What’s going on in Venezuela?

UK academic Lee Salter, an expert on media coverage of Venezuela, gives his view on the reasons behind and aims of the current opposition protests.


UK academic Lee Salter, an expert on media coverage of Venezuela, gives his view on the reasons behind and aims of the current opposition protests.

What’s going on in Venezuela?

It’s difficult to briefly explain the situation in Venezuela right now. The difficulty lies in the fact that it is complicated, like most things. No matter how various political protagonists, human rights groups and news media would like to paint things as simple, black and white, they are not. To understand one has to dig down, deep.

A particularly galling video on YouTube explains that millions of students took to the street to protest about crime and the security situation. The comments by Venezuelans on said video are telling. In fact, what English-speakers hear about Venezuela is one of the biggest problems – if a Venezuelan speaks English, chances are that they are part of the small minority of the (relatively) ultra-rich who’ve been fighting to overthrow democracy since 1998. The curious thing about them is that they know what to say to whom and when.

They know to say “communism”, “Cuba”, “democracy” and “human rights”. They know when to say these words and they know who to say them to. Crucially their cultural networks of communicative power allow them to do so. On one level it is as simple as this – the Venezuelan news media has traditionally been controlled by the ultra-rich minority (of around 5-10% of the population). Traditionally there has been no real alternative to this media dominance, beside the odd under-funded community radio station. Moreover, in order to become a journalist one needs the sort of training and contacts afforded only to the ultra-rich, alongside the cultural associations and linguistic ability.

As the U.S. political scientists Ronald Sylvia and Constantine Danopoulos explain, the availability of such cultural capital is restricted: ‘Weekend shopping trips to Miami were the order of the day for the bourgeois classes. The oil riches, however, did not trickle down to the bottom of Venezuelan society. A sizeable portion of Venezuela’s population remained desperately poor’.

The ultra-rich have historically been well connected to Miami, the US more generally as well as to the international jet-set. They have media interests and media contacts and they dominate international communications about Venezuela. So, when a story needs to get out about the dramatic abuse of journalists (in one occasion I noted a human rights group release a story about such an abuse, which I investigated to find the original footage of a camera operator being jostled on a picket line), the lines of communication are open, and a primed international media is ready to accept anything that conforms to expectations.

The international diaspora of Venezuelans is largely on message. To be in another country, chances are they are part of the ultra-rich, or at least the middle class. Given the on-going relative poverty experienced by the majority of Venezuelans (which means they can’t afford the expensive plane tickets out), you’re not likely to ever hear the “other side”. It is thus that I heard from an “exile”, a really cool, funky hippie-type whose plight had caught the sympathy of everyone in her wide network of English friends: (paraphrased) “Chavez hates the people, he hates anyone with money. He is trying to stop the dams from producing electricity so that rich people can’t have televisions and things. In Caracas they only have 4 hours of electricity per day”. My response: I’ve just come back from ten days in Venezuela, and there was one power cut of about 20 minutes.

Another time I was stuck with rather scary English-speaking Venezuelan in a cable car in Caracas. She and her partner began talking to me and my friend about lightbulbs: “you know anything about Venezuela, about Chavez? He’s a communist you know? He’s trying to destroy the country. He’s trying to force everybody to have energy saving lightbulbs…but this isn’t Cuba”. After 5 minutes of ranting, my friend in his inimitable Irish accent gently explained that they have energy saving lightbulbs in Ireland and he doesn’t feel particularly oppressed by them.

I was baffled by the aggression and fury about electricity and lightbulbs. To a reasonable mind the explanation is as follows: Venezuela was experiencing a long, extended drought. Because of this, water levels in the hydro-electric dams were low so power generation was low. At the same time there were not enough engineers with the right expertise working on the dams and rivers for proper maintenance. The big problem, however, was the increase in the sales of consumer electrical items, such as refrigerators, encouraged by the government to improve the quality of life. So, drought + lack of care for hydroelectric plants + increase demand on electricity = power cuts. The short-term solution: energy saving items.

When quizzing Thomas Muhr, a researcher on Venezuela at the University of Bristol, about the mania over lightbulbs, he told me that it was all led by a rumour that Chavez was placing video cameras in in them so he could spy on them in their homes. Quite.

<EDIT: I’ll add this as it came through as a comment: “ there is not even food and if, you got killed trying to buy it milk on the corner of you house”. So here we have it – the Venezuelan government kills people for buying milk too>

The stories go on and on and on. One of the most striking things, however, is that when one gets to corruption and crime there is general agreement among most Venezuelans. Almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to in and around the Venezuelan government says the same – there’s too much corruption, we don’t seem to be able to do anything about crime, the revolution isn’t fast enough, the people don’t seem to realise what they can do and so on. That is to say, there’s no apparent wall of agreement around the government or the Bolivarian movement more generally that blinds them or others to shortcomings.

The other big problem is the one that is certainly not shared by the ultra-rich: how to stop the CIA and reactionary forces inside Venezuela from overthrowing the democratically elected government. This is the story through which the situation in Venezuela must be understood.

