Venezuela – A Sign of Latin Spring?
MEXICO CITY – The family of Bassil Alejandro Da Costa Frías, the youngest of her three children, saw him for the last time on February 12th. He had left that morning to attend a protest march through the streets of Caracas, is still alive. Just like thousands of other Venezuelan students, he wanted change — individual freedom, a free press, a transparent government — and like multitudes of others, who took to the streets, was not afraid demonstrate his discontent against president Nicolás Maduro and his administration.
“Before he left he told me, ‘I will either bring democracy, or disappear with it’,” she recalled a couple of days later. He was grimly prescient: he was hit by the stray bullet of a policeman, and died instantly in the street.
Dacosta Frías was the first martyr of a social upheaval the likes of which have never been seen in Venezuela. In fact, turmoil of the sort the country is currently experiencing, now in its second month and with at least 25 dead, is largely unknown in Latin America. Even huge movements like the student protests in Chile of 2011 and the Brazilian mass demonstrations of 2012 were fundamentally different from Venezuela in duration, attendance and scope.
For many analysts and international activists, the closest match to what Venezuela is going through occurred three years ago and a continent away: the Arab Spring.
Egypt, the world’s ninth-largest oil producer and the most populous Arab nation, may be very different in language, culture and geographic position than Venezuela, but the two countries have much in common: economies in deep crisis and repressive governments.
“The government pushed their people to the streets to demand change, freedom and democracy,” said Venezuelan columnist Miguel Aparicio.
In Egypt, the face of repression was President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for more than 30 years. In Venezuela, it is Chavismo, the socialist regime founded by late President Hugo Chávez and perpetuated by his right-hand man and successor, Maduro, when Chávez died in March 2013.
Unlike the functioning democracies of Brazil and Chile, both were authoritarian regimes, suppressing individual freedoms and the press while cracking down brutally on the opposition and blaming international enemies, particularly the U.S.
“The Venezuelan people have lost the fear of going out and demanding changes,” Venezuelan political analyst Orlando Gonçalves said. “And Maduro has exhausted who to point the finger at.”
So far, Maduro has blamed opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom he beat in the April 2013 elections and has been accusing since of trying to destabilize the country. Then he blamed the U.S. for meddling in Venezuelan affairs – an accusation, as yet unproven, which carries some weight in the region. Once the protests began, he pointed to Leopoldo López, leader of the Voluntad Popular (People’s Will) party and one of the initial organizers of the movement, who was arrested in February and is still awaiting trial.
He has even blamed the Venezuelan students, the main participants in the movement, calling them “fascists” and “materialistic,” even accusing them of organizing a coup, completely ignoring the fact that these are people who grew up immersed in Chavismo.
“We represent the change Venezuela needs,” replied Daniel Martínez, a 23-year-old student of architecture and president of the student association at the Universidad Simón Bolívar. “We do not seek a coup, we are not aligned with the opposition. We just are against most of what this government stands for.”
Gabriela Arellano, a member of the student council at the Universidad de Los Andes, said this tactic is the usual response of the government to any demand from society.
“Every time the people go out to demand a right, the government uses the beaten-down excuse that we are trying to organize a coup or we are fascists against freedom,” she said. “It is a classic strategy to destabilize and scare the Venezuelan people. Fear is stronger than hunger.”
“I am not a fascist. I am not part of the bourgeoisie,” she added. “I just want to make my life in my country and I want to stop seeing my classmates die in front of my eyes due to the insecurity in Venezuela.”
Arellano was referring to the increase in crime in Venezuela, one of the country’s core problems, but not one that featured prominently in either Chávez’s or Maduro’s agendas. With 45 violent crime victims per 100,000 residents, Venezuela ranks fifth in the United Nation’s world list of most dangerous countries.
Violence was one of the central themes of the protests, together with economic precariousness: Venezuela has suffered from commodity shortages for over a year, inflation reached 56 percent annually in 2013, and the local currency, the bolivar, has dropped 88 percent against the U.S. dollar since January.
