CARACAS — The rigid black-and-white vision of a Venezuela divided between government supporters and opponents obstructs any understanding of the multiple identities that have emerged since the start of mass anti-government protests in February. For those looking in from the outside, the media have presented a veritable caricature of events.
The situation reminds me of the domesticated bird cited by Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, which imagines the universe as all it can see in and around its cage.
Talking to some young, middle-class protesters in the Plaza Altamira in Caracas — one of the focal points of the protests — it seemed they sincerely believed that all of Venezuela opposed the government, except for a “minority,” which they said had vested economic interests in the current government.
Such an arguably limited or distorted reality was inevitably “amplified” with the help of international press coverage, including those of Brazil's TV Globo or Folha de Sao Paulo that reported scenes of death, rioting and arrests, depicting a picture of desperation and repression.
Caracas was at a standstill, they stated, and “the regime” was busy censoring the media.
This kind of reporting was so potent I myself felt infected by its terrible tenor. Yet on the days when I ventured out further from the Altamira sector, it was evident that elsewhere in Caracas, most people were getting on with their daily lives. Admittedly, amid more dirt and litter, with increased police and troops on the streets. And some days, amid tension and the banging of pots and pans.
Scenes of normalcy
This great detail — the state of normality in most of Caracas — went unnoticed both by the young protesters in Altamira and the foreign media. They seemed to have missed the children I saw playing in the Plaza Bolívar, in the heart of the capital. Or the families crossing an opposition march to go join the carnival in central Caracas. I found myself engaged in an absurd Twitter conversation with a Brazilian reporter writing that the “regime” had blocked the social platform, and nobody could use it — though the whole back-and-forth was conducted via very public tweets!
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The Plaza Bolivar in Caracas — Photo: Jove
The picture of a country in flames was fabricated. The flames were just right outside the bird’s little cage. The press and those young protesters could only see the opposition march — no children, no moms, no carnival.
A government will not fall if a large part of the population is getting on with normal life 200 meters from a protest. Or when these people believe that, despite their discontent, it is better to keep a government they know than pay an unknown price for change.
Professor Robert A. Dahl created the concept of an intense minority, referring to a sector of society that is a minority in numbers, but cohesive and organized. There is an intense minority of opponents in Venezuela who hate the government but have failed to vote it out over the past 15 years. It encompasses people ranging from middle-class students to the conservative elderly, and sees politicians Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado as its leaders. A measure of its minority status is that Machado won 3.7% of the vote in primary elections for an opposition presidential candidate in 2012.
Its reactionary and sectarian nature has caused unease in the extensive opposition coalition that includes businessmen and the now-moderated, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
Yet while the left-wing ideology known as Chavismo has won a string of electoral victories, it seems to lack the symbolic hegemony. The intense minorities have managed to deprive Chavismo of political legitimacy, through an internationally accepted discourse depicting the government as a dictatorship. This minority insists that votes are not enough for a democracy, and I agree, just as suppression of protests is not enough to create an “authoritarian regime.” Think of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, when police arrested 700 on one occasion, or police brutality reported in the UK in response to riots in 2011, or similar situations in Spain or Greece. Nobody spoke there of authoritarian states.
Separately, certain characteristics of the Bolivarian presidency — like the visible participation of the military — have alienated it from former supporters and many on the left. It is difficult for leftist intellectuals in Latin America, with its history of coups, to understand and back a left-wing government with militaristic features.
The Venezuelan government has overcome recent political challenges and is in the day-after phase. With a gradual return to political stability and possible recognition of a lawful opposition, it could then attend to the dire economic problems affecting opponents and supporters alike. It is time to go beyond the caged bird's little world.