Images forge reality, granting a power to television and video and even still photographs that can burrow deep into people’s consciousness without them even knowing it. With a wide variety of sources and people on the ground to talk to, I thought I was immune to the repetitious portrayals of Venezuela as a failed state in the throes of a popular rebellion. But even I was not prepared for what I saw in Caracas: how little of daily life appeared to be affected by the protests, the normality that prevailed in the vast majority of the city. I, too, had been taken in by media imagery.
Major media outlets have reported that Venezuela’s poor have not joined the right-wing opposition protests, but that is an understatement. It’s not just the poor who are abstaining – in Caracas it is almost everyone outside of a few rich areas like Altamira where small groups of protesters engage in nightly battles with security forces, throwing rocks and firebombs and running from tear gas.
Walking from the working class neighborhood of Sabana Grande to the city center, there is no sign that Venezuela is in the grip of a “crisis” that requires intervention from the Organization of American States (OAS). The metro also runs very well – much better than in Washington DC, and at a tiny fraction of the price — although I couldn’t get off at Alta Mira station, where the rebels had set up their base of operations at Alta Mira square until their eviction this week.
I got my first glimpse of the barricades in Los Palos Grandes, an upper-income area where the protesters do have popular support, and neighbors will yell at anyone trying to remove the barricades – which is a risky thing to attempt (at least four people have apparently been shot dead for doing so). But even here, some traffic is snarled but life is otherwise pretty normal. On the weekend the Parque del Este is full with families and runners sweating in the 90 degree heat – before Chávez, you had to pay to get in, and the residents here, I am told, were disappointed when the less well-to-do were allowed to enter for free. The restaurants are also crowded at night.
Travel in general provides little more than a reality check, and I went there mainly to gather data on the economy. But I came away skeptical of the idea, reported daily in the media, that increasing shortages of basic foods and consumer goods are a serious motivation for the protests. The people who are most inconvenienced by the shortages are the poor and working classes. The residents of Los Palos Grandes and Altamira have servants to stand in line and look around town for what they need, and they have the income and storage space to accumulate some inventory. These people are not hurting; in fact they are doing very well. Their income, not just that of the poor, has grown at a healthy pace since the Chávez government got control of the oil industry a decade ago. They even get an expensive handout from the government: anyone with a credit card (which excludes the poor and millions of working people) is entitled to $3000 per year at the subsidized exchange rate of 11.8 per dollar (until recently it was 6.3). They can then sell the dollars for 6 times what they paid. A multi-billion dollar annual subsidy for the privileged – yet it is they who are supplying the base and the troops of the rebellion.
The class nature of this fight is stark and inescapable. Walking past a crowd of tens of thousands of people who showed up for the ceremonies on March 5 to mark the anniversary of Chávez’s death, it was a sea of working class Venezuelans. There were no expensive clothing or $300 shoes. What a contrast to the disgruntled masses of Los Palos Grandes, with $40,000 Grand Cherokee Jeeps bearing the slogan “SOS Venezuela.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry knows which side of the class war he is on in Venezuela. Last week he doubled down in his fusillade of rhetoric against the government, accusing President Nicolás Maduro of waging “a terror campaign against his own people.” He also threatened to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the OAS against Venezuela, as well as implementing sanctions.
Brandishing the Democratic Charter is a bit like threatening Vladimir Putin with a U.N.-sponsored vote on secession in Crimea. Perhaps Kerry didn’t notice, but just a few days before his threats, the OAS took a resolution that Washington brought against Venezuela and turned it inside out, declaring the regional body’s “solidarity” with the Maduro government. Twenty-nine countries approved it, with only the right-wing governments of Panama and Canada siding with the U.S. against it.
Article 21 of the OAS’ Democratic Charter applies to the “unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order of a member state” (e.g. like the 2009 military coup in Honduras that Washington helped to legitimize, or the 2002 military coup in Venezuela, aided even more by the U.S. government). Given its recent vote, the OAS would be more likely to invoke the Democratic Charter against the U.S. government for its drone killings of U.S. citizens without trial, than it would be to do so against Venezuela .
Kerry’s “terror campaign” rhetoric is equally divorced from reality, and predictably provoked an equivalent response from Venezuela’s foreign minister, who called Kerry a murderer. With regard to Kerry’s charges, since the protests began it appears that more people have died at the hands of protesters than security forces. In addition to those killed for trying to remove protesters’ barricades, about seven have apparently been killed by protesters’ obstructions (e.g. a motorcyclist beheaded by a wire stretched across the road); and five National Guard officers have been killed.
As for violence from law enforcement, five people appear to have been killed by the National Guard or other security forces – including three protesters and one pro-government activist. Some people blame the government for an additional three or four killings by armed civilians; but there is no evidence of government involvement, and in a country with an average of more than 65 homicides per day, it is much more likely that these people acted on their own.
As of today, 21 members of the security forces are under arrest for alleged abuses, including some of the killings mentioned above. This does not look like a “campaign of terror” by the government.
At the same time, it is difficult to find any serious denunciation of opposition violence from major opposition leaders. Polling data finds the protests to be deeply unpopular in Venezuela, although they do much better abroad when they are promoted as “peaceful protests” by people like Kerry. The data also suggest that a majority of Venezuelan’s see this for what it is, an attempt to remove the elected government from power.
The domestic politics of Kerry’s posturing are pretty simple. On the one side you have the right-wing Florida Cuban-American lobby and their neo-conservative allies screaming for overthrow. To the left of the far right there is, well, nothing. The White House cares very little about Latin America and there are no electoral consequences to making most of the governments in the hemisphere more disgusted with Washington.
Perhaps Kerry thinks that the Venezuelan economy is going to collapse and that will bring some of the non-rich Venezuelans into the streets against the government. But the economic situation is actually stabilizing – monthly inflation fell in February, and the black market dollar has fallen sharply on the news that the government is introducing a new market-based exchange rate. Venezuela’s sovereign bonds returned 11.5 percent from February 11 (the day before the protests began) to March 13, the highest returns in the Bloomberg dollar emerging market bond index. Shortages will most likely ease in the coming weeks and months.
Of course that is the opposition’s main problem. The next election is a year-and-a-half away, and by that time it is likely that the problems of shortages and inflation that have increased over the past 15 months will have abated. The opposition will then probably lose the parliamentary elections, as they have lost every election over the past 15 years. But their current insurrectionary strategy is not helping them: it seems to have divided the opposition and united the Chavistas. Only in Washington does it seem to have gathered the broad support that it is seeking.
Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.
This essay originally ran in the Guardian.