Protest and Destabilization in Venezuela: The Difference Between the Violent And Non-Violent Right Is Smaller Than You May Think

Ellner argues that the opposition's street action and civil unrest appear to follow a coordinated plan which is pre-designed to provoke regime change in Venezuela while justifying violence in the eyes of mass media.


Schemes designed to demonstrate that governments considered hostile to U.S. interests are ruthless and undemocratic span many decades and continents. There is one highly effective type of manipulation that is frequently employed: Peaceful protests are combined with violent ones as the media and opposition conflate the tactics used by security forces against the former and the justified use of force against the latter. The key actors in this display of deception know exactly what their role is and how to act in order to ensure success. Often, support for regime change opens opportunities for blatantly anti-democratic political movements, some of which employ terrorist tactics.

Consider the following examples. In Chile under Salvador Allende, upper-class women gathered to bang on pots and pans while in their shadows members of the right-wing paramilitary group Patria y Libertad used violence to provoke security forces. The message was clear: The Marxist government of Allende did not tolerate free expression of opinion and, in addition, Communists beat up on decent, respectable women.

More recently, uprisings in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine were all preceded by a first phase of mass protests, which in some cases put forward legitimate grievances. The media, Washington spokespeople, and human rights NGOs uniformly condemned the government’s violation of basic democratic rights and soon expressed sympathy for those who engaged in violence and called for regime change. In the case of Ukraine, the second phase of mass protest consisted of armed revolt that included a large contingent of neo-fascists. In Syria, the second phase involved a diversity of terrorist groups including Ahrar al-Sham tied to Al Qaeda, but the U.S. narrative singled out the government as the true “bad guy.” Indeed, Washington has put forward the implausible argument that material support for the “good” rebels committed to democracy will allow them to gain the upper hand against the “bad” ones, that is, terrorists.

The sanctions against Venezuela approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in May must be seen in this larger context. Pro-sanctions lawmakers make no reference to the violence perpetrated by Venezuelan government adversaries, thus fitting a decades-old pattern that ignores any evidence of wrongdoing by those considered to be friends. Moreover, the congresspeople who favor sanctions claim that the measure would force the Maduro government to come to the bargaining table to negotiate in earnest, thus leaving the impression that it is the Chavistas, and not opposition leaders, who are refusing to talk.

While conspiracy theory is seldom useful, it is not a stretch to conclude that the main actors in these cases follow scripts that suggest a degree of premeditated coordination, be it tacit or explicit. Current developments in Venezuela demonstrate how this synchronization dynamic works out in practice. Consider the role of the following actors:

The “non-violent” or “democratic” opposition: From the very outset of the recent wave of protests, opposition parties grouped in the Table of Democratic Unity (MUD) refused to distance themselves in any significant way from the perpetrators of the violence. While opposing violence in the abstract, MUD leaders generally refrain from condemning specific acts. For instance, MUD leaders have failed to make clear that their main slogan—“Free the Political Prisoners”—does not include those implicated in violent and highly disruptive illegal actions. The phrase therefore can be seen as a smokescreen to support those arrested for engaging in acts of violence. Furthermore, the MUD defends the democratic credentials of the main fringe party of the radical right, “Voluntad Popular,” and rushes to the defense of its jailed leader Leopoldo López, who it claims is the victim of government persecution. Indeed, one of the leading figures of the MUD, Metropolitan Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, serves as a bridge between the less radical leaders of the opposition and its radical fringe.

The government of Maduro understandably is eager to distinguish between radicals like López and María Corina Machado, on the one hand, and the principal leaders of the MUD, on the other. Sometimes Chavista spokespeople refer to the latter as the “democratic” or “moderate” opposition, although the term “pragmatic right” is more accurate for most opposition leaders. The dichotomizing obscures how, although certainly tensions and differences exist between the two groups, in practice they complement one another. Furthermore, the pragmatists have demonstrated time and again that they are unwilling to sever ties with the radicals. The latest example is that after accepting President Maduro’s invitation for a peace dialogue, the MUD in mid-May swung over to Voluntad Popular’s position that talks have to be contingent on government concessions, specifically the freeing of what the MUD calls political prisoners.

The opposition’s radical fringe: The MUD’s discourse of support for the jailed Leopoldo López and its demand of freeing “political prisoners” leave the impression that the violent protests are spontaneous and without leadership. The implication is that no one, at least no national leader, is responsible for the violence. Yet abundant documents presented by the Minister of the Interior Miguel Rodríguez Torres, which the opposition has yet to disprove with concrete evidence, go far in refuting this notion. The documents include videos, emails, phone recordings, phone registries, laptop files and the like that demonstrate the links between the protestors and members of Voluntad Popular, the MUD, political and financial figures in Washington and Miami, and drug cartels. The laptop that security forces seized in the apartment of the jailed “logistics operator” for the violent protests Rodolfo Pedro González Martínez (alias, “the Aviator”) revealed useful information about the tie-ins between important political actors. The imprisonment of 58 foreigners during the protests (as of early May), including several wanted for drug trafficking who appear on the Interpol list, is additional proof that violent protests were not a disconnected, spontaneous affair. According to Rodríguez Torres, the current conspiracy dates back to 2010.

