Almost three months have passed since an enraged right-wing mob brutally beat law student William Muñoz (30), then doused him with gasoline. It was a scene horrifically reminiscent of lynchings that have murdered thousands of Black people in the U.S. But on April 3, 2014, on the campus of the prestigious 300-year old Central University of Venezuela (UCV), a good Samaritan or an ambulance driver rescued Muñoz before the mob could incinerate him. That is where the record of this Venezuelan saga begins to depart from the shameful history of genocidal murders in the U.S.
Videotapes provide only a partial and clouded view of the event. On a Thursday afternoon, a group of some 200 anti-government demonstrators had attempted to march through the UCV campus to the Attorney General’s office. Police intercepted them at the gates of the university and tear gas forced them to retreat back into the campus. The percentage of the hundred-odd masked demonstrators who were actually students is one of the many issues of contention. Enraged and frustrated by their encounter with the police, some 60 of them surrounded and severely beat William Muñoz and doused him with gasoline. They claimed he was a Chavista and perhaps a government “spy”. Muñoz lost consciousness, sustained two fractured rips, a broken nose, a skull fracture, concussion and numerous contusions. They also beat social work student, Wenderly Conde, who had attempted to aid Muñoz. It is unclear whether Muñoz was rescued by a good Samaritan or the arrival of an ambulance, which was also doused in gasoline.
Within days of the attack, President Maduro labeled it “the worst lynching we have seen,” publically embraced a battered Muñoz and vowed to put an end to such terrorism. For a couple of weeks, a steady stream of videos, written accounts and commentaries from Chavista and anti-government viewpoints competed, each with their version of “the truth”. Who is William Muñoz – a Chavista “spy” out to disrupt an anti-government march or a law student at the UCV who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was racism involved? What triggered the violence? What leaders were responsible? Who will be held accountable for the crime?
On June 2, 2014, Muñoz appeared before the first session of an investigatory hearing of the Permanent Commission on Interior Policy of the National Assembly. On June 12, Cecilia Garcia Arocha, the right wing rector of UCV, was forced to testify before the same Commission. Modesto Ruiz, Deputy from the state of Miranda and Afrodescendant author of the Bolivarian Law against Racial Discrimination, heads the Commission. He has vowed to end impunity for terrorists. He implied that the ex-director of UCV Security and the Rector Arocha had responsibility for the attack.
This report by Venezuelanalysis.com not only attempts to answer the questions raised above, but also examines some of the broader political conflicts in Venezuela through the prism of this lynching and its aftermath. Interviews with numerous students and professors at both ends of the political spectrum and in-between, five visits to the campus itself over the last four weeks, conversations with non-university political observers and archival research all inform this analysis.
The Central University of Venezuela and its Rector
The UCV is the oldest, and according to many, the most respected university in the country. It includes 11 schools, 40 departments, 5176 academic employees, 9778 administrative employees and 57,569 students.
For the last four years, Cecilia Garcia Arocha has presided as the university’s first woman rector. She is a former doctor of orthodontia, daughter of a physician and reputed close political ally of far right-wing militant politician Maria Corina Machado. Arocha has devoted her tenure to maintaining the university’s “autonomy” from the Bolivarian Process by rejecting any government assistance in preventing campus-based violence. She has also staunchly opposed more democratic university elections by refusing to allow administrative employees to vote. Stenciled graffiti on campus walls call her a dictator. Her opponents protest that she treats the UCV as if it were her private “hacienda”. On March 17, just 16 days before the rightist assault on two students, she rejected a plan by her own security team to prevent violence on campus. Then the day after incident, the Minister of Interior, Miguel Rodriguez Torres urged Arocha to meet with authorities to establish a security protocol to prevent future such incidents. He identified universities where such planning had prevented campus violence. Arocha again rejected any cooperation with authorities.
The university has a reputation for supporting right-wing academics and conserving the predominance of students who come from the middle and upper reaches of Venezuelan society. Yet, all university education is state-supported, and, as such, within the last decade, more students from working class, Afrodescendant and Indigenous backgrounds attend. The faculty, while predominantly anti-government, includes a vocal minority of Chavistas and other revolutionaries.
“At the UCV there’s a history of confrontation between pro-Bolivarian and opposition forces, including high levels of violence. One must understand the events of April 3 within this context,” according to UCV Political Science Professor and Director of the Institute of Political Studies, Rudolfo Magallanes. Although he supports the Bolivarian goal of building an egalitarian society, Magallanes belongs to no political party and takes a rare independent view of campus political clashes.
