The ongoing unrest in Venezuela has been portrayed abroad as a conflict between Venezuelan citizens and an increasingly desperate government that has resorted to massive human rights abuses to maintain its hold on power. That depiction both oversimplifies and distorts the issues at play.
Since early February, Venezuela has been affected by a cycle of protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. The government and groups sympathetic to the government have responded to the protests with force. At least 20 people have died in the ensuing conflict—mainly because of violence by government agents and pro-government groups but also from the actions of the protesters—and hundreds have been arrested. While it looked like the protests would diminish last week, at this time it is not clear they will.
The Maduro government has begun a series of “peace conferences” to address some of the issues protesters have raised. However, the opposition has maintained its distance from these overtures.
In the following, I will address some common questions we have been receiving at WOLA.
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Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
Since the end of February, Capriles has been pushing for ten points that, he argues, should set the opposition’s agenda for negotiations with the government.
The points include the release of all the detainees for “political causes,” including figures such as Leopoldo López and Iván Simonivis; the dismantlement of the “paramilitary” groups (meaning the pro-government colectivos); a stop to the criminalization of peaceful protests and human rights violations, torture, and repression; the selection of a mediator (the Catholic Church is proposed as possible candidate); and the removal of “politics and the Cuban government from the armed forces.”
This mixture of general and concrete points is an attempt to provide the protests with clear objectives without asking for la salida (the exit or the solution) that more radical leaders are pushing for. Capriles has recently stated that the main, and presumably a priori, pointsfor negotiations would be the release of those arrested “for political causes” and the disarming of the colectivos. The government has been freeing students arrested during the protests, but the release of López and Simonovis, and the disarmament of the colectivos, seem unlikely in the short term.
Capriles has also proposed the organization of a new grassroots movement around what he calls Comandos de Defensa del Pueblo. On paper, these groups would transcend party lines and divisions and instead focus on the solution of community problems such as “citizen’s security, goods shortages, roads, public services, among others.” This is also a departure from the confrontational opposition strategy of recent protests. Instead Capriles, and other leaders from his party Primero Justicia such as Carlos Ocariz and Julio Borges, have insisted that the opposition should focus on grassroots work and mobilization in order to build a wider electoral base.
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Listen to my Spanish language interview with Paula Estañol of RFI.
On Sunday student leaders released a document constituting the Junta Patriotica Estudiantil y Popular (JPEP) and focusing on issues of individual liberty. The goal of the JPEP is “to return liberty and sovereignty to Venezuela.” The document says “dialogue is not possible with a populist and totalitarian regime.” The possibility of dialogue depends on “a root change in the political system.”
The statement underlines the middle class character of the student protest movement. There are no mentions of issues such as equality or poverty reduction that could grow the movement beyond its traditional base. Indeed there is no mention of the larger issues said to be animating these protest: inflation, scarcities and crime.
I have a lot of sympathy with the students’ emphasis on individual liberties. However in political terms the statement reveals how little progress the opposition base has made in understanding what it will take to grow their coalition. The last fifteen years have shown that if Venezuelans have to chose between liberty and equality the latter will usually win out. Thus the art of politics in a context characterized by large scale poverty is in proposing solutions to inequality that at the same time preserve liberty.
The violent protests that have rocked Venezuela this month provide the central theme this week on Latin Pulse. The program analyzes the politics of both the opposition and the government of President Nicolas Maduro. In reflection, the program also looks at the legacy of the late President Hugo Chavez who died almost a year ago. The news segment of the program covers the latest in the Drug War in Mexico with the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. The program also includes a commentary about telenovelas and machismo.
The program includes in-depth interviews with:
David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the University of Georgia; and
Julia Buxton of Central European University.
One video’s journey across Latin American protest movements underscores the challenge of monitoring activism online.
Guest blog by Madeleine Bair and Vienna Maglio
Last Friday, the end of a week in which mass protests in Venezuela resulted in hundreds of arrests and five deaths, a new YouTube video circulated among Venezuelan social media networks showing police officers spraying a water cannon at a young man tied to a tree. The title described in Spanish the GNB—part of Venezuela’s armed forces—torturing a student in Táchira, a state along the Colombian border where clashes have been especially violent.
