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What’s Really Happening in Venezuela?

Caracas, February 16, 2014.

Venezuela’s traditional “Youth Day” fell on Wednesday of last week, and President Nicolás Maduro’s 10-month-old government had planned a sizable celebration in the city of La Victoria (Aragua State) where exactly 200 years ago to the day the national hero José Félix Ribas led a youth militia against the royalist army. The celebration included new monuments, military marches, a special light show, and performances by the youth orchestra – all in a triumphalist spirit that was understandable given the electoral victories of last year. These victories establish what one analyst calls “an electoral plateau” during the upcoming two years: a period in which, without being distracted by campaigns, the new President and cabinet can concentrate on governing until late 2015.

Yet on that day Maduro made a serious error of judgment. Celebrating in Aragua, he had left his rearguard exposed in Caracas, while at the same time underestimating the opposition’s desperation and willingness to resort to violence. In the capital city, the opposition had organized its own youth march, composed largely of white, middle-class students, drawn from the private universities. Near the end of the day a group of these protesters turned violent, attacking the Attorney General’s offices in the city center with stones, bricks, and Molotov cocktails. When night had fallen, three people lay dead and a great many more were wounded, among the latter a significant number of the new human-rights-trained police.

President Maduro’s response to these events could be called “multilevel,” but perhaps is more accurately described as shotgun-style. He continued with the ceremonies in La Victoria, hesitant to abandon them on short notice. Then, at around 8 pm, he addressed the nation on television – as he would do on the following days – indicating that those responsible for the violent acts were small fascist groups; that there was a coup attempt in process; adding later that the intellectual authors of the violence were the ex-mayor Leopoldo López and to a lesser degree the congresswoman María Corina Machado. Maduro also tried to associate the state’s response to this situation with a new government-organized pacification movement Por La Vida y Por La Paz, that is directed against criminal violence.

The incongruent elements in the President’s message were readily apparent. If the responsible parties are really isolated fascist groups, how can they hope to carry out a successful coup d’état? Again, since the events of Wednesday constitute political violence, why respond to it with a movement that is specifically directed against criminalviolence? In fact, it is unlikely that there could be a coup under way in Venezuela in the near future, because the violent groups are too small and do not have the support of the military (as even the Washington Post article of the following day begrudgingly admitted). This raises the question of what the opposition groups, who continued to create disturbances over the weekend, are really trying to achieve.

To answer this question one must attempt to understand both the general situation of the country at the beginning of this new year and that of the opposition in particular. Following its electoral defeat last December, the Venezuelan right-wing is more divided and weaker in numbers than it has been for some time. On the other hand, within the Bolivarian movement there is considerable discontent due to the dire economic situation (a combined result of the global crisis and a local economic sabotage orchestrated by the bourgeoisie). This means that the opposition is surely thinking about the middle and long run: How to maintain itself as a reference during the upcoming two-year plateau? Who will be its key leaders? Is it possible to attract disgruntled Chavistas into its flagging ranks?

From this emerges the strategy of Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado, whom Maduro is correct in pointing to as masterminding the violence. These two are seasoned politicians, closely advised by the White House, and cannot be so foolish as to suppose that the televised image of white university students attacking the police and burning public property will become a reference for any significant part of the Chavist majority – a majority that, however unhappy it may be about waiting in lines to buy milk, is endowed with considerable political consciousness. Yet these right-wing ringleaders are not mistaken in thinking that, through violent street actions, they could salvage the opposition as some kind of political reference, nationally and internationally, and perhaps enhance their own leadership within its files.

They are playing a dirty and dangerous game. If the term fascism is abstracted from the accidental features of its historical manifestations and used more broadly to identify a movement that captures sectors of the middle and working class for a pro-imperialist project – a movement that is often racist and always willing to disregard democratic results – then President Maduro is correct in calling the key actors on Wednesday fascists. Yet for this very reason the President is himself embarking on a dangerous game. His idea of attracting right-wing but more democratically-inclined forces (such as the media magnate Gustavo Cisneros) to his side brings with it two very serious dangers.

The first of these is that – along with Maduro’s pet project of cultivating celebrity allies – this new move is likely to confuse his political bases. Second and just as important, “democratic imperialisms” and “democratic right-wingers” are extremely treacherous allies in the struggle against fascism. History has shown that the democratic bourgeoisie is as effective as a curse in the fight against the violent members of its own class; a curse can deal veritable death blows – Voltaire reminds us – when accompanied by a sufficient amount of arsenic (i.e. working class effort). It is clear that Maduro wants to be a “normal” president: a president who inaugurates monuments, attends religious services, and appears with the First Lady Cilia Flores. Similarly, he wants to imitate Chávez in his last years when after many hard-won battles the initiator of the Bolivarian process had the opposition thoroughly in check. All this is understandable. But having the opposition under control is not inherited with the Presidential sash, and Maduro’s wish to be a “normal” president indicates a grave misunderstanding of his historical moment.

All evidence points to how the unpopular opposition, though fighting from the ropes, is in fact thinking about the middle and long run. Maduro needs to do the same. He has publicly called for the detention of the chief fascist instigator López, but he needs to go further and actually detain him (the international mass media will satanize his government regardless). Since losing power in the short run is not really a possibility, the real question for this still green leader of the Bolivarian process is: After two or three years of brushing elbows with celebrities, praising democratic businessmen, and looking for right-wing allies in the struggle against criminal and political violence, what will be left of the firm political base that Chávez bequeathed him, a base that is instinctively anti-fascist and believes in socialism? Maduro has correctly named his enemy: fascism. For that very reason he must avoid at all costs the vacillating attitudes of the left during the Weimar Republic, which long ago showed their tragic ineffectiveness.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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