between Colombians
and Venezuelans and money launderers exploit this exchange. Government
efforts to control this illicit trade have generated displeasure among
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
A racialized “gocho” identity (Andean and predominantly whiter
compared to Venezuela’s predominately mixed race and African heritage
population) is also being promoted in the Andean states of Mérida and
Táchira. Posters and banners proclaiming gocho power and their role in
the protest have been common at rallies in Mérida and Táchira.
From 1898 through 1958, Venezuela was ruled by a series of Andean
generals from the state of Táchira. This gocho identity harkens to a
time when the Andes, and in particular Táchira and Mérida exercised a
prominent role in the governance of Venezuela. Protests centered in
Táchira and Mérida raise the specter of a Bolivian Media Luna (half
moon), where the conservative opposition using a purported racialized
identity promoted the secession of the eastern provinces of Bolivia.
Likewise some have suggested that Mérida, Táchira, Trujillo and Zulia
might become a Venezuelan version of the Media Luna. However, protests
in Zulia and Trujillo have not reached the levels of those in Mérida or
Táchira and that scenario has failed to materialize.
Another important feature of the opposition protest marches has been
the leadership role of middle and upper class women. On Saturday
February 22, 2014 women who support the government rallied in Caracas to
promote peace and an end to the violence. On Wednesday February 27,
2014 opposition women dressed in white staged protests against the
government and rallied in front of the building of the Guardia Nacional
in Caracas. A female officer of the guard came out to receive their
demands and urged the protestors to take part in efforts at dialogue
proposed by president Maduro.
At various opposition rallies some women have taken to demanding a
hyper-masculinity, baiting men to confront the Guardia or the police and
when they do not, raising questions about the men’s virility.
Opposition social media is circulating the image of a young female
protestor at one rally that attached a pair of “testicles” to her shorts
and carried a sign that said “Soy Gocha y tengo de sobra lo que algunos
de ustedes les falta.” (I am a Gocha and I have in excess what you are
all missing.) An arrow on the sign pointed to her purported
“testicles.” Other signs at women’s protests state “women with ovaries
vs. a symbolic military” and others crudely state, “The men in Venezuela
have no balls”
Where the opposition has set barricades, people live by the cell
phone, texting each other to see if it is safe to get out and make a mad
dash to whatever store may be open for a few hours. Most products can
be found, though it may take multiple trips to various stores and the
frustration of standing in long queues. Rumors tend to dominate street
conversations, where is milk being sold; who has Harina Pan (corn flour
used for making arepas, a national dish) and which roadblocks are
passable. The opposition communicates mainly by social media, and many
spend countless hours on Twitter, Whats-Apps, Facebook and Zello an
application that carries live conversations.
In areas where protests are taking place, workers and other employees
cannot enter and are losing income. Businesses, merchants and the
tourism industry on the eve of Carnival also suffer the consequences of
the blockades. Public transportation is at a standstill in these areas
and “moto taxis” have become the primary form of transportation.
Although most business sectors support the opposition they are
beginning to distance themselves from the more violent protests. Some
appear to recognize that the mobilizations will not topple the
government. On Wednesday February 26 the leaders of Fedecamaras (Chamber
of Commerce), Fedeindustria (Chamber of Industry) and Eugenio Mendoza
the CEO of the country’s leading food company attended the government
sponsored “Peace Conference.” Although they criticized the government on
many fronts, they also expressed opposition to the blockades and
acknowledged the legitimacy of the Maduro government. Though the
hierarchy of the Venezuelan Catholic Church was invited, they opted not
to attend. The papal nuncio did attend and urged dialogue and
negotiations to end the violence. The political leaders of the
opposition MUD (Unity Table) coalition also boycotted the event.
There is, however, evidence that some elected opposition political
leaders are starting to distance themselves from the street violence as
well. This is because people are tired of the disruptions in their
lives. The opposition mayors of Baruta, Sucre and El Hatillo all part
of greater Caracas have called for an end to violence and disavowed the
street protests that create siege-like conditions.
Fighting for political leadership of the right
Capriles appears desperate to reassert his leadership of the
opposition coalition particularly since López outflanked him, becoming
the most recognized leader of the right. However, López is not widely
trusted by many sectors of the opposition, including some students.
Capriles spoke at one opposition demonstration indicating his
willingness to take part in a dialogue. Maduro convened a meeting of
governors at which Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda,
should have attended; however, pressured by the far right wing, he
refused to attend. Previously, he had attended a meeting and shook
Maduro’s hand for which he was roundly criticized by the right wing. Two
other opposition governors showed up and openly sparred with
Maduro. Capriles absence as well as other opposition voices was a
mistake and a lost opportunity to dialogue and attempt to diffuse the
violence the country faces.
Overtaken by the protests, Capriles initially asserted that political
extremes sought violence, a reference to both the right and the left.
He has even publicly criticized López and national assembly member María
Corina Machado for raising false expectations that the protests would
unseat Maduro. However, he will find it difficult to cast himself as the
moderate in the current fracas. Capriles faces a scenario similar to
the Republicans in the U.S. as they confront the Tea Party wing of the
party. To remain the leader of the opposition Capriles has to appeal to
the more radical right wing that refuses to negotiate with the
government under any condition. However, to win elections he has to gain
the support of disgruntled chavistas and poorer sectors. As opposition
to the disruptions caused by protests increases, Capriles will find it
harder and harder to portray himself as a moderate.
Venezuela is not facing a Ukraine-like crisis as some in the
opposition have suggested. The president retains support throughout the
country. Neither is it on the verge of a fratricidal conflict similar to
what has taken place in Syria. A large part, but apparently not a
majority of the society remains bitterly alienated from the government.
Undoubtedly, Venezuela faces real economic and social problems. However,
opposition efforts to topple the government will only exacerbate these
problems and continue to raise tensions in the country.
On the international front, countries like Brazil and Argentina have
called for no foreign intervention in Venezuela, an allusion to United
States support of the opposition. Despite recent tensions, and the
mutual expulsion of diplomats, the Maduro government recently extended
an olive branch by naming a new Venezuelan ambassador to Washington. The
countries have not formally had ambassadors since 2008. The U.S. has
not formally responded to the gesture. The U.S. however has expressed concern
over a potential new immigrant wave from the Caribbean if Venezuela
curtails or ceases the sale of oil through Petro-Caribe to the countries
of the region.
There is no evidence that broad sectors of society, especially the
urban poor who provide the most support to the government, have joined
the protests initiated by middle and upper class sectors. This division
led one Colombian commentator to state, “Venezuela is an odd country,
the only place were the rich protest and the poor celebrate.” It is
doubtful the opposition can sustain the present level of protests. By
seeking Maduro’s ouster through undemocratic means and without majority
support, the opposition has once again entered a “callejon sin salida,” a
political dead end. After the debacle of the 2002-03 oil strike that
cost the country over 14 billion dollars in lost revenue, they saved
face by calling for Chávez’s recall. Under the present electoral
calendar they have no such option. The opposition will find it difficult
to save face after this round of protests and many question their
commitment to democratic principles and their ability to unite all of
Venezuela. Having radicalized their base, they now face the daunting
task of demobilizing their followers if they are to salvage any
credibility in future elections.
Miguel Tinker Salas
is professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and author of
several books on Venezuela, including The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture,
and Society in Venezuela (Duke University Press).
March 04, 2014