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US Secretary of State John Kerry recently called on the Venezuelan government to end the “terror campaign against its own citizens.” Kerry’s words are just the latest in US and mainstream media efforts to portray the month-long protests in Venezuela as peaceful popular demonstrations against an authoritarian regime that has resorted to repression to quell the uprisings. As a result, the Venezuelan government, as Kerry’s statement illustrates, is being blamed for most of the 28 deaths that have occurred. But is this portrayal accurate? A closer look at the reality on the ground paints a very different picture. From the beginning, the protesters have been armed, have conducted widespread arson and have been intent on achieving the unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically-elected government.
The protests in Venezuela have primarily occurred in middle and upper class neighborhoods in seven cities across the country. Most of these neighborhoods are governed by opposition mayors who support the protesters. In fact, protests of any sort have only occurred in 18 of the country’s 335 municipalities during the past month. This context is important because the media has created the impression that the protests constitute some sort of peaceful popular uprising against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. In reality, it is a relatively small number of people in opposition strongholds who have taken to the streets while the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans, particularly in the poorer barrios, continue to go about their daily lives unaffected by the disruptions.
From the first days of the protests in early February many of the demonstrators at the improvised street blockades in Merida and Tachira were armed with handguns. The first weekend of protests in Merida saw balaclava-clad protesters boarding buses and wielding guns as they forced passengers to disembark. Protesters were also observed throwing shrapnel at passing motorists. That same weekend, three protesters held a journalist at gunpoint and threatened to kill her. Meanwhile, protesters in Tachira beat another journalist with a lead pipe. Throughout the past month, protesters have also used petrol bombs against government targets. The principal targets have been government-run health clinics and food markets, resulting in more than $1.5 million in damage to these symbols of the revolution in the first two weeks of protests.
In one particularly heinous act of violence, 29-year-old motorcycle rider Santiago Enrique Pedroza was decapitated at a street blockade when he rode through a steel wire stretched across the road at neck height. This tactic was apparently inspired by the tweets of retired army general Angel Vivas, who is allied with the opposition. Vivas promoted the use of wire at blockades to “neutralize” motorcyclists who were members of community collectives that supported the government. The day before the decapitation, he tweeted, “In order to neutralize criminal hordes on motorbikes, one must place nylon string or galvanized wire across the street, at a height of 1.2 meters.” The general tweeted recommendations for other tactics, including “to render armored vehicles of the dictatorship useless, Molotov cocktails should be thrown under the motor, to burn belts and hoses, they become inoperative.” The government ordered the arrest of Vivas the day after the decapitation.
While it is clear that the opposition protesters have utilized violence from the beginning, the government’s response has not been above reproach. Five of the 28 protesters are believed to have been killed by state security forces. The government has responded by arresting 14 police and National Guard officers for alleged abuses and use of excessive force. Additionally, President Maduro has repeatedly taken to the airwaves calling on government supporters not to resort to violence in response to the protests. In one speech, Maduro stated, “I want to say clearly: someone who puts on a red t-shirt with Chavez’s face and takes out a pistol to attack isn’t a Chavista or a revolutionary. I don’t accept violent groups within the camp of Chavismo and the Bolivarian revolution.”
Of the 28 people who have been died, nine were identified as opposition protesters, nine as government supporters or government workers, and the remaining ten were either innocent bystanders or of unknown political affiliation. Most of the deaths appear to have been caused by armed civilians allied with either the protesters or the government. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the 1,602 people arrested in connection to the protests have been released without being charged, in fact, only 92 remain in custody on violence-related charges. The government’s response to the crisis hardly constitutes a “terror campaign against its own citizens,” as Kerry alleged.
Despite the reality, the opposition’s Democratic Unity Table (MUD) coalition has repeatedly blamed the government for the violence, declaring that “State security forces, accompanied by paramilitary groups, have cruelly attacked peaceful and defenseless protesters…leaving a lamentable tally of citizens assassinated, seriously wounded, tortured and disappeared.” Delegitimizing the government is an essential component of the opposition’s strategy because the protests are not merely an exercise in free speech to criticize specific state policies but rather they are an orchestrated campaign to achieve the unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically-elected government by forcing what they have called “la salida” (the exit) of President Maduro.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is currently in jail for inciting violence in the early stages of the protests, has declared, “The ‘exit’ will only happen when people organize in the streets to make the dictatorship retreat.” He also asked protesters “not to leave the streets until Maduro is kicked out.” In other words, the opposition is trying to achieve through violence and propaganda what it has repeatedly failed to achieve through the ballot box in free and fair elections.
President Maduro has responded to the protests by calling on the National Assembly to establish a Truth Commission to investigate the violence and by announcing a National Peace Conference involving community groups, students, and business and religious leaders. The opposition coalition MUD has refused to participate in the talks to resolve the crisis with former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles explaining his boycott by stating, “This is a dying government. I’m not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic.” In other words, there is nothing to negotiate for the opposition other than the removal of the government from power.
On March 7, the 32 member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) took up the issue of the protests in Venezuela. After two days of debate, a declaration was issued expressing solidarity and support for the Venezuelan government and calling for dialogue between the government and the opposition. The declaration also rejected any intervention or sanctions by member states. Twenty-nine countries voted in favor of the declaration, the three who opposed it were the United States, Canada and Panama.
The US vote against the OAS declaration is not surprising given that it has provided tens of millions of dollars in funding to Venezuelan opposition groups through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). According to a US embassy cable released by Wikileaks, the United States has worked with “local NGOs who work in Chavista strongholds and with Chavista leaders … with the desired effect of pulling them slowly away from Chavismo.” And it has spent millions of dollars funding university programs and workshops for youth, no doubt with the objective of also “pulling them slowly away from Chavismo.” The prominent role of university students in the current protests suggests that the US strategy may be paying dividends.
Ultimately, US officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry and the mainstream media have seriously distorted the reality of the protests in Venezuela. It is clear that the majority of Venezuelans do not support the opposition protesters in their effort to destabilize the country in order to achieve the unconstitutional overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected government. Faced with five more years of Maduro’s presidency, the opposition, with US backing, appears to have abandoned democratic politics and resorted to violence to achieve its goal of ending the Venezuelan revolution.
Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006). ). He is also a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University in Canada.