Most of the coverage of Venezuela in the Western corporate media plays on what is called the “exceptionalism thesis”. This is the idea that Venezuela is historically different to the rest of Latin America, insofar as it was stable and democratic. The thesis has been challenged by Steve Ellner and Miguel Salas, who, alongside an array of Latin American scholars point to the fact that prior to Chavez ‘Venezuela marked by extreme poverty set against a narrowly constituted elite of 5-10% of the population’ according to Princeton University’s Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno. According to Julia Buxton of Bradford University, between 1975 and 1995 poverty increased dramatically, with the percentage of persons living in poverty rising from 33% to 70% during that period, the number of households in poverty increased from 15% to 45% between 1975 and 1995, by 2000 wages had dropped 40% from their 1980 levels, and by 1997 67% of Venezuelans earned less than $2 a day. There’s very little in the data that distinguishes Venezuela. Add to that the historically airbrushed atrocity of the Caracazo Massacre, where thousands of poor people were slaughtered in the same year as Tiananmen Square, for protesting IMF dictats, and there’s very little if anything for the poor to hark back to.

Such an understanding is lost on the international media who are more than encouraged to reflect back on an imagined era prior to Chavez, when the country was “unified” (one presumes happy in poverty and oppression) and “stable”. For example, my own research has outlined the narrative that the BBC inadvertently plays on (I say “inadvertently” because one of the correspondents whose work makes up the bulk of the sample we analysed is a committed Chavista), which masks the history of the majority.

The BBC’s narrative begins way back in 1998, before Chavez had been able to do anything. In December 1998 it told us that “Venezuela is proud of its democratic record”, that “many” see Chavez as a kind of autocratic military leader (remember he’d hardly done anything by then), and that in the good old days a high proportion of government spending went on social programmes. Amazing, really, that so many were still in poverty or voted for this demon from hell.

It took less than a year for the Beeb to mind us that “There is a dictatorship” in Venezuela. And for those idiots who think the fact that he was elected gives him legitimacy, remember that “Adolph Hitler was elected too”.

This framing of Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution went on for the next ten years – Chavez came from nowhere, he’s a grave danger for Venezuela and the world, and … oh wow, how did he get elected again?!

By 2002 the emboldened “opposition”, a term which cannot but bestow legitimacy, had used the vast private media to launch a bloody coup. That they did this with their allies in the private media is incontestable given the arrogance of right-wing reactionaries in Venezuela – they told us so on air.

Yet for the BBC Chavez had “quit” due to his “mishandling” of “strikes” (actually a management lockout) and a demonstration in which Chavez decide to murder his own supporters. Fortunately “Venezuela … looked not to an existing politician but to the head of the business leaders’ association”, Pedro Carmona. In the world of the BBC (which, to be fair to the BBC was dependent on the international news agencies, which in turn depended on local journalists, who in the main work for the private media that helped launch the coup… and so on), the coup was actually “Venezuela” forming a transitional government and “restoring democracy”. On this account, democracy appears to be something that involves the ultra-rich shooting people and seizing power.

The situation never changed. No matter how many democratic elections Chavez, the movement he led or the party he helped form won, no matter what level of electoral legitimacy Venezuelans (rather than the BBC’s “Venezuela”) bestowed on Chavez, the government could not stand, and the implacable reactionaries would not cease until the Old Order was restored (unless they are talking to the rest of the world, in which case the line tends to be, “oh I’m sure they’re well-meaning and the social programmes are good, but there are too many bad people around and too much mismanagement”).

The most recent protests are indeed about a lot of things, and no doubt reflect a plethora of voices, just as there’s a variety of voices within the movement. Indeed, Venezuela still has problems, a lot of problems. Yet the “opposition” is as concerned with poverty as its leaders were when they presided over massive levels of poverty. They are as concerned with human rights as they were during the Caracazo Massacre. They are as concerned with democracy as they were when there was de facto exclusion of most of the population from political life. The big fear is the change in this latter. And it is this fear of the “plebs” that drives the “opposition”.

There’s a familiar story about states that sit outside the sphere of US hegemony – they tend to face campaigns of destabilisation, coups and invasions where necessary. The invariable response to such threats is to “clamp down” on previously enjoyed freedoms. The notion of a “strategy of tension” demands that a government is put in a defensive position, a “state of emergency” as it’s called in a friendly state. It is also this reaction, the context of which is rarely mediated, that motivates a number of the protesters.

It is worth reflecting how other states of emergency are mediated. After the 2011 riots in the UK, 3000 young people were swept up in a dragnet and sent to kangaroo courts for what would no doubt be called in Venezuela, a protest against an out of touch and corrupt government. The repressive clampdown was cheered on by the British media. Yet if the current President Maduro or Chavez before him had received as small a proportion of the vote as Cameron, Venezuela would probably have been invaded by now.

Contrast the conduct of broadcast media in the UK with that of Venezuela. It’s not simply that the private media in Venezuela have been “biased” in their coverage of politics, which British broadcasters are forbidden by law to be, it’s that they actively initiated an coup against democracy in 2002 that lead to the deaths of hundreds. Should Trevor Phillips appear on ITV News and council the army and navy to rise up against the government he’d be gone in the blink of an eye. Should his bosses support his position and continue to encourage such action on a daily basis for years it’s hardly outlandish to suggest that the ITV licence would not be renewed, as happened in Venezuela

In a sense the Venezuelan government is playing into the hands of the reactionaries and their supporters in the US. Some of the measures taken to ward off coup threats and enable a government that’s never garnered less than 50% of the vote to carry out its mandate have been clunky to put it mildly. Yet at the same time, it is difficult to see how else, other than emergency measures, the will of the people could be fulfilled.

Indeed, it is this that is the crux of the situation in Venezuela. It is not about a sudden emergence of economic problems, corruption or crime. It is about the ultra-rich and their supporters, especially among the middle class who for 15 years have spent their time, energy and resources trying every measure possible to overthrow the will of the people. Again, there are problems a plenty in Venezuela but the trick is to understand these in the context of the bigger picture.