Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights

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On the López Arrest, Violence and the Prospects for #LaSalida

David Smilde

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.

One colleague of mine, himself a former military man, agreed with my suggestion that violence in protests and arresting López are not in the rational interests of the government, but pointed out that with the number of military officers in high positions, normal standards of political rationality might not be the right yard stick. He suggested that the military men in the government are not politically sophisticated and tend to think in terms of force not reason. Assumptions of miscalculation should accompany assumptions of rational interests when analyzing the Maduro government.

But other interlocutors suggested that the government is not miscalculating, since it likely sees value in having López at the head of the opposition. The Maduro government has trouble with day-to-day governance, but does much better in confrontation. Indeed one insider tells me that within the government there is a sense that the protests give them some breathing room vis-à-vis the much more difficult economic issues. He also suggests that US State Department statements were useful to the government as well.

Tuesday’s events, including the government’s willingness to allow López to make a speech before turning himself in, suggest the government does see the ascension of López as an opportunity.

Having gone to a couple of protests I can affirm that as currently formulated they have little possibility of extending beyond the educated middle classes. These are mainly student protests focusing on issues of liberty—most particularly in favor of the freedom of expression and against the criminalization of protest. In and of themselves they present little danger of becoming widespread and cross-class.

Furthermore, listening to López’s speeches (watch the speech in plaza here. Watch prerecorded video here), it is clear that this movement is energizing the opposition base in a way they haven’t been in 8 years. But there seems to be little effort to reach out to disgruntled Chavistas, or broaden the message towards issues of equality and poverty reduction that might mobilize a broader coalition.

Nor does he provide any clear diagnosis or vision of the country. He runs through the problems people face—crime, corruption, inflation, scarcities—but there is no discursive work with images of democracy, socialism, liberalism, Venezuela, Latin America that might make meaningful the situations Venezuelans are experiencing.

Rather the speeches provide clear images of a corrupt and violent government that “Venezuelans” can defeat if they rise up and actively resist it.

It is doubtful that the government actively sought this confrontation. But it does seem likely that they see López as a desirable opponent that is unlikely to put together a majority against Chavismo.  Nevertheless, there are a couple of ways this could get away from the government.

First, the violence that protestors have suffered has the potential to turn domestic and international supporters against it.

Caracas newspaper Ultimas Noticias released a video investigation piecing together the shots that killed Bassil Dacosta (witnesses say Juan Montoya was also killed by the same officers). What is clear from it is that it was SEBIN (intelligence police force) and plainclothes gunmen with them (most likely SEBIN officers as well) that fired on the protestors. There are a couple of important points here.

Not only is the SEBIN under the authority of the Ministry of Interior and Justice, but the Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres was Director of the SEBIN for 9 years until last month and still apparently closely controls them. He is one of the most important figures in Maduro’s cabinet and some clear answers need to be provided.

On national television last night Maduro suggested that a group of SEBIN ignored orders to stay in their barracks and did not have authorization to be there. There is also apparently one detained. But anything less than a transparent and effective investigation will suggest that this was something more than insubordinate SEBIN officers since several of them were filmed firing and their faces, motorcycles and license plates are clear.

In the past couple of days Maduro has removed the head of the SEBIN. However that is not enough. Preliminary information suggest that one of those involved was one of Rodriguez Torres’ bodyguards and that relationship has to be clarified.

Yesterday there was more violence, this time in Valencia. There opposition protestors were hit by gunfire and a beauty queen was shot in the head. She died today. Here as well it appears to have been men on motorcycles who did the shooting. And earlier today, strongly anti-Maduro priest Jose Palmar was seriously injured in Maracaibo apparently by the National Guard and the Zulia state police.

In contrast to Venezuela’s serious problem with street crime for which the government does not traditionally pay a political price, for this kind of repression it will. At best it reveals a government that cannot control its guns. At worst it reveals a government that is as violent as its opponents have long claimed.

The second way this could get away from the government is if there is a serious economic crisis in the coming months. The economy is in critical condition as the tacit devaluation of Venezuela’s inflated currency was not enough to address the fundamental problems: a scarcity of dollars and the goods the import, combined with an ever expanding monetary supply. If Venezuela experiences a serious economic meltdown, the opposition movement could grow despite not making any efforts to reach beyond its traditional base.

Filed under Leopoldo lopez maduro government Protests

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