Beyond The Cage: A Critical Eye On Venezuela's Opposition

An opposition march in Caracas on March 23
An opposition march in Caracas on March 23
Felippe Ramos

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!

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!