The recent violence in Venezuela, which has left some 13 people dead, once again highlights how some sections of the political right in that country are unwilling to change their stripes. They have used force in the past and, as long as they continue to gain a sympathetic hearing in the mainstream media, violent protests can and will be used in order to project the image of an ungovernable country.
In April 2002 these tactics contributed to a temporary coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). Lasting for 47 hours, the coup quickly collapsed once the bulk of the armed forces decided to disobey their U.S.-backed right-wing generals and their political masters in the business community. However, by then, more than 19 people had been fatally shot by police snipers working for the opposition, while much of the media falsely ran the story that the Chávez government ordered the shootings.
Amidst the weeks following the death of Chávez in March last year, the local opposition for the first time in years made significant electoral gains. They did this by building on their electoral base while their key leader, Henrique Capriles Radonski, adopted some of the rhetoric of Chavismo. Despite paying lip service to the government’s vast social programs for the poor, and having himself been previously a recipient of US aid, Capriles still lost to Nicolas Maduro (Chávez’s chosen successor) in the April 2013 presidential race.
A victory too close for comfort
Maduro’s win by 1.6 per cent nevertheless proved too close for comfort and it emboldened the opposition. Using their financial connections, they have unleashed an economic war against the government by hoarding products (toilet paper, cornflour, cooking oil, coffee, etc.) in warehouses or smuggling them off to Colombia. State television in Venezuela often shows images of the authorities breaking up these illegal cliques. But it is limited to the Venezuelan state media outlets, not the private local and international press which have most influence and the largest audiences.
This situation has persisted for months, which is not to say that the government itself is not at fault for some of the country’s problems. According to Roger Burbach from the Centre for the Study of the Americas at Berkley University: ‘Maduro faces daunting economic problems as he tries to bring inflation and the black market foreign exchange rate under control, while dealing with serious corruption problems in and outside of the government.’
Despite this ongoing situation, in December last year the Maduro administration managed to win three-fourths of the country’s municipalities (49 to 43 per cent) in local elections.
Enter, stage right
Enter Leopoldo López, a wealthy Harvard graduate regarded as being on the extreme right. Since the opposition is divided into 30 different political parties, López – a participant of the 2002 coup and, following charges of corruption, barred from holding public office until 2014 – has decided that he and not Capriles should become the government’s main rival.
Described as a ‘divisive figure within the opposition’ by a 2009 leaked U.S. embassy cable published by Wikileaks, it was also noted that he was viewed as ‘arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry – but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organiser.’
Coined ‘La Salida’ (The Exit), López’s current strategy is simple: align with conservative student protests and promulgate violence until the government is forced to resign. So far he is getting excellent media coverage as far away as Australia.
According to the New York Times on February 15, after a protest by the opposition, ‘a few hundred youths rioted, throwing rocks at the police and government buildings.’ The Times article of course did not elaborate on the violence, its key actors, nor their motivations. The headline for their story was how Venezuela blocked a cable television channel from Colombia which, it claimed, was fomenting ‘anxiety about a coup d’état.’
In a more detailed analysis Steve Ellner – Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz – recently noted that the tactic of using violence and blaming the government is an old one. Most noticeably used during the April 11, 2002 coup, in his view:
‘Today the same thing is happening, and the private media is promoting the same deceit. Opposition demonstrators have created havoc in the center of Caracas and elsewhere, burning public buildings, using firearms after having attacked the house of the governor in the state of Táchira.’
Ellner adds that while López ‘says it publicly’ he wants to overthrow the government, ‘the media is making it seem as if the violence is the work of motorcyclists supposedly on behalf of the Chavez government.’
Highly critical of the Maduro administration and placing the responsibility of public security on its hands, David Smilde – University of Georgia – also provides a more sober understanding of events. In his view, given December’s election results, Maduro’s position is not ‘particularly vulnerable’ and ‘it would make no sense in such a context for the government to organize violence against a modest student march (with a turnout of around 10,000 it was much bigger than recent protests, but by no means large by Venezuelan standards).’
Smilde adds: ‘Leopoldo López’s calls for peaceful mobilization are disingenuous when his acts seem to be intentionally creating the conditions for unintended violence. He is effectively putting student protestors in the line of fire to further what he sees as the interests of the country.’
Some restraint in the face of violence
In the coming weeks the violence in Venezuela may die down or continue, as the one year commemoration of Chávez’s death approaches. A retired opposition General has tweeted instructions on how best to decapitate pro-government supporters on motorbikes, resulting in one death. The Chavistas, given their large numbers, have actually displayed some restraint, although this is not to excuse counter-violence on their part which in circumstances such as the present can and does take place.
Returning to López, should the Venezuelan judicial system follow through with his prosecution on charges of inciting violence (including terrorism), the judiciary and the government, despite the evidence, should not expect to win any accurate media coverage. If anything, López is likely to be turned into a martyr.
In Washington (as expected) the Obama administration will continue to condemn the government in Caracas while the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will persist in rejecting regime change in Venezuela.
*Dr Rodrigo Acuña is an Associate Lecturer in International Studies at Macquarie University. He researches and writes on Latin American politics. You can read more about him here.