After over a month of violence explicitly aimed at ousting the Maduro government, major media outlets and governments in the North Atlantic are blind to the bad faith of the opposition.Comparisons by right-wing think tanks of contemporary Venezuela to the “Dirty Wars” of the 1970s in the Southern Cone obscure past and present U.S. support for some of the most reactionary elements in the Americas and trigger easily accessible scripts of Latin American politics and societies. Global citizens in the digital age readily identify with the fight against human rights abuses. However, this empathy is being abused by opposition figures Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado, as well as their allies in the north.
The media narrative throughout the United States and other North Atlantic countries frames the current round of anti-government protests in Venezuela as a conflict between peaceful student protesters and a bloody, dictatorial regime. Even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeated hyperbolic claims of a crackdown in Venezuela. Meanwhile, unwitting celebrities and clickbait websites have dutifully spread the message through Twitter, hashtags and all. Additionally, after facing repeated losses throughout 2013 at the ballot boxes, López and Machado called in early February for demonstrations to oust the government in the streets under the banner #lasalida (“the exit,” or alternatively, “the solution”). After “the exit” came calls for help, with photo montages and videos of heroic students being brutalized by stormtrooper lookalikes under a call to #prayforvenezuela.
These images and the stories they tell are gripping. However, many of them are fabricated: images of Venezuelans battling against police proved to be from Chile, Colombia, Brazil, or even Syria. The majority of deaths have occurred at the barricades, where opposition protesters have shot and killed national guard troops, government activists, and even their own neighbors for trying to dismantle the roadblocks that have held some areas hostage by blocking traffic, burning garbage, and charging fees for safe passage for well over a month. In one particularly horrific case that went unreported by CNN or Buzzfeed, opposition protestors strung razor wire across a major thoroughfare in Caracas as per the instructions of retired General Ángel Vivas; three people were beheaded as a result.
In the face of this, Nicolás Maduro’s government has shown comparatively remarkable restraint. In over a month of disruption and confrontation, as of March 13 just over one thousand opposition protesters have been arrested—as many were arrested in the long weekend of G-20 protests in Toronto, Canada, in 2010. All but 100 have been released without bail or restrictions. Meanwhile, arrests have been made in cases where state officials have been implicated in deaths or in using excessive force against protestors; the director of the National Police was fired for mishandling an incident where officers failed to obey orders not to mobilize, resulting in the deaths of at least one opposition protestor and two government supporters.
Key public figures of the opposition are only finally being held accountable for their roles in instigating and materially supporting the disturbances in Táchira state, where even the New York Times has reported on the particularly violent nature of protests. To date, all government offers to hold “national reconciliation” talks on questions of insecurity, the economy, scarcity, and political polarization in Venezuela (a key demand of the initial round of protests) have been repeatedly rebuffed by the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD)—the coalition headed by Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda and former opposition candidate for President.
The misleading moralism of the opposition’s hashtag narrative hides a rift within the Venezuelan opposition. López and Machado are elements of the extreme right wing in Venezuela, with well-established ties to the United States. López is a Harvard-educated politician whose former party, Primero Justicia, started its life as a National Endowment for Democracy-funded NGO. Machado headed Súmate, the U.S.-funded NGO behind the 2004 recall campaign against then-president Hugo Chávez. During the 48-hour coup that removed Hugo Chávez from power in April 2002, López (then mayor of Chacao, an affluent Caracas district) led a mob attack against the Cuban Embassy (link in Spanish). Both López and Machado come from arch-Catholic and extremely affluent backgrounds and both have criticized Henrique Capriles for his ostensible political centrism and willingness to negotiate with the elected government of the Bolivarian Revolution.
While positioning himself as a reasonable middle-ground alternative to the Bolivarian Socialism of the Maduro government and the agenda-less reaction of the López and Machado camp might have seemed an astute political calculation in early February, at this point Capriles seems like an outside observer to ongoing events. This is why Capriles will likely be the biggest loser of the current round of protests. While the initial protests called for action on key—and very real—problems of insecurity and shortages, as they drag on and become increasingly confined to affluent areas and opposition strongholds, they look more like a nihilistic destabilization campaign and less like a sincere call for national dialogue and action. Capriles thus appears more of a hostage to the Venezuelan equivalent of the U.S. Tea Party than the active social democrat of the Lula stripe he had once claimed to be. Indeed, even North Atlantic media outlets with an editorial track record of persistent criticism for the Bolivarian Revolution have recognized that this year’s protests are likely to bolster support for Maduro, perhaps even outside of the Bolivarian Revolution’s traditional base.
The regional response to opposition protests in Venezuela highlights just how politically divided North and South America are today. Governments in Latin America all but unanimously supported Maduro’s government. The Chilean student movement—one of the strongest and most successful in the region—published a denunciation of the anti-government student protesters in Venezuela. Calls by the right-of-center government of Ricardo Martinelli in Panama to send Organization of American States observers to Venezuela were rebuffed by every other government in the organization. Panama, the United States, and Canada remain outliers to a regional consensus defending Venezuelan sovereignty on domestic affairs. Even the government of Colombia—traditionally at odds with Venezuela and ideologically opposed to the “21st Century Socialism” of the Maduro government—has refused to offer moral, material, or political support to the opposition.
The specter of foreign intervention marks discourse on both sides of the political divide in Venezuela—though with strikingly different grasps on reality. Maduro’s blanket accusation that opposition protesters are “fascists” and puppets of the United States overstates the case for many participants in rallies against violence and shortages (though the often racist discourse and calls for a military coup from even mainstream opposition leaders is striking). At the same time, claims by opposition politicians like Caracas’ mayor Antonio Ledezma that the national government is beholden to orders from la Habana or that the National Guard is made up of Cubans are laughable at best and usually serve as evidence of the underlying racial dynamics and fears animating middle class protests in Venezuela.
Interventionism and internationalism are watchwords in Latin America after over a month of protests in Venezuela. While characterizations of the past 15 years in Latin American politics as a “Pink Tide” of left-of-center victories overlook important differences among local movements, policies, and issues, responses to the destabilization campaign in Venezuela nonetheless illustrate a much more unified independent streak in the region than would have been expected 20 years ago. You’ll encounter little of that on Twitter.
Dr. Donald Kingsbury is a Lecturer of the University of Toronto (Political Science.) He has taught extensively at the Department of Politics at UCSC, designing courses on Contemporary Political and Critical Thought, Liberalism, and the War on Terror, Social Movement Studies, and Latin American Politics. His work has been published in Theory & Event, Historical Materialism, and New Political Science.