What’s really behind the violence in Venezuela? Attempts to portray the violence as a people’s uprising for justice — a “Venezuelan spring” — don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The election of Hugo Chavez delivered the huge increases in living standards, opportunities and the end to foreign dominance that the “Middle Eastern springs” had aimed to achieve.
The “crisis” narrative which is being propagated by some media outlets, a narrative which maintains that the majority of Venezuelans are rising up against intolerable living conditions, is an inaccurate one.
The protests are localised. The sectors mobilising are not Venezuela’s poor majority but are from the wealthier opposition strongholds.
Just 2,000 are estimated to be involved in violent efforts to bring down the government.
And despite current difficulties with high inflation, growth continued in 2013. Poverty and unemployment fell thanks to government action to defend the majority and not punish the poorest.
Far from being a popular uprising, polls show that 85 per cent of Venezuelans disagree with the violent protests.
What really lies behind the events is a demand from the right for regime change.
Specifically, a hard-right rump has launched a wave of action for La Salida (The Ousting) of the government of President Nicolas Maduro before his constitutional mandate ends in 2019.
Leopoldo Lopez, who now leads this wing of Venezuela’s opposition, has stated the aim of the unrest is regime change.
He wants “a complete … change in those who are in power,” which is only possible by “getting the people into the streets.”
But why, despite attempts to portray themselves as democrats in trying to defeat Chavez and Maduro at the ballot box, have some of Venezuela’s opposition turned to violence?
The simple answer is that they keep losing. In four sets of elections in the last 16 months, the Venezuelan right-wing opposition coalition was defeated.
In December President Maduro’s coalition won mayoral elections with a 10 per cent lead.
The opposition had said this election was a referendum on the government, but it backfired.
This frustration from sections of the opposition appears to have boiled over. The ousting strategy was announced in January, just weeks after this defeat.
If Venezuela’s right-wing leaders felt confident that they represent the majority, they would be uniting and preparing the ground for a mid-term recall referendum in 2016 to oust the president, as guaranteed under Venezuela’s constitution.
The danger for the opposition is that that is two years away. By then, left unchecked, the government could have dealt with the current economic difficulties making the opposition’s electoral chances even worse.
So some opposition leaders have decided to roll the dice and hope the gamble on La Salida pays off.
Sadly, this violence is in no way unique. Using the ballot box to achieve political change has not been the method of choice for the Venezuelan opposition.
Since Chavez was elected, his political enemies who are small in number but with a powerful political ally in the US, have agitated for change in an attempt to get their hands on the spoils of Venezuela’s vast oil wealth.
Achieving change through democratic means has never been a principle of the far-rightwingers leading La Salida. Lopez and fellow rightwinger Maria Corina Machado Parisca were both involved in the attempted coup of 2002.
The opposition was prepared to devastate the economy in 2003 to try to force Chavez out, organising a two-month sabotage of the oil industry.
After this failed, street violence was organised in 2004, bearing strong parallels with Venezuela’s current situation. The “Guarimba” riots left at least 13 people dead and more than 100 wounded in clashes that involved protesters
blocking major roads with bonfires and barricades and damaging public property.
As the Washington based CEPR think tank explained, “The explicit goal was to create enormous chaos in city streets forcing the government to either step down or engage in mass repression.”
Last year, following the victory of President Maduro, another wave of opposition violence left 11 government supporters dead.
All those who back social progress should offer their support to the elected government of Venezuela — as should every democrat who upholds the principles of people being free to choose their own future.
In the face of a wave of violence from extreme elements of the opposition, Venezuela’s government has called repeatedly for peace and dialogue.
It has met with elected opposition leaders to find a way forward. President Maduro called a national peace conference on February 26 involving opposition politicians and business leaders, faith figures, civil society groups and others, which was unfortunately boycotted by sections of the political opposition.
The opposition is much more likely to continue on its current trajectory if it continues to receive tacit support from Washington.
Just as the US was involved in the 2002 coup, it continues to fund anti-democratic elements of an opposition working for regime change.
Eva Gollinger, a US-Venezuelan lawyer and author, has documented how opposition groups have been given huge amounts of money under the guise of “strengthening of democratic institutions,” with “more than $100 million being given to opposition groups in Venezuela … The overall objective was regime change.”
Gollinger explains how current opposition leaders “have been major recipients of US funding and political support for their endeavours to overthrow Chavez, and now Maduro.”
Lopez’s Voluntad Popular Party received initial funding from the US government.
Sumate, an organisation that Machado established, received substantial funding too, along with privileged meetings with George W Bush at the White House.
The path to peace and justice in Venezuela needs an end to anti-democratic interventions.
It requires respect for the will of the majority and for those who care about human rights to call on the opposition to enter dialogue and reject this cycle of senseless violence.
Grahame Morris MP is chairman of Labour Friends of Venezuela. For more information on current events in Venezuela see www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk
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