Giving Context to the Anti-Government Protests in Venezuela

While the majority of the world’s attention has been focused on the revolutionary tremors currently underway in Ukraine (or, if you watch cable news, breaking developments in the culinary world), violent protests in Venezuela have been raging. Demonstrations are taking place across the country, with protesters coming out in force on both sides of the leadership divide. Events kicked off on the 12th of February, Venezuela’s Día de la Juventud (National Youth Day), when an anti-administration group comprised primarily of students took to the streets in Caracas to protest against the current government of President Nicolas Maduro. Led in part by the now-jailed Leopoldo López, the group rallied around a wide-ranging platform of political reform that includes an end to government efforts to suppress public protests, the release of political prisoners, and the radical restructuring of the national economic system. Inspired by the government’s authoritarian response in prior weeks to protests in the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Merida, the demonstrators marched through Caracas while pro-government supporters rallied around the incumbent President (who later dismissed the dissenting protesters as part of a nation-wide “nazifascista outbreak” bent on government subversion). After the dust cleared, three deaths, numerous injuries, and dozens of arrests marked the conclusion of the first day of discord.

In order to properly contextualize the current conflict in Venezuela, it is necessary to look at a few different factors. The immediate motivations behind the protests can be best understood by examining  the adverse conditions affecting the Venezuelan citizenry as well as the tone and context set by the country’s modern political past. This method of analysis generates insight into the actions of protesters and government officials alike, and offers an alternative historically-driven perspective, as opposed to one of raw politics. This is not to say that politics are irrelevant, as they are most definitely not. However, historical considerations are essential in properly scrutinizing revolutionary action, regardless of culture or end result.

President Nicolas Maduro
President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a press conference with a portrait of President Hugo Chavez in the background (Source: Juan Barreto/AFP)

While many are doubtlessly familiar with the divisive and provocative anti-Western rhetoric of the late revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, it’s important to consider the country’s broader political legacies and the ways in which they have affected, and continue to affect, Venezuelan citizens and their political system. Chavez, and his successor Maduro, represent the most significant manifestation of Bolivarianism, a political philosophy named for the iconic South American anti-imperial military and political leader Simón Bolívar. Branded “chavismo” or “chavezism” by its opposition, the particular brand of Bolivarianism ushered in with Hugo Chavez’s succession to the Venezuelan presidency in 1999. An admirer of Bolívar and his struggle against Spanish domination, Chavez designed his Bolivarian Revolution around policies of nationalism, socialism, and the termination of Venezuelan reliance on the international neo-liberal economic system. For context, it is worthwhile to note that Cuban leader Fidel Castro ranked among the largest influences on Chavez’s leadership. After being released from captivity in the mid-1990s, Chavez visited Castro and the two quickly became close friends. Revolutionary Cuban trappings are evident throughout the Chavista platform, with the Venezuelan leader formulating the original slogan of his Bolivarian Revolution (“Motherland, socialism, or death”) from an amalgam of Castro’s motto of  “Motherland or death” Che Guevara’s “Socialism or Death”.

When the success of domestic anti-poverty, resource redistribution, and education programs is juxtaposed against large-scale economic mismanagement, dictatorial absolutism, and a reputation for counterproductive international contrarianism, the lukewarm character of Chavista policies fostered by Chavez and perpetuated by Maduro are shown to have, at best, a lukewarm record. The late President’s curious brand of populism appeals most heavily to urban and rural poor in lieu of the traditional revolutionary mobilization of the working class. Though it may be unconventional, Chavez and his authoritarian brand of revolutionary socialism is nothing if not effective at remaining at the helm of Venezuelan politics. The regime has managed to survive a US-backed coup in April of 2002, a general labor strike later that year, and a recall election in August of 2004.

The Bolivarian commitment to opposition against what is perceived as the Western global hegemony has shown to have won him many regional supporters. Unlike the majority of the world’s developed countries that consider Chavez to have been a chiefly antagonist force, the Union of South American Nations (Union of South American Nations – UNASUL or UNASUR) acted quickly to endorse the results of the April 2013 election that followed the President’s death.  The former vice president, Nicolas Maduro, campaigned heavily on a platform of continuity that played up his image as Chavez’s hand-picked successor. The support of neighboring governments was essential in buttressing the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory after the election results were called into question by several members of the international community.

Bolivar Decline Graph
(Source: CATO Institute)

Since the death of President Chavez, the Venezuelan Bolivare has experienced wild inflation and multiple devaluations as a reflection of the faltering economy. The country currently suffers from rampant “currency distortions” due to conditions that economists have characterized as “macroeconomic imbalances”. This includes a popular black market for currency exchanges that reflects a discouraging reality in comparison to the optimistic exchange rates set by the government. While the official exchange rate is somewhere around 6.3 Bolivars per American dollar (USD), the latest government auction of foreign currency revealed that the USD was selling for 11.36 Bolivars. Underground markets, which are fairly ubiquitous in Venezuala, are significantly tougher on the Bolivar, with dedicated exchange rate monitoring sites showing rates as discouraging as 87 Bolivars per dollar. The tangible ramifications of this situation have penetrated well beyond the nation’s financial institutions and into the lives of its citizens. While the government has been successful in significantly reducing the percentage of Venezuelans suffering from hunger and malnutrition in the post-Chavez years, the continued scarcity of common commodities and manufactured goods (most famously, toilet paper) continues to disrupt the lives of citizens.