The Venezuelan and international media: Like other actors who contribute to destabilization in Venezuela, opposition and most international media either ignores violence carried out by the radical right or claims (or insinuates) that the government itself is responsible. In attributing the violence to infiltrators, these versions echo the scapegoating of violence seen at its most extreme in 1933 Germany, when Hitler ordered members of the SA to burn the Reichstag, the German congress, and then blamed the Communists for the act. But the same media sometimes inadvertently makes evident the implausibility of its claim. For instance on May 17, the influential regional newspaper El Tiempo of Puerto La Cruz published an article titled “Hooded Youth Cause Chaos on the Main Avenue in Lechería.” The article reports how residents of this upper-class municipality that has always voted overwhelmingly for opposition candidates brought garbage onto the street for the protesters to burn. But the article ends by insinuating that the event was a Chavista plot: “According to residents of the area, the whole thing appeared to be directed against the mayor to cause him damage.” In obliquely blaming the Chavistas for the violence, the closing comment ignores the above statement, namely that community residents collaborated with the protesters.

Another explanation for the violence echoed by the media is that peaceful demonstrators were radicalized by the brutality of security forces. This same cause-and-effect relationship has been applied to other hot spots throughout the world. The explanation would be credible had a significant period of time elapsed between the first phase of peaceful protests and the second, violent one. In the U.S., for instance, radicalization in the 1960s took several years between the first demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the emergence of groups like the Weathermen in 1969. But in the case of Venezuela it occurred within three short days, culminating on February 6 when protestors attacked the governor’s residence in the state of Mérida and set fire to the guardhouse in front of it. At no time do media outlets consider the thesis that these actions were part of a script in which peaceful protests pave the way for premeditated violent ones.

The U.S. government: With the outbreak of violence in February, the Obama administration immediately abandoned efforts to achieve a rapprochement, which the friendly encounter of Secretary of State John Kerry and the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua in Guatemala in June 2013 seemed to presage. The White House reacted by putting all the blame for the violence on the Venezuelan government without acknowledging the radical fringe’s violent actions. More recently, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson unwittingly acknowledged the cozy relationship between the White House and the Venezuelan opposition. She told Congress that her government was not as yet pressing for sanctions against high ranking Chavistas because members of the anti-Chavista coalition MUD had indicated their disapproval of the idea. The comment revealed the extent to which policymakers in Washington act on behalf of the Venezuelan opposition.

The National Endowment for Democracy—which is funded by the US government—and USAID have granted millions of dollars to groups led by radicals López and Machado. According to Eva Golinger, who has written extensively on the subject, since the opening of the Office of Transition Initiatives in its Caracas embassy in 2002, the U.S. government has channeled over $100 million into the anti-Chavista campaign.

But U.S. involvement may be more nefarious. The harshness and relentlessness of the Obama administration’s persecution of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning may be an indication of the seriousness of what Washington is attempting to hide. It may be recalled that the CIA’s famous 1950 manual (available in the National Security Archives at George Washington University) warns agents against leaving paper trails in the case of certain activities. The “soft coup” that combines violent and non-violent tactics was successfully applied in Nicaragua in the 1980s, when U.S. supported counterinsurgency paved the way for the electoral defeat of the Sandinista government by Violeta Chamorro, who also received generous U.S. funding. During this period the Pentagon developed the doctrine of “low-intensity warfare,” which sought to coordinate activity carried out on different fronts. General Donald R. Morelli and Major Michael M. Ferguson of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command described this strategy in 1984 as “the synchronized application of-all elements of national power across the entire range of conditions which are the sources of the conflict.”


The recent wave of violence in Venezuela raises questions about timing. Opposition violence following the presidential election in April 2013, when Nicolás Maduro won by a mere 1.5 percent of the vote, was easier to understand though equally unjustifiable. In December Chavistas won by a margin of 11.5 percentage points in municipal elections, which had been dubbed a “plebiscite” by opposition standard-bearer Henrique Capriles. The triumph thus seemed to signal a period of stability and consolidation, at least until the next electoral cycle in late 2015. In this sense, the Venezuelan case follows a familiar pattern, perhaps even a script. Powerful interests have never allowed governments committed to progressive structural transformation an opportunity to consolidate gains, to move in a democratic direction, or to implement radical reforms without resistance. When President Richard Nixon issued his famous order to the CIA to “let the economy scream” in Chile in order to bring down the Allende government, he at no time ruled out armed action as well. This was particularly necessary because in spite of economic disruptions, Allende’s Popular Unity coalition increased its vote percentages (from 36.3 in 1970 to 43.4 in the March 1973 congressional elections). The forces of reaction prodded by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger planned a coup at the outset in 1970 and a successful one three years later. Similarly, in the case of Venezuela, the wave of violence designed to bring about regime change demonstrates that the opposition does not believe in its own discourse. According to opposition leaders the economic difficulties that plague Venezuela are unsolvable and irreversible. If that were the case, insurgency tactics would have been ruled out as unnecessary since economic disaster would discredit the Chavistas and lead to their being voted out of office.

In short, the insurgent tactics employed by the opposition belie its central argument that the errors of the government on economic policies and the inherent failings of socialism on the economic front have led Venezuela down a disastrous path with no hope in sight. The fact is that foreign powers and powerful groups opposed to socialism have always resorted to disruptions and violence in order to discredit socialist governments. Very seldom have socialists in power been given a respite in order to put socialism to a true test. Those favoring thoroughgoing change in Venezuela may want to consider the slogan “give socialism a chance” or, if that seems too radical, “give democracy a chance.”


Steve Ellner is the editor of the recently released Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century (Rowman and Littlefield). In addition to a dozen books on Latin American history and politics, he is a frequent contributor to NACLA: Report on the Americas and has published on the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.