“The political actors in the conflict,” Magallanes continued, “do not interact, except in battle. Each has his/her own world view. To the opposition, the government is a dictatorship, something intolerable, something responsible for their loss of an opulent lifestyle and loss of social status. The masses who support the government have a very different view of democracy. Social and political polarization takes many forms. For example, the opposition defends the Spanish monarchy, the Bolivarians are anti-monarchist. Everyone is caught up in this polarization.” Interviews by VA reflect this polarization.
In early April, piles of rocks and other rubble, competing graffiti, posters and banners, and sometimes clouds of teargas reinforced the general sense of siege and street battles between the anti-government guarimberos (blockaders and arsonists) and pro-government “peace keepers”. By June, nearly all physical traces of the war zone were gone and the sprawling campus provided a peaceful shaded oasis from the cacophony of Caracas’ heat-baked traffic. However, students from both sides still expressed a feeling of embattlement and persecution.
Two 21-year-old economics students, each sons of wealthy European immigrants complained bitterly of their families’ loss of status and wealth and their own pessimism about having “no future.” They were expensively dressed. When pressed, they admitted they were still comfortably middle class and lived in large homes in the wealthy section of Caracas. They admitted to “witnessing” but not “participating” in the attack on Muñoz. A woman who identified with the Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide, a leftist group largely within the ruling PSUV), spoke of her once-poor Indigenous parents, how she studied engineering and looked forward to a career as a civil engineer. She had not been on campus April 3, but had close friends who told her they had been threatened.
The economics students and their professor attempted to explain to VA that in Venezuela, “Left and Right are upside down. Leftists are really violent military populists, like Hitler. …People from the government want our blood...the ‘justice system’ is controlled by the biggest criminals. Altamira (a wealthy area on the east side of Caracas) is the pillar of our fight for democracy.”
According to images in pro-government and independent news, a number of “student” protests had damaged government buildings with incendiary devices and for hours paralyzed traffic in the capital. By April 3, the working people of Caracas were demanding an end to these disruptions. But the economics students claimed they were victims of arbitrary police outrages. They explained that when police prevented their “peaceful protest for democracy,” they were enraged. They took all their self righteous fury out on Muñoz who had no business being in the midst of their march. “If he wasn’t a Chavista spy, what was he doing there?”
Venezuelanalysis asked, “but how did you know he was a Chavista?”
“You can tell from the way people look and dress.”
“Did he have on a Chavista t-shirt?
“You mean his skin was darker than you guys with European parents?”
They smiled, but declared, “you think we’re racists. But we have classmates who are Negro and we have no problem with them.” Then, without explaining how they knew he was a Chavista before attacking him, they declared, “we had proof he was a Chavista from the ID in his wallet. He was a student, but he also worked for the government.”
Photos of Muñoz’s stolen wallet and ID had been tweeted and retweeted throughout opposition social media. Pro-government commentators used these photos to illustrate that those involved in the lynching displayed Muñoz’s belongings proudly as trophies of war and warnings to other Chavistas. VA wondered aloud, “Victims of lynching in the US routinely had pieces of their clothing and body parts ripped away to display as trophies, could it be possible that those who displayed the contents of Muñoz’s wallet were doing the same?”
“Of course not. We just wanted to prove he was a spy.”
VA: “Do you think you had enough evidence to charge, try and convict him of a capital crime?”
The economics students hesitated. “No, we don’t support violence. But you have to understand, people were feeling really frustrated and angry, and it was one of us who saved him. You know the blonde guy in the photo is the grandson of a famous revolutionary guerrilla hero. Jorge Marquez. He’s against the government so the press accused Jorge of attacking Muñoz, but, in truth, he saved him.”
(Press reports indicate that someone called an ambulance and that its arrival saved Muñoz.)
VA: “Did you chant, ‘We’ll set fire to and kill all Chavistas’, like the press said you did?”
This time there was no hesitation. “Of course not. We would not say that.”
VA: “Did anyone else join a chant threatening to torch all Chavistas?”
The economics students looked at each other. Then one answered, “We couldn’t hear everything that happened. It was chaos.”
VA: “At the National Assembly hearing, Munoz testified that Sairam Rivas orchestrated the attack on him. Was she the leader of the attack?” (Rivas is a 20 year-old woman who is the president of the Union of Social Work Students who was arrested on May 8 at an armed right wing encampment)
The economics students seemed puzzled. “The different schools here have very little contact. We don’t know her and never saw her that day. But if she committed any crime, it was the crime of beating the Chavista candidate in the election for the presidency of the Social Worker Student Union.”
