Leopoldo López’s #lasalida campaign has changed the game in Venezuelan politics by opening a window for sectors strongly opposed to the Maduro government to take their politics to the street. What implications does this street-based strategy hold for the “opposition” as an organized group of parties and social groups that once stood united behind Henrique Capriles?
Chilean analyst Fernando Mires argues that the Venezuelan opposition is now composed of three political groupings: one behind López, one behind Capriles, and the student movement, which has one prominent leader, Juan Requesens, but multiple currents running through it. Mires’ article does more splitting than lumping but, in fact, it may not do justice to the severity of the opposition’s new unity problems.
With absurd disputes breaking out between the head of the opposition’s Democratic Unity Table (MUD) and the director of human rights NGO, El Foro Penal, the portrait of a tripartite opposition may not capture how frayed ties are between groups self-identified as parts of the opposition. The spat reflects animosity toward MUD Secretary General Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, who has received strident criticism for participating in dialogue with the government.
It may seem counter-intuitive that the opposition would be so divided while dialogue takes place, but a closer look reveals why.
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Sign at Limón Street in opposition stronghold of El Cafetal (Caracas) says: “We came down to protest and didn’t receive support. Sincerely, Students of Limón.”
David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
Dialogues between the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) opposition coalition and the government yielded its first results this week. In the process the MUD seems to be regaining its leadership over the unruly forces of the opposition.
On Tuesday government and opposition representatives agreed to expand the “Truth Commission” to include “recognized national leaders trusted by all” to be selected by mutual agreement. While they have not agreed upon the names nor upon the actual competencies of the commission, Vice President Jorge Arreaza suggested they would have the ability to carry out interviews and form their own conclusions.
There was no agreement however, on an amnesty law for political prisoners. This was not a surprise as the MUD’s proposal called not simply for the release of those arrested over the last two months of conflict but for the release of all political prisoners arrested over the past fifteen years—including people like the Guevara brothers who were arrested for the assassination of Attorney General Danilo Anderson. The two sides did agree to a medical examination of Ivan Simonovis which could lead to his release on humanitarian grounds.
There was also an agreement that the opposition would participate in “pacification plan,” the citizen security initiative the government rolled out in February. Ironically, Henrique Capriles’ willingness to dialogue with the government regarding issues of citizen security in January irked many in the opposition base as it symbolized his and the MUD’s softer line on relations with the government.
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“It is better to think of the police as providing support to the National Guard in the protests [as opposed to the other way around]. The National Guard has more experience and more training…and they aren’t restricted [in their use of force] like us…We can’t even defend ourselves.”
—National Police officer-in-training
[A previous version of this article was first published on http://anthropoliteia.net. See original article here]
Since protests exploded in Venezuela in February the National Bolivarian Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana, PNB) here have been intensely critiqued for using excessive force against protestors. And the excessive use of coercion employed in some sectors has been largely attributed to the government’s sanctioning and encouragement of that coercion.
However, the notion that the Chavista governments have encouraged the police to use force (or extreme amounts of it) would actually make little sense to National Police officers. This is because there is a widespread perception—among both police officers and the lower-class citizens where I work—that the force National Bolivarian Police officers can use is heavily, if not overly, regulated by the state.
Indeed, officers identify the sweeping police reform that was implemented by the Chávez government in 2008 as the catalyst of the “extreme regulations” on their use of force.  This reform both denounced heavy-handed police tactics and implemented mechanisms to limit officers’ use of coercion. But according to officers, in its zeal to limit police coercion, the reform has overly restricted their actions, making them weak and impotent in the face of violence.
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[Correction: a colleague has pointed out that what I state in paragraph 5 about diversity is not quite right. I failed to mention Liborio Guarulla the indigenous governor of the Amazonas State who spoke on behalf of the opposition (I confess to have missed most of his intervention as I took a break during the 6 hour marathon session). I would stick with the basic point that there was more diversity or at least heterogeneity on the government side than the opposition side and I think that is indicative of a larger tendency. However, it is important not to exaggerate these things as they easily fit into polarizing stereotypes.]
