Venezuela: Opposition Protests Continue, President Maduro Supporters Come Out
From WBEZ Chicago’s WorldView: Protests continued on Monday in Caracas, with opposition members blocking off parts of Caracas and erecting barriers on major roads. Over the weekend hundreds of thousands of people also came out in support of the government of Nicolas Maduro. We’ll examine the demands of both sides with David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
On Friday the Washington Office on Latin America issued a press release calling on both the government and opposing protesters to seek dialogue.
It calls on the government to comply with international standards for the use of force in policing protest, and to not use the protests as a pretext to pursue political opponents.
It calls on government opponents to protest peacefully and make concrete demands the Maduro government can address.
I understand the rage. I understand how many expectations have been dashed by so many electoral campaigns. I understand the frustrations that have accumulated in a country that is divided into two parts that do not understand or communicate with each other.
This frustration and anguish have been worsened by a severe economic crisis—shortages of basic consumer goods and one of the highest inflation rates on the planet. The government blames this crisis on an “economic war” waged by merchants. The opposition blames the government’s economic policy for driving the country into a severe fiscal crisis, with high inflation and signs of recession, in a context of high oil prices.
The crisis is so severe that basic medicines for chronic diseases are hard to find. The world is amazed and amused by the fact that toilet paper is in short supply.
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Below is a written interview I did with Isabel Fleck of Folha de Sao Paolo.
How do you feel about the last demonstrations in Venezuela and the government’s response?
The demonstrations began with students supporting Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado’s #lasalida mobilization. Machado and Lopez do not agree with the opposition coalition’s (called the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica) strategy of trying to grow their constituency through longer term groundwork, nor with their willingness to dialogue with the government in January.
They want a more aggressive and immediate strategy because they feel the situation is unsustainable and that in a couple years’ time there will not be enough democratic liberties for them to fight for power.
They have successfully tapped into the discontent of middle class students. The first round of protests in the Andean states two weeks ago were small. However student protesters were arrested and this motivated protests in Caracas. The February 12 protest in Caracas was impressive but not massive by Venezuelan standards, approximately 10 thousand. Here again there was violence and arrests and this motivated protests every day since. The February 18 concentration in support of Leopoldo López brought together a larger segment of the opposition base and was even larger, probably 20-30 thousand.
The student protests as currently formulated have little chance of developing a strong cross-class alliance. Their themes are the typical themes of the Venezuelan middle class focusing on issues of liberty: freedom of expression, freedom to protest, democratic liberties, and economic opportunity. Images of Cuban dictatorship are important symbolic foils. However, Venezuela’s popular classes are more responsive to messages of equality and the fight against poverty.
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Leopoldo Lopez was, of course, arrested yesterday after a dramatic appearance at a massive opposition protest. The optics of the entire event were incredible, leading to photographs destined to become iconic.
While the previous protests largely consisted of students, this one brought together a broader swath of the opposition base. The age group was broader and this looked more like the protests of 2002-04.
While the situation looked grim early—with the government calling a march that effectively blocked off all paths the opposition could take to get to the Ministry of Interior and Justice, and the police cordoning off the Plaza Brion saying there was no permit for a concentration—the entire event was peaceful.
Both sides deserve some applause for adult behavior. The government, apparently Maduro himself, eventually allowed the opposition to fill the plaza saying it was clear that the concentration was pacific. Given the government’s parallel march, López said it would just be a concentration in order to avoid violence. The government also allowed López to ascend the statue of Jose Martí, give a 6 minute speech and turn himself in, in peace.
The arrest has generated a new round of protests in Caracas and has launched López into the spotlight as the new leader of the opposition.
I have previously said that this was an enormous miscalculation on the government’s part because it now gives the opposition a cause celebre, an iconic leader who could inspire a movement that could actually challenge the government, as did Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa or even Hugo Chávez in the 1990s.
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Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde
Today’s protest and speech by Leopoldo López was covered live by television news channel Globovisión. At least in part. Globovisión split their screen so that they could transmit the opposition protest and government march at the same time and also cut away from the speech before López was done.
This, however, was a significant improvement over media coverage of the violence during the February 12 march (see David’s comments in the Financial Times).
That day when the student’s protests turned increasingly violent, private television stations stopped their live coverage of the incidents. Globovisión, the news channel that used to be considered the main pro-opposition media but is now owned by a business group said to be close to the government, had initially given ample – but not live - coverage to the protests. But as soon as violence erupted in the afternoon, they switched to a fashion program.
Public television channels did not cover any of the opposition protests, concentrating instead on a government organized patriotic youth march commemorating the anniversary of La Victoria battle of the war of independence.
People with access to cable television services turned to the Colombia based news channel NTN24 for live coverage of the incidents. As violence erupted, the channel broadcasted videos reportedly filmed by protestors showing Venezuelan police officers firing on protestors. The government ordered cable providers to take NTN24 out of their grids. Viewers reported by twitter that by leaving the channel on it could still be viewed in Venezuela, but as soon as it was changed or the cable set turned off and on again, the image was lost. The web page of the channel was also blocked for access from Venezuela. But it was available live on Youtube.com.
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David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
The Venezuelan government is set to announce its new Pacification plan today. Maduro originally announced that the government would be developing a plan de pacificación in the wake of the Monica Spear murder. In December, before the Spear case, Maduro had already announced that he was working on an “enabling law for the pacification of Venezuela.”
Rodriguez Torres has announced that the new plan will absorb the previous Full Life Venezuela Mission. He did not however mention if the new plan will also incorporate the Plan Patria Segura which included the use of military personal for citizen’s security.
