Extreme political polarization in Venezuela has taken a heavy toll, including violence that has claimed more than a score of lives in recent days. Both the opposition and the government share a degree of responsibility. The opposition’s actions in their entirety are designed to achieve regime change in spite of the fact that the Chavistas reached power by legitimate means and continue to enjoy a significant degree of popular support. Furthermore, the opposition consistently employs tactics of mass civil disobedience even though these mobilizations are accompanied by the destructive actions of small bands of combatants. The government, for its part, has failed to present definitive dates for the regional elections that have already been delayed by six months. Furthermore, the decision to prohibit the electoral participation of former presidential candidate and governor Henrique Capriles on grounds of accusations of corruption can only be seen as a provocation.
Just like hot spots in the Middle East and elsewhere, extreme polarization in Venezuela originated internally, but was then exacerbated by foreign actors. Specifically, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the US government openly side with the opposition and support all its demands. Their pronouncements only pour gasoline on the fire and make understanding between the two sides all the more unlikely. The international media with its one-sided reporting plays an equally negative role. It has failed to adequately report on actions perpetrated against government supporters and public property that elsewhere would be categorized as acts of terrorism. Furthermore, it supports the claim of opposition leaders that the government, in refusing to allow opposition marches to reach downtown Caracas, is denying the right of protest. In fact, if a massive number of protesters were to reach the vicinity of the presidential palace, violence would very likely break out, as occurred on the day of the coup against Chávez on April 11, 2002. In short, outside actors such as the OAS and the international media, rather than playing a constructive role as is their obligation, are having the opposite effect, namely intensifying polarization.
Naomi Schiller, an ethnographic filmmaker and assistant professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College who has studied community media in Caracas, writes:
It is vital to understand that few poor communities have joined recent opposition protests not because they are too hungry or because they fear government repression, as mainstream media outlets insist. Hunger and fear are undoubtedly real. Yet, the decisive factor undermining popular support for recent protest is the opposition’s anti-poor discourse. Leading opposition forces invoke meritocracy and human rights to defend their traditional class privilege. Many who live in traditional chavista strongholds vehemently reject Maduro and his government’s efforts to control debate about what is to be done. Nevertheless, the opposition continues to represent to them only a return to an unjust social and economic order. Any conversation about the path forward for Venezuela should emphasize not only the importance of procedural democracy, but also economic rights and meaningful popular participation in politics. The Trump administration has no positive role to play in fostering peace and justice in Venezuela.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington, DC–based Center for Economic and Policy Research:
The AP reports that Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, “unsuccessfully urged OAS members to suspend Venezuela unless general elections were held soon.” Nobody in the major media noticed the irony of his demanding that Venezuela violate its own constitution by cutting short the elected president’s term. Meanwhile in neighboring Brazil, the unelected president’s approval rating has fallen to 4 percent, and a general strike took place on April 28. The OAS/Washington do not get involved. Almagro originally opposed as illegitimate the parliamentary coup that brought in the current Brazilian government, but fell silent after it became clear that Washington supported it. With a major international effort under way to topple the Venezuelan government, it is easy to miss the fact that it is 100 or 1,000 times more dangerous to be a human rights defender or journalist in US allied-countries like Mexico, Colombia, or Honduras than it is in Venezuela. TheNew York Times reports that in Mexico, “more often than drug cartels,” government officials are responsible for the murder and torture of journalists and the impunity that puts Mexico between Afghanistan and Somalia in terms of the danger of practicing journalism. If the Venezuelan government were to be responsible for the killing of even one journalist, it would be a major issue for the US government and its allies, including the media. This is not to say that human rights violations are any more excusable in Venezuela than elsewhere. It’s just that everyone should know why Venezuela is being singled out for regime change, as it has for the past 15 years. And the worst part is that this effort to delegitimize the Venezuelan government makes the dialogue that, e.g., the Vatican has called for much more difficult. But as the large demonstrations on both sides, as well as polling data show, Venezuela is still a polarized country. While there are millions who want the government out now, there are also millions (including the military) who fear a right-wing coup. There must be a negotiated solution.
Venezuela finds itself at a crossroads. For the first time, one can clearly see the possibility of a civil war, promoted by imperialism and its local allies: the Venezuelan and Colombian bourgeoisie. The hidden war against popular and peasant leaders could spread. But there is another way: peace with justice. For this to happen, a number of steps should be taken:
- Convene regional elections immediately [note: this is a reference to the election of governors, which was scheduled for last December but delayed; many frontline activists hope to use these these elections to isolate both extremists in the opposition and the madurista elite].
- With these elections, the violent factions of the opposition could be isolated. Then there could be dialogue with the less extremist opposition.
- Strengthen the articulation of public power, which is currently being undermined [note: “popular power” here is a reference to the Bolivarian ideal of incorporating social movements into governing institutions, a process that frontline activists say is hindered by the Maduro government].
- Resolve the political crisis by resolving the economic crisis.
- The PSUV [the governing socialist party] should negotiate with those willing to build bridges, not with those who stand opposed to peaceful resolution.
- The government should stop persecuting left-wing activists who criticize it.
- Initiate a campaign that promotes peace and conflict resolution within the constitutional framework. Those who murder, injure, burn hospitals and terrorize the population must be condemned legally and morally.
- The government must understand that there are broad sectors of the population that opposes it, which it needs to include in its policy making. It is not correct to describe every opponent as a terrorist.
- We are in a moment of great social fragility, and all national and international effort should be made to avoid a second Syria. There is a lot of false information on the internet, many false everyday rumors. Therefore we need to act with great intelligence and caution when passing on information, in order to avoid violence and to foster dialogue.
- The majority of people want peace and social welfare…. They are a source of hope.