The extreme right-wing has a history of violence.
February 12 ended with three confirmed deaths, more than 60 wounded and around 70 people arrested in connection to violent acts in Venezuela's streets. The death toll has since quadrupled, with hundreds of wounded and arrested. While the majority of protesters were peaceful on 12 February and since, a minority of opposition groups armed with guns, Molotov cocktails, rocks, and barricades have taken to the streets to cause chaos.
12 February wasn't an isolated incident; nor is its aftermath. For weeks beforehand these same violent groups had been active in Tachira and Merida states. In the city of Merida, small, organized groups had been blocking roads near the University of the Andes (ULA) on almost a daily basis in the lead up to 12 February. They hurled rocks at pedestrians and blocked traffic with burning piles of garbage. Ironically, they claimed to be protesting against insecurity.
None of this was unusual. While the majority of the opposition opposes the legitimate Venezuelan government peacefully, a violent strain of far right-wing extremists has afflicted the opposition movement for over a decade. Their history of killings and chaos can be traced as far back as the 2002 coup.
Similar violence was sparked when the opposition lost the 14 April, 2013 presidential elections. Nine people lost their lives, over 70 were injured and government institutions including medical centers were attacked.
Violent groups were again present during the 2012 presidential elections. During the first week of campaigning in July 2012, at least 10 people were injured in Monagas when supporters of Henrique Capriles clashed with Chavistas. Meanwhile in Caracas, firearms were seized from supposedly peace loving Capriles supporters.
In 2008, more non-violent demonstrators ransacked central Merida, shot two police officers, raided businesses, vandalized buildings and erected barricades to block traffic. They cynically claimed they were protesting insecurity.
The group also used the same violent tactics in 2006. Their ilk were at it again this month, after being urged back onto the streets by the leader of the Voluntad Popular party, Leopoldo Lopez.
The now detained Lopez claims to oppose violence, despite supporting the 2002 coup that left scores dead and temporarily ousted Hugo Chavez.
Even after a decade of bloodshed, the extremist far right-wing says they're the victim of government repression. Their claims are taken at face value by much of the international media. For example, in its initial article covering the 12 February violence, the BBC stated that,
“Students in the western states of Tachira and Merida have been at the forefront of the protests, saying they are fed up with the lack of security and the poor state of Venezuela's economy”.
Yet the weeks of daily violence of these “students” was scrubbed from the record.
Over the weekend following the first days of violence, United States Secretary of State John Kerry also lent his support to the aggressive extremists, arguing that arresting them would have “have a chilling effect on citizen’s rights to express their grievances peacefully”.
Ironically, on the following Monday, while the Venezuelan opposition's extremists were instigating more violence, peaceful protesters in the US were being rounded up by police. 30 non-violent activists were arrested outside the White House on Monday 17 February for protesting against US immigration policy. Instead of using Molotov cocktails and handguns, their protest included prayer, songs and holding placards.
While these 30 protesters were being shackled in Washington, only around 14 people were being held by Venezuelan authorities in relation to the violent protests since 12 February.
That afternoon, balaclava clad opposition groups blocked a main road in Merida, burning garbage and lashing out at pedestrians. It seems that violent protesters are treated with more leniency in Venezuela than peaceful activists are in the US.
Nonetheless, Lopez claimed that arresting violent protesters is part of a general “repression and persecution” of the opposition.
The implications of this are obvious. What Lopez refers to as “repression” is the struggle to protect the public from far right extremists.
It's not the government that is repressive, it's the extreme right's violent tactics.