This article was originally written as a response to Mike Gonzalez writing from Caracas in March about his experience of the disturbances. I spent 4 months in Venezuela, mostly in Caracas and Merida, and this article outlines the difference in our experiences.
Opposition protests have rocked Venezuela for over two months and in some areas barricades remain. I use the term “protests” loosely as they mainly involve youths with their faces covered who burn barricades to blockade roads and lack any political slogans or message. In Merida, they started with students from the University of Los Andes, one of Venezuela’s elite universities, repeatedly blockading the main road in the city (Avenida de Las Americas). They were supported by the anti-Chavista university management, which shut down the university once the tyre burning started. The protests only involve a handful of people who escape to the university whenever the police arrived, exploiting the fact that the police can’t legally enter the university and management does nothing to allow police to arrest them.
Protests by Location
The recent events began on January 22 when Leopoldo Lopez (involved in the 2002 coup attempt again Hugo Chavez) and a group of opposition leaders demanded “La Salida” (the exit) of the Chavista government, headed by Nicolas Maduro. In early February, opposition supporters in Tachira attacked the state governor’s house, leading to a string of arrests. Then on February 12, National Youth Day, an opposition march in Caracas ended in violence with a number of public buildings being destroyed. Since then the blockading of major roads has escalated into permanent barricades, closing off entire areas of different cities. While these barricades have been responsible for many deaths and caused much disruption across the country, they are only present in a handful of opposition-run municipalities.
I spent six weeks living in the city of Merida, the capital of the state with the same name, and an opposition stronghold. The middle class area near Avenida Las Americas has resembled a war zone. But take an hour-long bus ride in any direction and you wouldn’t know there was a problem. Recently I went to Elorza in the Llanos region, a huge flat plain several times the size of the UK, where the place is covered with United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) propaganda. I took a ride on a solid red motorbike with PSUV logos all over it, and rode a speedboat with PSUV propaganda covering the engine. The riots in east Caracas and Merida feel as far away as they would to someone in England.
This is an important point: the riots have only affected core opposition areas and are not spreading to other areas, especially not Chavista barrios (poor neighbourhoods). Mike Gonzalez wrote that he stayed in “a middle class dormitory suburb” in Caracas. Presumably this is in the east of the city, an area with the highest income per capita in Venezuela that regularly turns out 80% plus votes for the opposition, and one of the epicentres of the recent opposition violence. This is not meant as an attack as I’m not about to move to a poor barrio, but undoubtedly, where you live affects how you view the situation.
The opposition protests have an ever-increasing list of complaints that centre on a few key themes: “against food scarcity”, “against high inflation”, “against police violence”, ” against medical shortages.” Mike’s article seems to justify these complaints, and with them the protests, even if he notes that they mainly occur in middle class areas. Yet, if the situation was so insufferably bad, then what we would see is a repeat of the Caracazo, the 1989 uprisings of the poor and led to Hugo Chavez’s election a decade later.
Inflation in and out of context
In his first article, Mike wrote: “2012 had seen inflation rates hovering around 50% (officially) and the level has risen inexorably throughout the last year.” In fact, inflation only surpassed 50% in 2013, and was close to 25% in 2012. Nevertheless, readers in countries like the UK or USA will be blown away with the idea of 50% inflation. I remember the start of the financial crisis, when the Bank of England cut interest rates to 0.5% while inflation was at a few per cent, meaning every year you lost a few per cent from your savings. My few hundred pounds in the bank would be worth marginally less each year, not more. However, after spending months in Latin America I’m now blown away with how the money I have in the UK even maintains its value, compared to countries with weak currencies where the only way people can save is by converting their savings to dollars.
The BBC regularly points out that Venezuela has the highest inflation in Latin America but ignores that this has always been the case, and that before Chavez inflation peaked at 110%! (For those interested you can see the statistics here.) This is the same tactic that the right wing in England uses when talking about UK public debt: they start all their graphs and figures from when debt was historically low, but if they took the 1950s as their starting point then it would be clear that UK debt is only a third of what it was at its peak level, (and make it harder to present the case of austerity). This is how Venezuela’s inflation rate is being utilised now. While 50% is very high, the Chavez government had managed to bring it down to 20-25%, and minimum wage increases have outpaced inflation. The reason behind Venezuela’s inflation problems is its oil-based economy. Venezuela suffers from a phenomenon known as “Dutch disease” whereby a commodities boom causes a huge inflow of money into the local economy. This is exactly what is happening, and has happened, in Venezuela since oil exploitation took off in the 1930s.