Further compounding the country’s alimentary difficulties is the country’s continuing struggle with violence. While the government declines to release its internally gathered numbers, the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, an NGO, has compiled a report on the increasing rates of violence. The Observatory estimates that 24,000 murders took place in 2013, which represents a  “14% rise” on 2012 [totals]”.  Additionally, the report contends that approximately 90% of all homicides go unsolved. The issue of endemic violence plays a very significant role in the popularization of the most recent iteration of anti-government demonstrations. Most recently, anti-government protesters have rallied around the death of a  22 year-old university student which took place on February 18th. Genesis Carmona, a Miss Tourism winner in her native Carabobo, was shot in the head and killed during a clash between rival participating in one of the demonstrations. To date, at least 13 Venezuelans have lost their lives in the continuing upheaval that has done nothing to diminish the authoritarian character of Maduro’s rule. 

The blame for Venezuela’s current social and political woes would, at first glance, seem to fall squarely on the political mismanagement of President Chavez (and, by extension President Maduro). However, the trends and attitudes that dominate the country’s turbulent political history reveal a more nuanced reality. While the questionable decision-making of Chavista politicans certainly has played a role in the perpetuation of a volatile status quo, the traditional “politics of exclusion” that exist in Venezuela provide valid historical grounds from which to explain the current conflict. In explaining this trend’s effect on the turbulent early years of the Chavez presidency, Professor Julia Buxton explains in the Bulletin of Latin American Research that, in many ways, the Bolivarian regime actually resembles the previous government of the Punto Fijo Pact (a coalitional consolidation of Venezuela’s three major mid-century political parties) that was displaced by Chavez and his revolutionary cadre in the late 1990s. She explains:

Rather than undermining an established democracy, Chavismo was characterised by continuity with the illiberal Punto Fijo state rather than change… Both relied on the politicisation of the state to maintain authority and both were hegemonic projects, which denied the voice of opponents on the basis that this was contrary to the national interest. Crucial to the development of this tendency in both regimes was the initial fear of revanchist actions by supporters of the preceding regime.

Buxton astutely points out that until zero-sum attitudes no longer characterize the political understandings and agendas of both the incumbent and opposition parties, “the institutional crisis cannot be approached and consensual institutions cannot be crafted”. By employing a perspective that emphasizes a bit of a “longer” durée, the current protests and upheaval can be traced back to perpetuated political oppositionalism and protracted party vs. party antagonism.

There are indeed other historical factors to keep in mind when considering the current situation. Among the most notable and immediately relevant is the relationship between Venezuela and the West, most importantly the United States. The uncharacteristically understated call-to-action of  US Secretary of State John Kerry, released on the 15th of February, betrays the frosty nature of the relationship shared by the two nations. When viewed with the US-backed 2002 coup attempt in mind, the statement seems, if anything, dubiously constructive. While American citizens remain largely unconcerned with the developments in Venezuela, the White House has shown a desire to fan the flames by supporting forces of government opposition. It is from this historical context that we must view the Bolivarian regime’s pugnacious stance towards CNN and the American media.  The predictably heavy-handed response by the incumbent government has included a national prohibition on “spontaneous protests”the ejection of American diplomats on conspiracy suspicions, and widespread censorship of dissenting (foreign) media. After admonishing American news outlets for the dissemination of ‘war propaganda’ and threatening to revoke CNN’s press credentials, President Maduro reneged on his threat and allowed the network to stay in-country on the condition that they report on Venezuela in “a balanced way… A balance based on respect for Venezuelan laws”. Most recently, Venezuelan paratroopers were deployed to the border state of Tachira in order to restore order and prevent the “fascist” attack perpetrated by the Mayor of San Cristobal “con paramilitares y bandas criminales de Colombia“. While the rhetoric of the Maduro government, consistent with his predecessor, is certainly hyperbolic, it is not based solely on paranoia.

In relation to the protests, the relative inaction of Washington is anything but a problem. It does not demonstrate weakness, nor does it imply tacit approval for the Chavista project. The government’s dubious record on domestic reform, proclivity for bombastic rhetoric, and willingness to embark on campaigns of reckless domestic repression does more harm to the current government’s credibility than any American effort could ever hope to. There are plenty of genuine reasons for the American government to speak out against the Venezuelan administration and plenty of opportunities for it to do so through appropriate channels. Should the United States insist, however,  on an inappropriately enthusiastic campaign of overt or covert support for the Bolivarian government’s opposition, the following outcomes are likely: the current conflict will be exacerbated and the death toll will continue to rise, the Chavista regime’s anti-Western rhetoric will be strengthened and substantiated, and the American government will face embarrassment on the international scene. As history has demonstrated so many times in the past, ham-fisted over-extension by the White House will result in abject folly when a preferable outcome could have been brought about by the smallest amount of restraint.

As we’ve seen,  it is important to properly consider the current situation in Venezuela in a historical context in addition to a purely political one. When analyzing the broader significance of recent events, it is essential to consider the plethora of of historical and political influences, of which only a few are discussed here, that have combined to generate such a volatile atmosphere. The present turmoil in Venezuela has significant grounding in a longer process of political exclusion that began with the Punto Fijo coalition and co-opted by the Chavista government. Furthermore, the government’s eccentric response to domestic dissent and foreign media coverage is explained by the prevailing political wisdom of Chavez and his administration. It is likely that the current crisis can only be successfully and permanently diffused by efforts of reconciliation and compromise that de-emphasize the zero-sum conceptions that dominate approaches to the Venezuelan political status quo. Finally, it is the responsibility of the international community to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to peaceful and prudent rapprochement while resisting the urge to embark on outdated and belligerent interventionism.

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