The problem was, the Human Rights Channel had seen this video before. The same footage circulated among Colombian activists early this year.
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On Thursday, February 27, Venezuela Politics and Human Rights Blog Moderator David Smilde will discuss the current situation in Venezuela in the context of the one-year anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Washington Office on Latin America
1666 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 400
Washington, D.C. 20009
To view the event via livestream, click the video below
March 5 will mark the first anniversary of the death of Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to cancer after 14 years as president of Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, won office in a contested election in April 2013. President Maduro received a boost from the strong showing of the government’s candidates in the December 2013 regional elections. But Maduro now faces significant street mobilization against his government. After nearly a year in power, how is Maduro managing the considerable challenges facing the country, including economic woes and violent crime, as well as recent street protests? After their setback in the December elections, what are the strategies and prospects of the political opposition? What does the continuing polarization of the country’s politics mean for ordinary Venezuelans? Please join David Smilde and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) for a timely and in-depth discussion of Venezuela after Chávez.
In today’s Latin America Advisor, David Smilde and other experts respond to questions about the ongoing protests in Venezuela. To read the article in its original context, please click here.
Latin America Advisor: Deadly protests, the largest since President Nicolás Maduro’s election last year, have wracked Venezuela in recent weeks. The demonstrations were punctuated on Feb. 18 by the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who had been organizing the protests. Why did these protests erupt now, and why did they turn deadly this time? Does the situation pose a threat to Maduro’s government? How will López’s jailing affect the opposition?
David Smilde: Like any protest wave, the sources are multiple. The basic motor of these protests has been students, protesting against the criminalization of protest and in favor of freedom of expression. The movement was latched on to and fueled by radical elements of the opposition who were not in agreement with their coalition’s more moderate line aimed at growing the opposition coalition and negotiating with the government. Leopoldo López and others pushed forward with street protests seeking Maduro’s resignation. In a couple of the protests, larger swaths of the opposition base have hit the streets to raise their voices as well. Protests in Venezuela frequently involve violence. Protestors themselves engage in (usually non-lethal) violence. The National Guard, which works to control the protests, has inconsistent professional standards. Mix that in with pro-government but semi-autonomous armed collectives, and it is a perfect recipe for violence. I doubt it was ordered from the top, but suggestions made by Maduro and Chavista governors about the defense of the revolution can easily be interpreted by followers as a green light for violence. The government could control it by sending crystal-clear messages to its followers and making sure that security forces work protests without lethal weaponry. The protests seem to be dying down and are focusing on ‘guarimba’ tactics in which small groups of people block off streets to disrupt daily life. They likely will not end as long as the government and government supporters continue to repress them. At the present the protest movement is really leading the actions of opposition politicians rather than the other way around.
Images of burning tires, masked youth, and clashes between citizens and state security forces have accompanied almost all news coverage of Venezuela for the past few weeks. And these well-documented protests and the government response to them have, as blogger Francisco Toro wrote, changed the political game in Venezuela for the foreseeable future.
To fully appreciate these changes, however, we need to also appreciate the geographical limits of the opposition protests. Taking into account where protests are not occurring, and why, is important in understanding what they represent for residents who do not live in the zones where protests have erupted.
These protests have not engulfed the entire country or even the entire capital, despite coverage and photographs that might suggest otherwise. Recent articles in Ultimas Noticias have declared the western side of the city, which normally grabs headlines for its high homicide rates, as tranquil and quiet in comparison to the east.
I live and conduct research in Catia, a massive grouping of working and lower-class barrios in the western section of the city that have long been considered a Chavista stronghold. Though I had heard about the violence that erupted on Youth Day, when clashes first came to a head in Caracas, I had to go into the city center to find evidence of protests: A grouping of National Guard and National Police officers blocking the Avenue Francisco de Miranda in Chacaito, looking bored and tired by 8 o’clock at night.
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