The battle at hand on the streets of Caracas and beyond may be more fractured than it first appears.
Much of the international media has been reporting on the unrest in Venezuela from the perspective of the anti-government protesters. Inside Venezuela, the pro-government press is standing behind President Nicolas Maduro. Here is a very different view of events, in seven key points:
1. Insults and incitement: The country’s latest round of unrest began when a march was pushed on the major social networking sites for Feb. 12, with themes like “Get Maduro Out” and “End the Dictatorship Once and For All.” There were also calls to release certain students detained earlier for obvious acts of vandalism.
The Feb. 12 march was indeed well-attended. Right-wing speakers began heating up the crowd with such “peaceful” calls as, “We're going to rise against this government,” and “This government will fall.” Then there were more unpleasant utterances by those calling Maduro a “damned Colombian,” a reference to longstanding rumors that Maduro may have been born in Colombia. Nevertheless, the event featured no physical confrontations, and after some vigorous shouting outside the offices of the Public Ministry — the state prosecution agency — people began to disperse.
2. A violent turn: The government’s strategy not to obstruct the march assured a peaceful protest. While most of the opposition must have been pleased to recover their morale this way after their dramatic defeat in the December municipal elections, the most radical wing of the Right — the Voluntad Popular party led by Leopoldo López — had to recover some of the prominence lost to the former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, increasingly seen by some as too moderate.
And so, a tiny group of protesters started taking out their gear: face masks, Molotov cocktails, firearms and a small arsenal they began distributing in parts of central Caracas. It was clearly planned beforehand.
In an instant, a march that had “concluded” became a violent siege of the Public Ministry, as elements began burning kiosks, raising barricades and shooting. Masked individuals and a group of youth tried to burn five vans belonging to the state security police, the SEBIN. With the unexplained absence or riot police, certain protesters entered clearly defined security zones, and the SEBIN intervened, with firearms. That is when three protesters died.
3. Discontent of radical anti-communists: The economic situation is bad. Yet marchers bore no placards with economic slogans or anything relating to wages or public services. They were demanding more liberty (liberalism), less government intervention in private companies (liberalism) and the resignation of the communist tyrant. The anger appeared directed at the usurpation of power by “Cuba’s lower-class sympathizers.” The most elegant protesters were saying this regime was just “hoi polloi” leading Venezuela to ruin.
While none of the protesters know what socialism is, many were protesting against a “Castro-communist” dictatorship they blamed for all shortages, from toilet paper, to soap to food etc. Their solution seems simply to return to the “good old days” of cheap and plentiful products, under the private sector’s unfettered sway. Their ignorance has made them forget episodes of rampant inflation in past years, as they naively insist the government is plotting to pummel our noble businessmen with regulations.
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A file photo of the Leopoldo Lopez, who is driving the latest protests (Daniel Dominguez19)
4. An upmarket uprising: It’s notable that student protesters have been most active in some of the wealthiest districts, like Chacao outside Caracas. The mayor of Chacao, Ramón Muchacho, a firm government opponent, has already called them “very aggressive” and characterized them as an increasing nuisance to residents.
5. Sterility of right-wing vandalism: Conservative leaders have, in time, distanced themselves from violent postures. They are moving away from the idea of toppling the government by banging pots and pans — or city furniture. Now they say these were the acts not of daring protesters, but of “infiltrators.” Yet the government’s soft approach to these infantile “subversives” seems to foment more of the impunity the extreme Right enjoys in Venezuela. Especially when we compare its response to the shocking violence police have used against certain recent, much smaller, protests by Marxist groups and striking workers.
6. Leopoldo López exploits right-wing indignation: Leopoldo López challenged the state by turning his own arrest into a public spectacle, but implicitly recognized the Bolivarian president’s authority by making apparently moderate demands: for the release of students, disarming of government militias, and assuring protest rights. Leaving the government to decide whether it will imprison him and turn him into a “temporary martyr” while imposing its authority, or absolve Leopoldo of his responsibilities and further boost right-wing impunity.
7. It's economics, stupid: There is no “economic war” against the state, but the government’s inability to perceive real economic problems is pushing it toward a useless dialogue with those who want to overthrow it. The government thinks there are “patriotic” business sectors that will renounce the extraordinary profits to be had through fraudulent importations and currency speculation. It seems the heirs of Hugo Chávez cannot conceive of a country without the 400,000 capitalists who control 60% of GDP and leave the rest to 13 million workers. There is no reason why workers should accept this or assertions by the most “anti-worker” sectors of the government that “any protest is anti-revolutionary.”
The working class cannot make sacrifices so the government can make pacts with capitalists, but fight for an alternative program to any neo-liberal adjustments. What we must propose are radical measures, to audit and suspend internal and foreign debt payments, for example, or nationalize banking. This is what will block the attempts to worsen our living conditions to save the profits of a bunch of parasites.
*Manuel Sutherland is research coordinator at the Center for Education Workers of Venezuela (CIFOs) and works for the Association Marxist Economists in Latin America (GER).