(Rivas, who was 18, at the time, received 228 votes. Kevin Avila, the Chavista candidate, who only days before the election had been expelled by the Rector, received 179 votes. Anti-Chavistas claim her election was a vote against Chavismo. Others claim that the rector trumped up charges to expel Rivas’ competition and that Bandera Roja helped to buy the election.)
Their economics professor chimed in. “The dictatorship doesn’t like her because she is young and popular and a member of Bandera Roja (BR), a truly radical organization. (Bandera Roja’s website prominently features letters from Sairam Rivas and has spearheaded the publicity campaign for her release from prison ever since she was arrested at an armed guarimbero camp, on May 8.) The violence that day was an unfortunate spontaneous outburst from students who felt persecuted. Nothing but the Maduro regime can be held responsible.”
Yet witnesses and videos report that a group of 100 hooded, non-student, rightists, armed with Molotov cocktails, pipes, and even a pistol or two was filmed surrounding Muñoz. Moreover, a review of Bandero Roja’s history finds that it can hardly be characterized as a peaceful radical organization. BR, founded in 1970 as an extremist pro-Albanian Marxist-Leninist fraction had fought in the guerrilla movement. Since 1998, it has aligned with right-wing and social democratic opposition to Chavez, labeling him a “social fascist”. In 2005, the International Conference of Marxist-Leninist Parties denounced and expelled BR. Most recently BR participates in the Opposition MUD Coalition, although it still claims to struggle for socialism and focuses its recruitment campaigns on UCV and other campuses.
With the exception of the rightist economics students and their professor, the sources for this investigation were unanimous in their denunciations of BR. The woman civil engineering student who identified with Marea Socialista had been one of BR’s recruits. “I quit,” she told VA, “when I found out how corrupt they are. They use their funds to manipulate students.” According to Professor Magallanes, BR is not only corrupt. He called it “the armed wing of the opposition, like M-13 based in Tachira.”
Issue of Race
The term “lynching” conjures an image of an enraged white mob torturing and murdering a Black man. Often any Black man would do and be falsely accused of a crime that threatened the racist status quo, eg. “looking at a white woman disrespectfully.” The mass psychology of the attackers convinced them that unless they kill the “menace”, their own dignity and way of life would be destroyed. To their way of thinking, lynching reinforced the “legitimacy” of white supremacy by dramatizing the guilt of the victim. The lynching itself was “proof enough of guilt and inferiority”. Lynching also aimed to terrorize oppressed people into submission. White supremacist institutions and ideology provided motivation, rationalization and impunity to the lynch mob.
Many, but not all, of these ingredients were at play in the attack on Muñoz. Certainly, even by the admission of sympathizers of the assailants, they were enraged and convinced the victim menaced their security and way of life. And if, in fact, they were intent on “killing Chavistas” as many testified, they targeted any and all members of a group they perceived as a threat.
Any discussion of how racism might have been involved in the lynching of Muñoz must consider how racial categories are perceived in Venezuela. As a social construct, race and racial identity involve subjective definitions. In Venezuela, until 2011, census takers did not record race at all. For the first time in 2011, the census asked respondents to choose their racial identity. The final tally showed that 3.5% of the country’s 27,227,930 people self-identified as Black or Afrodescendant; 2.7% as Indigenous and 49.9% as “Moreno” (brown or dark). On the other hand, Professor Jesus Chucho Garcia, a founding leader of Venezuela’s movement of Afrodescendants and former Ambassador to Angola insists that at least 30% or 8 million people are Afrodescendants and the number may reach as high as 60%. In sum, most Venezuelans identify as mestizo or mixed and will often refer to an “Indian or Negro” in their present family or ancestry. However, Euro or white phenotypes and cultural values still prevail as the universal standards of social order, culture and beauty. These “norms” prevail in all societies with a history of Indigenous conquest and slavery. For example, people who are phenotypically dark-skinned African, are demonized, disproportionately assumed to be criminal, and face institutional discrimination.
Phenotypically, Muñoz could be identified as an African descendant. Yet, in news reports of his lynching and in his own testimony, there is no explicit mention of his race or racism among his attackers. The majority of sources for this article denied that racism had anything to do with the attack. However, it is important to mention that none of these deniers would be identified as Afrodescendant. One Afrodescendant student with dreadlocks told VA that he thought classism was stronger at UCV than racism but nodded when asked if he thought Muñoz’s assailants were racist. When pressed for details he shrugged.