The young age of the Venezuelan protesters, just like in the Arab Spring, was epitomized in the way the protesters organized themselves: social media. In countries like Egypt and Libya, were the local press was forbidden to cover the protests, demonstrators took to the Internet to spread the word.
“We used every possible way,” veteran Egyptian activist Ahmed Salah told Newsweek back in 2011. “We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to follow them and YouTube to show the world.”
Similarly, Venezuela took to Twitter to show the images the local TV channels were not showing. The protesters also took advantage of a new app, Zello, which works like a walkie-talkie and allowed activists in different cities to stay in touch and organize.
Both governments tried to prevent communications by shutting down the Internet, as in Egypt, or in Venezuela, blocking access to Zello.
Beyond Venezuela, is it possible to talk about a Latin American Spring? In the last two years, several countries have seen mass demonstrations, most notably Brazil and Chile. Chilean students have been organized since 2011, demanding quality public education. Brazil saw its own movement a year later, when citizens took to the streets to demand more public spending on education and health care, and less spending on transitional events like the 2014 soccer world cup.
But protesters in Chile and Brazil were engaged in a specific demand for public services; they weren’t trying to topple a regime. In Venezuela, on the other hand, the protests are about a fundamental change, the end of the current system that Chávez christened “the Bolivarian revolution” and the start of a new era — just like in Egypt and Libya.
“The crisis in Venezuela is institutional,” said local political analyst Rodrigo Linares. “The rock-bottom basic institutions a modern country needs, like courts and the press, have just plain stopped operating in anything like a recognizable form.”
But some observers say that the roots of the conflict lie in race and class.
Venezuela’s Ethnic Divide
To understand the issue of racial identity in Venezuela, it’s is necessary to go back into history.
Venezuela was colonized by Spain in the early 16th Century. Tens of thousands of Africans were brought there as slaves until abolition in 1854.
Following World War II, former dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez encouraged the immigration of Europeans, Italians, Portuguese and Germans to help develop the country, a move that writer Winthrop R. Wright, author of Café Con Leche, says was a deliberate move to “whiten” the country.
Today, most Venezuelans call themselves mestizo, or “mixed,” an amalgam of indigenous, African and European peoples.
“There are no people sitting on the back of the bus, there are no rest rooms assigned for people of this color or that color in Venezuela,” Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor of public relations at the University of Georgia and a native Venezuelan, told VOA.
“And also there’s acknowledgement that nobody is of pure European descent, or indigenous descent. That’s why many people think, ‘There’s no racism here.’”
But, she says, they’re wrong, citing Venezuela’s abundant beauty pageants and the telenovelas which embrace the light skin and straight hair – the Western European standards of beauty.
“And if you look at the upper socio-economic levels of the country,” Acosta-Alzuru said, “they tend to be whiter than on the lower socio-economic levels. That is something that is very apparent to everybody.”
Hugo Chávez was the first Venezuelan leader to embrace his Afro-indigenous heritage, telling an interviewer, “Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my big mouth, because of my curly hair. And I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’s African.”
“And this is also where it’s very different from the United States: You had people upset and even saying they were disgusted at having to look at Chavez.
“He was often called ‘the black’ (el Negro) by Venezuelan elites and also understood to be Afro- and indigenous—as opposed to mestizo,” Ciccariello-Maher said.
“Part of what angered elites so much when Chavez came to power was that he was a person who didn’t look like he was ‘fit’ to govern,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.
Opponents frequently referred to Chavez as ese mono, or, “that monkey,” and political cartoons played up his dark features—the most overtly racist portrayed him as an ape.
But Acosta-Alzuru says it was Chavez who brought racism to the table.
“But he didn’t put it on the table to raise consciousness. No, no. He wanted to use it to his own advantage,” she said.
The Chavez government took a series of measures to combat racism against people of African descent.
The 1999 constitution criminalized discrimination, and for the first time ever, the 2011 census allowed citizens to classify themselves as Afro-Venezuelans.
