Crisis in Venezuela: analysis of the situation after a month of protests

By María Isabel Puerta

La República- March 13th, 2014.

To write about Venezuela in an agitated state, has become routine for those of us who are scholars of its political process. If there is something we have learnt over the past 15 years of the Chavista Revolution, is how to coexist with the violence that currently seems to be out of the control of all its promoters: the government and the opposition. To understand this situation, we must go back to the moment that Mr. Maduro takes the place (although not formally) of President Chávez when the he, once again, left for Cuba to continue his treatment on December 8th, 2012. It was a very difficult situation, in which the opposition’s main argument was the Constitution and the government’s handling of the where responsibility inherent to the position should fall, which was not very clear, given that the prognosis of the president’s health was still unknown. This, of course, led to an additional confrontation between government and opposition, which gained strength as January 10th, 2013, the deadline for President Chávez to be sworn into power, arrived and, according to the Constitution, it had to be decided whether his absence would be short or long term; which in the latter case required that the President of the National Assembly take over the position and immediately call for new elections, to he held within 30 days.

However, thanks to a decision by the Supreme Court, Mr. Maduro not only was sworn into power (at that time he was the Executive Vice-president) but he was also designated as presidential candidate (as Chávez had order during his televised will), for the new presidential elections to be held on April 14th, 2013. If there was ever a critical moment in these last 15 years of Chavismo, those presidential elections in 2013 stand out. There was very little hope of a positive result for the opposition, considering the results of the elections of October 7th, 2012, and optimism was low for a new opposition candidature. It would be a very short campaign, and the passing away of such a strong figure as Hugo Chávez, left little doubt of how futile it would be to think about a victory, even against a candidate like Nicolás Maduro, who had been the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the previous 6 years.

That was more than enough to make anyone desist from taking on the challenge that the opposition’s candidature presented. And Henrique Capriles, the candidate for the opposition against President Chávez, received that recommendation, to not run a risk that would surely end his political career. There wasn’t much time to think, and Capriles decided to challenge the appointed heir of President Chávez. The turnout was significant (around 80% participation), but Maduro won with less than a 2% difference and, against all odds, Capriles performed much better than expected, even though he lost. There were reports of fraud in some election centers and the candidate exercised his right to dispute the results, given the amount of proof that had been gathered. The Supreme Court´s ruling did not favor him, and instead he was fined for having “dishonored” the Supreme Court with the presentation of his petition. Those weren’t the only setbacks for Capriles, the most serious one emerging from his own coalition: which was demanding a stronger position against the Supreme Court and the government; while Capriles was convinced that the spilling of blood was too high a price to pay, certain he had won the elections, but that the government had used all its power to smash the will of the people, and that the path to take was to build an ever larger and stronger majority, which would remove any doubts of his position as a viable alternative.

This position brought a lot of frustration, not only amongst the oppositions’ voters, but also in the coalition known as the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable), which possesses its own internal differences and antagonisms which were set aside due to April´s unexpected elections, as well as several months later in the local elections of December 2013. Internal debates were put on hold until after the elections. Once the results were known (favoring the government), the internal struggle for power was unleashed, and without elections in the near future, the different sectors of the MUD began the battle for the control of the opposition, with harsh critiques towards the operation of the coalition, and Capriles’ leadership.

Although there are several sides, the two that stand out are: on one hand, those who favor a more confrontational attitude towards the government; and on the other, those who support the expansion of the opposition as an alternative, persuading those who are frustrated with Maduro’s administration of his inherited legacy. Before April 14th, it was clear that Maduro wasn’t Chávez, but the Chavismo was obliged to carry out the President´s last political will. Without a doubt, their main concern was if Maduro had the capacity to do whatever was necessary to preserve that legacy. The problem was that in the meantime, Maduro was showing himself, probably for the first time,  since even though he had been serving for a long time as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he had had little exposure then. The outlook presented an individual who was incapable of generating empathy. He definitely wasn’t Chávez; not even close. The close and controverted victory was just an appetizer of what promised to be a fragile period of turmoil.