Jesus Silva R., TV commentator, a frequent contributor to the opinion column of Aporrea, professor of political and international studies at UCV, described himself as a friend of William Muñoz, an Afrodescendant and Marxist. Here are excerpts from an email exchange between VA and Professor Silva.
VA: “Is Muñoz considered Afrodescendant or Black in Venezuela?”
JSR: “Yes, he's seen as Black and that increases the hate against him because there's a lot of racism in this nation. However he's mostly hated due to being Chavista.”
VA: “Did racism play any role in the mob targeting Muñoz? If so, what evidence is there of this?”
JSR: “While being lynched, he was compared to a monkey several times but the main taunting was due to being Chavista.”
VA: “Are there other issues you think are relevant to this story and/or the social context of the UCV?”
JSR: “The UCV is the greatest camp for multiplication of political hate and violence against supporters of the revolution. I can assure you of that after being a professor there since 1998. Students are being used by corrupt politicians who want bloodshed in Venezuela. Muñoz is my friend, he told me his life is still in jeopardy due to political hate by anti-government students.”
Preventing the Next Lynching
A previous report by VA analyzed how racism is one of the factors that fuels and is expressed by the anti-government movement in Venezuela. (Racism Sin Vergüenza in the Venezuelan Counter-Revolution) That report documented symbolic lynchings of Black Cuban physicians where virulent racism combined with xenophobia and anti-communism. The lynching of William Muñoz demonstrates the persistence and the danger of fascism within the Rightist anti-government movement.
Despite a Law against Racial Discrimination and other Venezuelan laws that require prosecution of Muñoz’s assailants, no one has yet been charged in relation to the lynching. When Muñoz testified on June 2, at the National Assembly investigation, he said that “with the consent of Rector Cecilia Garcia Marquez Arocha, there were fascists inside the university campus,” armed with an array of weapons. He testified that Voluntad Popular and the M-13 Party from Tachira were part of the mob that tried to kill him. Before he lost consciousness from the beating, he heard someone say, “We’ll burn you all because that’s what a Chavista like you deserves.”
At the June 2 hearing, for the first time, Muñoz identified Sairam Rivas as the person who orchestrated the attack. Rivas does not appear in any of the photos of the attack and her name had not been associated with it, even when she was arrested May 8 at Plaza Alfredo Sadel, an armed guarimbera encampment. Since her arrest, right-wing social media, often quoting BR, have portrayed her as an innocent martyr. On June 26, the District Attorney formally charged her with instigating delinquency, conspiracy, and use of minors to commit crimes. The charges against her mentioned nothing about the lynching. Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for between July 16 and July 21.
To date, Rector Arocha, the other leader specifically accused of responsibility for the attack, has not been charged. During her June 12th hearing, the transcript indicates that she remained haughty and hostile and attempted to hold the government responsible for campus violence. She insisted her presence there was a sign of cooperation with the government. However, when asked if she would cooperate with peacekeeping authorities to prevent future violence on campus, she insisted: “under no form will [the National] Guard or police enter Central University.” She also refused to answer questions about her allocation of funds provided by the state or about her harassment of faculty.
Arocha, as the highest-ranking official to be allegedly associated with the lynching, may be the most responsible. However, in the current political climate, it may be difficult to charge her. She is shielded, according to Professor Magallanes, by the tradition of university autonomy. “It’s a delicate situation,” the political science professor explained. “The government cannot appear to be interfering in university business.” And Arocha has strong connections and political ambitions of her own. However, her connections with Maria Corina Machado, far-right political figure, might not be as useful to Arocha as before Machado lost her Deputy’s seat and is under criminal investigation. But Arocha still has many powerful supporters. The hearings at the National Assembly may not bring an indictment, but rather only serve as a warning.
Venezuelan political society remains polarized. Yet, both the pro-Chavista and anti-Chavista sides agree a lynching happened at Central University on April 3, 2014. While the opposition insists they are peaceful protestors, victims of a dictatorial state, in their own statements to VA, they lay open their own implicit support for lynching. However, like many of anti-government militants responsible for murder, injury and arson, those who perpetrated the lynching of William Munoz may benefit from what has been called “a culture of impunity” in Venezuela. Human Rights Watch, the corporate media and the US State Department join with the right-wing chorus inside the country to denounce the Bolivarian government’s denial of human rights. Yet, the reality on the ground tells the story of right-wing terrorists rarely facing any sanction by the Venezuelan State. Sources repeatedly told VA that effective deterrence of lynching and other forms of terrorism will only come from the organized masses of grassroots activists.