Acosta-Alzuru says Chavez’ message to Afro-Venezuelans was: “’The rich people are racist and they hate you,’ when really racism was prevalent throughout the whole culture.”
Ciccariello-Maher strongly disagrees.
“That’s premised on the idea that there wasn’t a problem,” he said. “Therewas. It just wasn’t being dealt with. It wasn’t being discussed. It was being concealed.”
“And so bringing it to light—once again, it was not Chavez opportunistically playing the race card; it was a movement demanding that race be taken seriously, and finally, belatedly, Chavez embracing that,” he said.
The protests began in early February among students in the western states of Tachira and Merida, who complained about gas and food shortages and poor security after the sexual assault of a student.
Protests quickly turned violent after police responded harshly, arresting and allegedly abusing several students, and quickly spread to Caracas, where tensions had been high for weeks since former Miss Venezuela Mónica Spear and her ex-husband were murdered by roadside bandits.
The Caracas protests have centered in Los Palos Grandes, an upscale section of the city.
“Those in the streets are largely middle class students, and this has been clear by the fact of the location of the protests,” Ciccariello-Maher said. “So it’s very difficult to disentangle race and class in these protests.”
He points to the leaders of the opposition movement, Leopoldo Lopez; a former mayor, and Maria Corina Machado, an MP.
“The main opposition leaders are as white and as elite as can be, and the challenge for the Venezuelan opposition is that they cannot succeed without reaching out to the masses, without reaching out to the poor and some of the poorer sectors,” he said.
“They confront a visual difficulty, mainly the fact that people are not going to look at these leaders and say, ‘Well, that person represents me,’” he said.
Why aren’t more of the poorer segments of society out in the streets of Caracas?
“Because they identify with this government,” says Ciccariello-Maher, “they identify with the social justice orientation of this government over years which has led, for example, to Venezuelans eating and consuming much more than they did ten years ago.”
While it seems ironic if not inconceivable that the first African American President could support a movement, elements of which would hurl the same epithets at him for his ancestry as were thrown at Chavez, The Obama administration’s view echoes that of a foreign policy of Pax Americana, which has become cemented as doctrine beyond party line. They are against left leaning governments be they in Bangladesh, Ukraine, Iraq, or Chile.
And, this is what causes Mr. Maduro concern. He wrote as much in is Op/Ed to the New York Times on April 1st, accusing the US interference. He expelled three U.S. consular officials Breann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristopher Lee Clark, charging that they were conspiring with dissidents. A ‘tit-for-tat’ expulsion of three Venezuelan diplomats from the United States followed. The fact that Washington and Caracas have been without ambassadors since 2008 hasn’t helped smooth things over.
“We are determined to protect our country,” Maduro said in a televised speech on Feb. 16. “The Foreign Ministry has declared those three consular officials persona non grata and expelled them from the country. Let them go conspire in Washington!”
In response, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protesters.”
“We are deeply concerned by the violence surrounding the protests and the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
What neither of them addressed was the accusation of meddling by U.S. officials in the Venezuelan riots. And despite the proven unreliability of Maduro’s statements, he is certainly not the only one who has suspected the involvement of the U.S. in Venezuelan affairs.
Venezuela-U.S. relationships have been practically nonexistent for 15 years now. Since Chávez was first elected president in 1998 and overturned the privatization of the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), the already tense diplomatic relations worsened significantly. Chávez’s public friendship with and support of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, which undermined the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba, did not help.
Throughout Chávez’s 14 years as Venezuela’s leader there were suggestions of U.S. schemes to bring the regime down, including a military coup in 2002 that almost toppled Chávez. In fact, the president was briefly ousted.
Chávez alleged that he had definitive proof of U.S. involvement, claiming that radar images had shown the presence of U.S. military ships and planes within Venezuelan waters and airspace. Several international analysts and publications backed the claims, including Wayne Madsen, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Navy. So it is now wonder that US interest in the region has come under such heavy suspicion.