My impression is that the opposition gained more from this than the government. Both sides were on their best behavior and overall made good showings. However, given the government’s current edge in broadcast coverage and the opposition’s long term tendency to avoid sustained explications of their positions, this definitely gave them the opportunity to get their message out. In contrast, while government reps certainly provided robust defenses of their positions, these reach the country with much more frequency through broad reach of state media as well as cadenas (obligatory broadcasts).
The medium had some clear shortcomings. The moderators largely stayed on the sidelines and the government dominated the proceedings from Maduro’s forty minute opening and closing speechs to Jorge Arreaza’s editorial comments after each opposition speaker.
The opposition will likely pay a price for this vis-à-vis the skeptical opposition base carrying forward the protests (in fact it appears that the student protesters put out a call to shut down Caracas tomorrow in rejection of the dialogue.) Nevertheless, the optics were good for the opposition as they were able to sit across the table and present themselves as equals and as reasonable political actors (i.e. not fascists)..
Perhaps the biggest organizational shortcoming was the fact that each side had eleven speakers. As a result, instead of a sustained back and forth about specific issues, there were twenty two ten minute turns in which ambitious individuals were eager to make a mark. Most speakers covered the same issues without much depth.
One noticeable difference between the two sides was diversity. The government had a variety of classes, genders and colors while the opposition uniformly consisted of middle aged, light skinned men (I suppose with the exception of Andres Velasquez).
1:53 Maduro gets the first and last word. He runs through some statistics regarding the government’s achievements addressing hunger and inequality. Confirms that he supports the idea of another meeting on Tuesday. Calls for tolerance; calls for respect for collectives which are first and foremost community groups. Says stories of the collectives are the same stories regarding violence of Bolivarian Circles in 2002. Says he has condemned violence and they have legally pursued guilty parties. Affirms that they are not going to abandon their commitment to socialist revolution. Says he has invited students in to dialogue. Repeats invitation for Friday (to Federal Governing Council?). Says that Susan Rice, John Kerry and Roberta Jacobson have visited countries in the region saying Venezuela is headed for an economic collapse. He says there is nefarious plan to use sanctions against Venezuela. Ends by suggesting the need to consolidate a vision of coexistence.
1:10 Jorge Rodriguez with demagoguery and very little content. Focuses on opposition not recognizing the government.Emphasizes that principle entrepreneurs of the country have participated in dialogues.
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[After a three week hiatus in order to concentrate on another writing project, I’m back on the blog. I’d like to thank Hugo, Becca and Tim, as well as the folks at WOLA for picking up the slack while I was away.]
It sounds like a reality TV show aimed at highlighting dysfunction more than a high level dialogue aimed at peace. But today’s nationally televised meeting between the government and opposition is not without grounds for optimism. While the starting positions of each side do not look promising, the presence of third party moderators could provide some unexpected progress.
The opposition delegation will include Henrique Capriles, Henri Falcón and most likely Ramon Guillermo Aveledo. It was the opposition’s demand that the meeting be broadcast live on television. This most likely comes from their not inaccurate claim that their positions, arguments and events get little coverage given the government’s hegemony over broadcast media. They see this as a chance to get their message out to the country. As Capriles said yesterday “this is a historic opportunity to confront lies with the truth.”
However, the position of the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) is a complex one. The protest movement that has convulsed Venezuela over the past month was begun by radicalized segments of the opposition in defiance of the MUD. In December and January the leading opinion within the opposition was that the best strategy would be to let the government confront social and economic problems of its own making, do the grassroots organizing to grow their own coalition, and negotiate with the government where necessary.
A movement led by Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado rejected this path and pushed forward a movement whose main slogan was #lasalida. This was joined by the student movement from Venezuela’s autonomous universities.
López has since been put in jail and Machado has been pushed out of the National Assembly. Yet they have not become important symbols for the movement as many of us though they would. The protest movement has been carried forward by students with the support from the traditional middle class base of the opposition. It is striking how little the protestors even mention López, Machado or any opposition politicians.