At the same time we have to be careful with worrying too much about measures of inflation. Let’s take the example of students. Within a few years, UK university students have gone from receiving grants to having to pay fees of £9000 a year. What is the inflation rate in an increase from £0 to £9000? In contrast, Venezuelan students enjoy free universities with free dining halls and free buses including outside of school hours (just to name a few benefits). How does that fit into inflation? Since the 1970s, house prices in the UK have been rising at 20% a year in comparison to the minimum wage, whereas the Venezuelan government’s housing program (“Mision Vivienda”) has provided houses at the cost of roughly a day’s wage a month which owners paid off within a few years. When I explained to people living in these houses what percentage people in London pay from their salary for a flat and how much the price increases yearly they cannot believe it.
While high inflation is definitely a cause for concern, I don’t think this is nearly as big a concern as the Venezuelan right wing and western media hype it up to be. Speaking to Chavistas on the ground it doesn’t seem to be the main problem dominating their debates.
I can say the same about shortages. Mike’s earlier article mentioned, “increasingly empty shelves of shops and supermarkets”; by the time of his second article he wrote, “Supermarket shelves are empty”. Firstly, it’s very important to state that whatever shortages there were before, the areas with barricades are now suffering really serious shortages. Mike’s accounts of shortages could well be the result of “Small barricades ….[that] appear on most nights” which have blockaded and occasionally burning or kidnapping food and petrol trucks. Yet, the picture Mike paints does not square with my experience in Merida (one of the places worst affected by barricades), let alone other areas in the countryside I’ve visited. The reality is that there is a shortage of some staple products. Milk is hard to find, but if you want cheese, yoghurt, or any other dairy product then you will have no problem. The same goes for toilet paper; if you can make do with kitchen roll or serviettes then you’ll have no problems. While I would definitely argue that there is a problem with “scarcity” (in that certain items cannot be found in certain supermarkets and you need to shop around for them), the massive gains that Chavismo has made in nutrition (average calories intake increased from 91% of the recommended amount in 1998 to 101.6% in 2007) far overrides having to eat pasta in place of buying wheat flour.
On top of all this, we should not forget the many other advances that have occurred under Chavismo. Venezuela’s Gini index rating (a measure of equality) shows it is the most equitable country in Latin America. Poverty was reduced from 50% in 1998 to 25% in 2012, with extreme poverty reduced from 23.4% in 1999 to 8.5% in 2011. The UN happiness report has Venezuela as the happiest country in Latin America for the 2nd year running.
Focusing solely on the negatives seeks to prove that Chavismo “failures” are to blame for its downfall and that election result demonstrates declining support. But is there any proof that Chavismo is losing support? If we look at the number of votes, instead of the percentage of votes, we see a different story.
Chavez’s came to power in 1998 with 3,673,685 votes (56.2%). He won again in 2000, with 3,757,773 votes (60%). In the 2012 election, his share dropped to 55.1%, yet the number of votes he received increased to 8,191,132. In the post-Chavez 2013 election between Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate from one of Venezuela’s richest families, and Nicolas Maduro, a former trade unionist from the Caracas bus network, the latter received 7,587,579 votes.
The opposition have also increased their vote, from 2,613,161 in 1998 to 7,363,980 in 2013. However, in the December 2013 municipal elections (that Capriles called a referendum on Maduro), Chavismo won 5,111,336 of the vote nationally (49,24%) versus 4,435,097 votes (42,72%) for the opposition.
To understand how much has changed in Venezuela you just need to look at Capriles in his press conferences; unshaven, wearing a baseball cap and sports jacket made out of the Venezuelan flag. Imagine David Cameron doing a press conference in Adidas tracksuit bottoms and caps. Even left wing politicians in Europe dress in suits. This is how far the right have been pushed here by Chavismo in their struggle to build a coherent opposition platform.
Behind the protests
I have highlighted all this to explain why these opposition protests haven’t gained majority support in the country, and outline what I think are the real reasons behind these protests. So what is the real reason? Class war. The barricades only appear in middle and upper class areas, the “SOS Venezuela” slogans only appear on the $40,000 cars driven by the rich (never the battered cars from the barrios), and the protesters have gone out their way to attack everything that benefits the poor: public transport, subsidised food projects, public hospitals and Mission Barrio Adentro clinics, public museums, universities, just to name a few.
In the weeks leading up to barricades in Merida there were various opposition protests that consisted in putting up posters and painting slogans on the road. Some of these hand-written posters provided a window into their real motives. Many talked about overthrowing Maduro “the dictator”, but the most interesting one I saw said “Maduro, a president that never studied will never understand the students” revealing the very open class hatred these elite students had towards a trade unionist who had become the president
Looking at the current barricades in Merida I have seen effigies of Maduro hanging from lampposts, and graffiti that read “Comrade, the revolution has failed”, “Maduro dictator, leave office now”, Many slogans are bordering on fascist. Student leaders from across the country also recently released a five point manifesto outlining their demands. These are:
- No to dialogue with a “clientalist and totalitarian regime… for us any dialogue is imperatively conditioned on a complete overhaul of the political system.”