Madsen told the Guardian that American military attachés had been in touch with members of the Venezuelan military prior to the coup. Former U.S. Ambassador in Caracas Charles Shapiro was also accused of meeting and conspiring with Pedro Carmona Estanga, who was installed as president by the army for all of 24 hours during the coup.
According to Democracy Now, several documents proved that former U.S. President George W. Bush knew about the plot weeks prior to the coup. When asked, William Brownfield, who succeeded Shapiro at the U.S. embassy, said that he had tried to warn Chávez about the plot.
The U.S. embassy dismissed the allegations of conspiracy, calling them “ridiculous.”
The second accusation came a decade later, in the months that led to Chávez’s death from of an undisclosed form of cancer. In December 2011, Chávez, already under treatment, wondered out loud if “would it be so strange that they’ve invented the technology to spread cancer and we won’t know about it for 50 years?”
Chávez thus put into words the widespread belief among Venezuelan officials that the U.S. had helped covertly “infect” the president with cancer. This was right after four other prominent leftist Latin American leaders had been diagnosed with cancer: Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and two former presidents, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo and Brazilian Luiz Inácio Lula.
Venezuela expert Rory Carroll wrote in the Guardian that charges that Chávez had been killed by a U.S.-produced bioweapon were in the same league with “conspiracy theorists who wonder about aliens at Roswell and NASA faking the moon landings.”
As absurd as Chavez’ accusations sound, they do not fall on deaf ears of the masses whose trust in the United States erodes steadily year.
Yet, political differences did not hinder economic relations, even during the Bush years: In 2006, the U.S. remained Venezuela’s most important trading partner, both as the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil and the biggest exporter of goods to the country. That year, trade rose 36 percent, the largest increase among the United States’ 20 biggest commercial partners, according to Miami-based trade consultancy WorldCity. U.S. trade with Venezuela totaled $62 billion in 2011, making it the U.S.’ 14th largest partner, according to numbers form the U.S. Trade Representative office. Most of the trade is related to oil.
After President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Chávez showed a slight change of mind, expressing hope that he would meet with Obama as soon as possible. But when the new American president condemned Venezuela for its ties to Cuba and Iran, Chávez went back to his inflammatory rhetoric, calling him “a clown and an embarrassment.”
The U.S. and Venezuela have not had ambassadors in each other’s countries since 2010, though both kept diplomatic representation.
U.S. involvement with right-wing politics in Venezuelan has been discussed often, but never confirmed. WikiLeaks offers a wealth of documents about this involvement; those include emails from U.S.-based intelligence companies detailing a web of informers and private meetings with prominent anti-Chávez politicians, and CIA documents dating back to the 2002 coup.
Part of the reasoning of some who believe America is behind the recent, ongoing riots is based on the fact that several prominent right-wing figures in Venezuela have ties with the U.S. Henrique Capriles studied at Columbia University, while Leopoldo López attended Harvard. López has also been linked to Huffington Post columnist and human rights advocate Thor Halvorssen Mendoza, identified by left-leaning political website Firedoglake as López’s cousin.
The U.S. has adamantly denied any involvement with the riots. “The allegation that the United States is helping to organize protesters in Venezuela is baseless and false,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “We support human rights and fundamental freedoms in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world.”
Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Maduro is just using the U.S. as a scapegoat — a sign of desperation.
“He’s accused the United States of being the puppet master and controlling what the opposition is doing,” he told NPR. “He’s desperate to redirect attention away from the troubles that he’s having in Venezuela: with the opposition, with constant protests and with some questions that are starting to come up within his own coalition about his ability to really perform as a strong leader”.
In reality, though, the country that has the biggest influence in Venezuela today may not be the United States. China and Cuba have the most clout with the government in Caracas, and both support Maduro. The regional heavyweights closest to the action, Brazil and Colombia, do not look very keen on getting involved. That leaves Washington in a difficult situation with Venezuela, where suspicion about its motives always runs high. Harold Trinkunas, director of the Latin America initiative at the Brookings Institution, summed it up by saying that “almost anything the U.S. says and does will be used against it.” Relations between the two countries, he added, are just too toxic.