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.
David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
The last minute removal of an article in Ultimas Noticias last weekend has generated a new round of controversy in Venezuelan media conglomerate Cadena Capriles. A press release from journalists association Colegio Nacional de Periodistas (CNP) recounts that the head of Ultimas Noticias’s investigative reporting unit, Tamoa Calzadilla quit her post in protest over censorship of the piece. (The unpublished article, already formatted can be read here.)
“They don’t need a person like me, they need a political operator,” declared Calzadilla, adding that editor Eleazar Díaz Rangel’s arguments for stopping the publication had been “political.” Fellow journalists at the Cadena Capriles (owner of Últimas Noticias, economics newspaper El Mundo, and sports paper Líder) staged a protest form their desks, continuing to work but putting up signs that read “Journalism First.”
Últimas Noticias is Venezuela’s largest daily newspaper. Its Director, Eleazar Díaz Rangel has generally supported the government from his personal column. But the newspaper has remained independent and often critical. The report published on its web page on February 13, showing police officers of the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (SEBIN) firing against protestors the day before, was perhaps the most important piece of investigative journalism done during this protest cycle. This report was based on analysis of cell phone videos and was put together precisely by the investigative unit headed by Calzadilla.
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In the early morning hours today, the National Guard occupied the Plaza Altamira and other parts of the Chacao Municipality (watch state television coverage here). This followed President Maduro’s ultimatum on Saturday for protestors to leave the plaza.
It is interesting to think how different this is from Hugo Chávez’s approach to the same plaza 11-12 years ago. Starting in late 2002 it was declared a “liberated zone” by dissenting military officers and served as the center of the opposition movement for months on end. They had monuments, a stage, and even held daily mass there.
People close to the Chávez government tell that when cabinet members suggested he remove the protesters by force he responded that they would instead let them “cook in their own sauce.” The story might be apocryphal, but Chávez in fact did not seek to dislodge the occupation and simply let it burn out.
However, Venezuela has been experiencing a progressive criminalization of protest over the past year, and during the past month has denied permits and repressed protests in a way it rarely did a decade ago (see, for example, human rights group Provea’s relatively positive assessment of the government’s respect for the right to protest in 2004, the first time “guarimba” tactics were used).
As the government struggles to keep the Chavista project on track—not only because of Maduro’s lack of charisma, but because of the inherent flaws of the economic and political model it inherited—it seems to be more willing to address protest with force.
Incredibly, the Maduro government tends to frame its actions in terms of pacification. When Maduro gave his ultimatum to protesters on Saturday he did so to the tune of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. One government official said the occupation of Chacao would allow it to be declared a “territory of peace.” The National Guard officer heading up the operation said it amounted to “a call for humanistic dialogue.”
El Universal has a list of 25 people who have died in the protests during the last month. Here are some quick tabulations.
(These numbers are slightly different from what I posted on Twitter a couple of hours ago since El Universal has updated its list. I have also recalculated and recounted leading to some corrections. I have omitted one person from the list since El Universal says no information on the death is available; thus my calculations are based on 24 deaths. Many of these reports are not fully confirmed. So the numbers could change as more investigations produce more information.)
*Among the dead are: 10 opposition activists, 4 government supporters, 7 citizens not participating in the protests, 3 National Guardsman.
*4 deaths are directly attributable to security forces, 12 from shots fired by unidentified gunmen. 6 have died in accidents caused by barricades, 2 in accidents occurring during the course of protests.
*Of the 12 shot by unidentified gunmen, 5 are opposition activists, 3 are government supporters, 3 are National Guardsmen and 1 is a nonparticipant.
I should say that I find categorizing deaths unpleasant and unfortunate. All of these deaths are equally tragic and it is important not to forget that behind the numbers are individuals and their grieving loved ones.
However, the numbers are easily distorted by people with partisan motivations. Thus being rigorous can improve accountability. If you think I got it wrong, let me know at: @dsmilde.
See also Jake Johnston’s frequent updates on CEPR’s blog.
“It makes no sense! You go into a Chavista’s house and Chávez and Maduro’s faces are everywhere but you open their fridge and it is empty! Empty!” This was the passionate reaction I received from an acquaintance I was chatting with yesterday when I commented that protests in Caracas have not seemed to receive support from popular sectors in the city.
His frustration came from seemingly inexplicable support for a government under whose watch food has become both more expensive and more difficult to find.
In the past year the large majority of Venezuelans have been hit hard by the food shortages this man was referencing. Indeed, it is specifically for this reason that some hoped protests would unite the country around common concerns and cross class lines.
Nevertheless, the protests have remained largely identified with the middle and upper classes, failing to gain traction in the popular sectors. Rather than uniting Venezuela it seems more likely that protests have deepened divisions and polarization.
Why have common concerns not produced cross-class concerted action here? Just last year we saw exactly this happen with Brazil’s “Spring of Unrest.”
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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.