Indeed HCR and the MUD have seemingly lost relevance, sometimes not appearing in the news for days at a time. In this sense the dialogue with the government provides an opportunity for them to make themselves relevant as leaders of the opposition coalition. But it is a complex terrain for them as they risk being seen as traitors by radicalized elements of the opposition who do not support dialogue.
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Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
On March 19, Carlos Ocariz, mayor of Caracas’ Sucre Municipality, launched an association of 76 opposition mayors called “Association of Mayors for Venezuela.” The group includes other prominent national and regional opposition figures such as Gerardo Blyde, Mayor of Baruta; Alfredo Barrios, Mayor of Irribaren; David Smolansky, Mayor of El Hatillo; and Antonio Ledezma, Mayor of Metropolitan Caracas.
According to the coalition of opposition parties Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) press release, the new association seems to have specific aims related to the current political juncture: “citizen security, violations of human rights, and criminalization of protests.” However, the fact that the announcement was made by Carlos Ocariz could be significant for future leadership struggles within the opposition. Ocariz belongs to Primero Justicia, the political party headed Henrique Capriles, the 2012 and 2013 opposition presidential candidate. Through grassroots community work in the poor barrios of Sucre, Ocariz has successfully countered the image of middle class lawyers so often attached to his party. Ocariz has remained a popular local leader and has not yet made the jump to national politics. Becoming the spokesperson of this new mayors’ association could provide him with a platform for national leadership.
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On Thursday afternoon, a Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) delegation, comprised of foreign ministers from the eleven member-states of UNASUR, published a statement on their two-day visit to Venezuela. The delegation stated that they recognized “a willingness to dialogue from all sectors, who manifested a need to moderate their language, generating a peaceful environment that favors conversations between the government and the country’s various political, economic, and social actors.” The delegation recognized a “firm rejection of the lamentable acts of recent violence by all sectors, condemning any rupture to the democratic order, and manifesting their commitment to respect all human rights.”
On the part of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the delegation stated that he displayed “an openness and willingness to accept the recommendations made, and he especially welcomes the participation of a witness of good faith to facilitate the dialogue between all parties.” The report concludes by stating that the UNASUR delegation will provide more information in the comingdays on its previous visit and additional recommendations for dialogue. Although we will not know for some time whether or not the government and opposition will come together with “a witness of good faith” or who that witness will be, UNASUR’s trip appears to have increased the prospects for dialogue between the two parties and illustrated a shared desire to end the violence.
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Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
The Programa Venezolano de Educación- Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA), Venezuela’s leading human rights group, has published its latest monthly International Bulletin corresponding to developments in February 2014. This edition of the Bulletin published in English deals with causes of the recent protests in Venezuela. PROVEA argues that the context of these protests is the economic difficulties faced by the country: high inflation and scarcity of basic products. High crime rates are also mentioned as part of the scenario in which the protests erupted.
PROVEA also blames the heavy-handed response by the government to student protests on February 4 in the city of San Cristobal as a direct cause that sparked the spreading unrest. That day students were protesting because of campus insecurity: “The campus [of the Táchira National University] was raided and the arrest of 6 students awoke solidarity from other institutions of higher education.”
The bulletin speaks of a “chain reaction” in which government repression led to more protests: “State action to restore public order has been characterized by a disproportionate use of force and firearms, tear gas and mistreatment of people who are arrested. We understand the State’s duty to act [against] violence; however, there are international and national rules on how to proceed without causing violations of human rights. Now and then the Government actions run [against] the constitutional democratic control of public demonstrations.”
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At least 3 people were killed over the weekend in Venezuela as protests continue. On Saturday, supporters and opponents of President Nicolás Maduro staged rival rallies in Caracas. Maduro claims that “fascist groups” caused the violence. He’s accused them of planning a coup against the government. He’s also accused the United States of orchestrating ongoing street demonstrations since February. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and moderator of the blog “Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights”, joins us from Caracas to discuss the ongoing social unrest.
PHOTO: (AP Photo/Esteban Felix) - Anti-government demonstrator stands with a tri-colored ribbon covering her mouth that reads “Venezuela” during a protest in front of an office of the Organization of American States, OAS, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 21, 2014.