Many within the opposition considered Capriles’ attitude cowardly, and he became yet another source of friction within the MUD. There was a growing feeling within the most radical sector of the opposition, that Capriles’ behavior was in a way portraying an acknowledgment of Maduro´s victory in the elections. This coincided with a discussion around Maduro’s supposedly Colombian nationality (which if it were true, would unable him for the position as President). In the middle of a not-too-silent battle of agendas for the leadership of the opposition, it got harder and harder for Capriles to please both very antagonistic sides. After the December elections, the full frontal dispute for the control of the MUD ensued. Everybody was ready for a battle that promised not few casualties. The most anticipated of all, the one that would defy Capriles´ leadership, whose non-belligerent style was harshly criticized when he accepted to open dialog with the government in regards to the murder of an ex-beauty queen and her husband on a highway on January 6th, 2014. That event provoked anger in the entire country, forcing the government to face the growing wave of violent crimes, that made distinctions amongst those affected. A month later, an attempted rape at the University of Los Andes in San Cristóbal (a city in the western state of Táchira, which borders with Colombia), caused the outrage of the students, who took their protest to the house of Táchira’s State Governor. The arrest of these students, and the fact that they were sent to a faraway prison (in Coro, in the State of Falcón, 431 miles from San Cristóbal) provoked more student protests that quickly spread to the main cities of the country: Caracas, Mérida, Valencia, Maracaibo and Barquisimeto. The protests amplified their cause when Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado proposed “La Salida” (“The Way Out”) as an alternative to (according to them) the passive politics of the MUD and of Capriles’ discourse in regards to the country´s situation. The reason was not just the climate of insecurity but, as they proposed, the need to end Maduro’s government.

Obviously, this is what part of the opposition was waiting for, and with the students as the moral backbone for the cause, thousands expressed their support for La Salida.

The anniversary of the Battle of La Victoria is celebrated in Venezuela as National Youth Day, and is commemorated with a traditional march, which this time included added motives: last year’s inflation rate was 56%, scarcity is around 22%, the black-market exchange rate is almost ten times the official rate, the ongoing problems with the electrical supply, and the inability of the Government to efficiently solve the elevated murder and crime rates which makes Venezuela head of the list in these statistics.

On that same day, February 12th, three people lost their lives in separated events: two were protesters, and the other one was a police officer who was also a member of a paramilitary group. The first one was Juan Montoya, the officer of a security force, who died from a gunshot to the head, as did the young Bassil Da Costa. In another event, still unsolved, Robert Redman died from a gunshot wound, supposedly at the hands of paramilitary groups known as “colectivos”. According to the penal investigation, members of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) are responsible for the first two deaths.

Then the climate of discontent extended to other regions of the country, with students detained for protesting in Caracas and San Cristóbal, in addition to those from Valencia, Mérida, Barquisimeto and Maracaibo. Reports of police abuse are increasingly frequent, due to the rise in arrests from daily confrontations between protesters, paramilitaries, and riot police. There have been a total of 1323 detained, and reports of rapes and tortures presented by the NGO “Foro Penal” (Penal Forum), which represents the victims of the systematic repression from the National Guard and the government though their paramilitary groups known as “colectivos”. By March 12th, the protests have registered 25 deaths related to police abuse.

Most fallen victims at the hands of the Bolivarian National Guard or the paramilitary groups, received a gunshot to the head (Juan Pablo Montoya, Bassil Da Costa, Roberto Redman, Génesis Carmona, Wilmer Carballo, Agnes López, Giselle Rubilar and Jesús Acosta). Others were shot with rubber bullets by the National Guard at short range (Geraldine Moreno); or, as is the case of José Alejandro Márquez, brutally beaten presumably by National Guards, leaving him brain dead, which later led to his passing away.

The protests have been retaliated against through attacks to buildings and residential apartments where protesters are spotted beating empty pots and pans, known as “cacerolas”. This has been harshly criticized by Human Rights groups. For its part, the government has not addressed the gravest demands of the people in relation to violent crimes, inflation, scarcity or the electricity problem. It is alarming that the government cannot control crime, yet it uses all resources available to subdue people who are peacefully protesting. Something that is clear is that not all of the opposition supports the strategies of its more radical sectors, like the so called “guarimba”, which consists of blocking the streets to create chaos, (naively) trying to threaten the government.

President Maduro has not only ignored the demands of the people, but also the right to protest and the right to be protected from the violence of paramilitary groups, backed-up by his government. Media reports show that these groups serve to support their own government party (PSUV), which together with security forces, act against the opposition. This is the image of a government very far from being considered democratic, despite the support received from Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua, amongst others. The situation gets even more confusing when Maduro himself acknowledged that the SEBIN (the government´s intelligence agency) disregarded his orders; which raises serious doubts about his authority and leadership, not only amongst civilians, but more importantly at this time, amongst the military. The support of the leaders of Latin America and the omission of international organisms such as the OAS, cannot manage to hide the cracks in the democratic values, due to the escalating repression by the Venezuelan government. That, far from worrying Maduro’s government, has intensified its violent response against the Venezuelan people, without any clear ways or measures to stop it. The situation is extremely serious, because citizens have no means of protection against the violence that is coming from the government itself. The growing concern is that as the repressions intensify, so does the discontent expressed in the protests, and that instead of addressing the issues, the government represses each time with more violence. It´s an unstoppable spiral, which only foreshadows the worst.

Source: Puerta, María Isabel.”Crisis en Venezuela: análisis de la situación tras un mes de protestas “. La República. 13de Marzo, 2014. Grupo La República Digital. 13de Marzo, 2014.

Main photograph: EFE

Translated by #infoVnzla