“I've had six bullets in me,” said Braulio Álvarez, a legislator from Camunare Rojo, a rural community in the Venezuelan state of Yaracuy. But the story behind Alvarez’s wounds doesn’t fit with the narrative of much Western media coverage of political violence in Venezuela, which tends to focus on repression of opposition protests by the left-wing government of President Nicolás Maduro. Pointing to different parts of his body, Álvarez said, “Here is the history of right-wing violence in Venezuela.”
Álvarez — a longtime supporter of former President Hugo Chávez — said he survived assassination attempts by paramilitaries connected to land barons, or latifundistas, incensed by Chávez’ land reform policies. Chávez initiated major land redistribution after signing the 2001 Land Law, which defined large estates as contrary to the national interest and which experts say helped spur a failed 2002 coup attempt. He transferred nearly 10 million acres of land to roughly 400,000 landless peasants, often prompting a violent response from gunmen linked to land barons. A violent struggle over rural inequality raged for years before the current protests against the Maduro government, said Álvarez, who complained that much of it had been ignored by foreign commentators.
“Where was the United States and the international human rights organizations when they were trying to kill us and steal our land?” said Álvarez. He said 6,000 people were killed from the 1950s to the 1980s by paramilitaries and security forces loyal to the right-wing governments that preceded Chávez. The U.S. and international human rights organizations, he said, “only started caring about human rights when Chávez came to power.”
Even now, he said, “The paramilitaries are operating with impunity in Táchira [state] and other areas, but you're not hearing about it outside Venezuela.”
Violence in Venezuela has been a major news media focus since February, but the picture is more complex than the one relayed by many news organizations. Although they disagree over death tolls and the balance of casualties, few local observers deny that Venezuelans in both pro- and anti-government camps are being killed.
Venezuelan human rights groups critical of Maduro have denounced the violent abuse of opponents and alleged cover-ups by government authorities. During a recent press conference at the Central University of Venezuela organized by rights group ProVEA, several rights organizations denounced government attempts to link them to violent opposition groups.
“We call on [government] officials to stop diving into the abyss of attacking human rights [organizations] because it shows that they want to divert attention from the crimes of the state,” said Alfredo Romero, a ProVEA coordinator and prominent government critic.
Romero, ProVEA and other Maduro critics are relentless in their claims that armed motorcyclists allied with the administration are perpetrating violence against peaceful opposition members.
But Chavistas complain that their casualties receive less attention from the international media, most notably the dramatic case of Elvis Duran, a 29-year-old motorcyclist beheaded by barbed wire allegedly placed for that purpose by opposition students, as well as numerous other assassinations and attacks.
“The paramilitary violence follows the logic of textbook destabilization programs, like what we saw in Chile, Nicaragua and during the (anti-Chávez) coup of 2002,” said Ramón Rodriguez Chacín, governor of Guarico state and a former minister of the interior and justice. “We’ve seen this kind of coup attempt before, only now it’s more mediatizado [spun by the media] and more difficult to get to the bottom of the violence and killing.”
Identifying the perpetrators of Venezuelan violence is one of the goals of a truth commission proposed as part of peace negotiations between the Maduro government and the Democratic Unity Round Table, a coalition of opposition groups. As they stand, negotiations aided by regional governments and the Vatican are in crisis, with some fearing they will break down for lack of agreement on crucial issues.
The key to resolving the problem of political violence in Venezuela, said Álvarez, is understanding that today’s increasingly violent political standoff has many dimensions and a deeper historical context than a simple case of the state responding to protests with force. Without that understanding, he warned, “This amnesia is killing us.”