Development of the plan has come in tandem with consultations with mayors and governors nationwide. Interior Minister Rodriguez Torres has been meeting with State governors and city mayors, including opposition governors such Capriles, governor of Miranda State.
These security meetings have been the scene of well publicized handshakes between opposition leader Capriles and Maduro, Rodriguez Torres, and PSUV Mayor of Caracas Jorge Rodriguez. Criticized by opposition supporters for attending these meetings, Capriles argued that “we will work and meet with whoever we need to because security is a sacred issue. Violence does not care for your party affiliation. This problem is the responsibility of the central government, but we are here to collaborate and to be proactive so we can overcome this crisis…We have witnessed the Minister of Interior and Justice’s disposition and we hope it can produce good results.”
Nevertheless the term “pacification” has raised alarms among human rights activists.
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As is by now well known, the February 12 student protests in Caracas erupted into violence that left three people dead and a couple dozen others hurt. Two of the dead were from among the opposition students; one was from among government supporters.
In typical fashion, Venezuela’s polarized political forces have spent the past twenty-four hours accusing the other side of responsibility for the violence. On social media, each faction provides moving tributes to their fallen, while completely ignoring the dead on the other side. And in Venezuela few are interested in providing objective analysis and evidentiary standards are low.
From the available information can we make any progress in trying to understand Wednesday’s violence? I have no inside information either way, much less proof of a “smoking gun.” Here I am going to look at the set of political interests of the major actors and how they might be related to what we know happened.
What Interest Would Maduro Have in Violence?
Would organizing violence against an opposition march make sense for the Maduro government right now?
The Maduro government controls all branches of the national government and the majority of state and local governments. Most importantly, it controls the military, as well as the state oil company which is Venezuela’s main source of wealth. Two months ago it enjoyed a solid victory at the polls which effectively ended public questioning of its legitimacy. Finally, since the December elections the opposition has been beset with internal conflict and divided regarding what path it should take in the coming months and years.
Put differently, at least viewed from the outside, the Maduro government is not in a particularly vulnerable political position and it would make no sense in such a context for the government to organize violence against a modest student march (with a turnout of around 10,000 it was much bigger than recent protests, but by no means was it a big protest by Venezuelan standards). Violence that could be blamed on the government is perhaps the only thing that could unify the opposition at this point, and could provide an impetus for large-scale anti-government mobilization. Furthermore violence is bound to draw negative international attention, strengthening the “rogue state” narrative that critics have used to portray Venezuela during the past fifteen years.
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Rebecca Hanson and David Smilde
January saw an accentuation of the progressive remilitarization of citizen security under the Maduro government, with military officers placed at the head of the National Security University (UNES) and the National Police (PNB). These changes amount to a setback to citizen security reforms that have attempted to separate the military and the police since 2008.
Nevertheless, there have been a number of security announcements made in the past few weeks that suggest citizen security reform is not dead.
At the end of January the government announced an initiative called “Intelligent Patrolling.” It divides hot spot municipalities into more manageable quadrants in order to allow police officers and the People’s Guard (a branch of the National Guard) to respond more quickly and efficiently to reports of crime and emergencies. Particular police units have been assigned to these quadrants and are given corresponding telephone numbers that residents in that area can call for police attention. The plan has been implemented in six municipalities in Caracas, deploying 3,700 officers to 158 quadrants (for maps of these quadrants click here).
The Ministry of Interior and Justice argues that the plan is innovative in its “place-based” approach to policing and will result in faster police response time, more accurate information on when and where crimes take place, and improved strategies to deal with that crime.
Insiders suggest that while it is positive that the government has adopted the term “patrolling”—long a point of contention in Venezuela’s police reform—this initiative does not reflect an understanding of it. Rather, it simply adds cell phone numbers to the traditional stationary checkpoint approach—some have called the plan “alcalbala inteligente.” Furthermore, the initiative can only work if people actually call the police. The fact that many Venezuelans think that reporting crimes is either futile or dangerous could be a major impediment.
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Over the past few weeks, US and Venezuelan government officials have voiced openness to normalizing relations. However, the US State Department’s reaction to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States’ (CELAC) final declaration at their recent summit has resulted in a critical response from the Venezuelan government, illustrating how complicated restoring their relationship will be.
Since September 2008, Venezuela and the US have not had official diplomatic relations. Attempts to repair relations in June broke down when Samantha Power characterized Venezuela as a “repressive regime” during her Senate confirmation hearings to become US ambassador the United Nations (UN).
The CELAC held a two-day summit in Havana, Cuba, on January 28-29 that included government leaders from 33 Latin American and Caribbeans nations included in the CELAC as well as observers from several international organizations, including José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, and Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN. The summit ended with Cuban President Raúl Castro reading a 16-page declaration that described the region as a “zone of peace” and covered issues ranging from the eradication of poverty and hunger to criticism of the US economic embargo against Cuba and its inclusion of Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In response to the declaration, a US State Department spokesman speaking under anonymity referred to the organization’s final declaration as “particularly inexplicable” and stated that the US is “disappointed that the CELAC, in its final declaration, betrayed the region’s outspoken commitment to democratic principles, as it endorsed the single-party system in Cuba.”
On Cuban television, President Nicolás Maduro responded to the US, stating that the ”bitterness in the declaration of the State Department, who insolently tells a continent that we are” traitors,” they should swallow their statement, because Latin America will continue its course in peace, with tranquility, and in diversity and a unified way.”
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