- “Withdrawal of all occupying Cuban military forces.”
- “Individual freedom. Economic freedom to be able to live off the fruits of our own labour…. - We do not accept the controls imposed by this castro-communist regime…”
- The dissolution of Chavista collectivos aka “paramilitary groups.”
- Free all those detained in recent protests and allow all exiles to return.
No mention of scarcity or the other reasons mentioned in the international press. If the opposition really cared about scarcity, violence and inflation they would actually offer solutions (something they never do) instead of exacerbating the situation. Maduro’s latest change to currency controls has caused a fall in the black market rate for the first time since Chavez’s death, yet there is no talk of this by the opposition. Maduro has introduced ration cards in the government-subsidised supermarkets (Mercal, PDVAL) to combat scarcity and speculation after a similar scheme was successfully introduced at petrol stations in states bordering Colombia. Yet Maduro is instantly attacked for the Cubanisation of Venezuela without any other solutions presented.
This brings us to the question of what the opposition hope to achieve with their protests. Mike talks of a national liberation movement in the west of Venezuela involving the states of Merida, Tachira and Zulia. Have spent lots of time in Merida,, I can say I have not seen much evidence for Mike’s idea of a separatist movement in western Venezuela. Rather, protestor’s tend to drape themselves in the Venezuelan flag (caps, jackets, huge flags) and talk about changing the government in Caracas.
Mike says that the barricades have made “the middle class angrier”. However, the latest surveys show only 11% of Venezuelans support the barricades while more than 80% are against violent protest. Moreover, many of these places are already so anti-Chavista that it’s hard to see how they could become more pro-opposition. For example, in the last municipal election, the opposition won 84% of the vote in Chacao, a key centre of protests in eastern Caracas.
What should Chavismo do about these protests? Firstly, its important to describe the class make up of different regions in Venezuela. Unlike the UK, where the inner city is poor and working class, the city is surrounded by richer, more middle class suburbs, and the countryside is conservative, here you have almost the complete opposite. The rich live in the inner city; surrounding the centre of the city are the poor barrios; and the countryside is solid Chavista. Chavez’s support has always been in the barrios and the countryside.
All the remaining barricades are in these inner city areas and all in opposition-run muncipalities. In Merida the opposition mayor has done nothing to stop the barricades, so the Chavista state governor has tried to clear the area with the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB). Far from being the repressive dictatorship that the opposition like to portray, the death count ratio of riot police to civilians is in the single figures. Generally, when a military dictatorship orders a crackdown, tens, if not hundreds of people are killed for every dead police officer. Yet of the 30 deaths that have occurred, about 10 were opposition supporters, 10 were chavistas, and the remaining security force personnel or people who have died as a result of the barricades, including two motorcyclists decapitated by barbed wire put up at the roadblocks.
To anyone who has ever been involved with a protest in England, the police here appear to be extremely lenient with protesters and there are so many rights for protestors it’s incredible. A handful of protestors are allowed to block main roads in the daytime and the police just stand by to guard them. When police ignore the protests, protestors turn to burning buses and cars and attacking public building in order to goad the police.
Of course, leaving it to the state to deal with problems like this is not the right solution, even if the GNB are very different to the riot police of the UK or USA (after clearing Altamira Plaza they did a victory loop blasting out left wing folk music!). Yet, when ordinary Chavistas have tried to clean up the barricades, they have been shot.
So in a scenario where the opposition looks like they have been trying to do a repeat of the 2002 coup attempt (the right wing newspaper El Nacional has even been recycling newspaper headlines from 2002!), the last thing chavistas want to do is initiate street battle with opposition protestors who are ready to unleash a bloodbath and call on the international community to (militarily) intervene. This is especially so given the barricades are only in opposition areas Why would those in the west of Caracas (who have been hardly affected by the barricades) march to the east and liberate middle class opposition areas from themselves? If a leftwing reformist government got elected in the UK and Altrincham residents barricaded themselves in, would we march down from the working class districts of Manchester, especially if it risked a bloodbath and the invasion of neighbouring states?
What I have tried to do in this article is show that Venezuela’s economic problems do not mean that Chavismo’s is finished, nor has its election support declined. While there are economic problems, these are not enough to cause a change of government. These concerns have been over-hyped by the opposition who are protesting because they want Chavismo out of power. Rather than representing the seeds to a new grassroots movement for social change, the recent protests resemble a fascist attempt at regime destabilisation. It is therefore debatable as to how these tactics will win over any new people to the opposition and how any of this represents the end of the Bolivarian Revolution.