In February 2014, Venezuela witnessed one of the most prolonged and violent periods in the past 17 years against the nationally elected government.
What began as violence at some of the country’s more elite universities quickly descended into the violent street barricades, known as the guarimbas. Forty-three people, mostly civilians and security personnel, were killed. Entire communities were walled in, their residents blocked from accessing food, transport, gas and even necessary medical services. Buildings were set alight with people inside, hundreds were injured.
The proponents, the so-called guarimberos, called themselves protesters: a claim echoed many times in the international press. But for the government and a vast number of ordinary citizens, they were terrorists.
The anniversary of these events comes at a critical moment in Venezuelan politics: over the past two weeks, the newly elected right-wing legislators in the country’s national assembly have begun pushing for an Amnesty Law. If passed, this legislation would grant a pardon to the most violent perpetrators of the barricades.
With the perpetrators of these acts potentially about to be set free, many in Venezuela are asking: could more violence be on the cards? To answer this question we have to understand what the violent barricades were, who took part in them and why they eventually petered out. As usual, there is a whole other story that the mainstream media ignored.
Who Were the Violent Barricaders?
Although the international media portrayed the barricades as a spontaneous youth uprising, testimonies that have emerged in the wake of the barricades tell a very different story.
“There were organized groups from within the universities, which were divided into subgroups. People in charge of the distribution of information, photos, and publishing all that, people in charge of planning the routes, people in charge of security… there was organization amidst the chaos,” Gabriel* — an undercover participant at the protests who wished to remain anonymous — told me.
It’s also clear that the “youthful” barricaders didn’t operate alone — although they might have been the official face of the unrest.
In the barricaders’ stronghold of Altamira and Chacao in Caracas, collaborators from private homes to small businesses facilitated the protesters with a network of internet connections and passwords to aid their communications, as well as with food and drink, places to hold meetings or to hide from police.
But it was perhaps at night when the most sinister and violent elements of the barricades emerged.
“There was a core violent group, but they weren’t students … They really did want to cause big shit, cause confrontations with police, they even intimidated the other guys (barricaders), they said 'you’re a bunch of pussies, what are we gonna do with this shit?',” Gabriel said.
“They knew how to act in these circumstances … (the police) launched gas bombs at them, and they all got out the way, grabbed the bombs and threw them back …There were people who really knew about this stuff,” related Gabriel.
The right-wing MUD coalition was a leader of the violence. In the words of one tight-lipped barricader, who also wished to remain anonymous, in response to why the protests had erupted in the first place, he simply replied, “I think it was more because of the calls from the political parties of the opposition.”
Gabriel also stated that the relationship between the MUD and the barricaders was clear.
"None of the protesters at the universities wore their university t-shirts, they all wore Popular Will or Justice First t-shirts … They might have been student groups, but the student councils are affiliated to the political opposition parties and they are accountable to them … There was a feeling among the universities that they wanted to take to the streets. There wasn’t exactly a violent idea there ... but it was clear that some people wanted something transcendental to happen, the death of someone, a policeman getting burned…”
And despite the official narrative that the right wing wasn't violent, “Men on motorbikes circled the camps — no one could get near, not even the police. But by night these … ultra violent radical groups turned up, and they (those students at the camps) let them in.”
But perhaps the most revealing comment in terms of how far the organized right-wing were involved in the 2014 barricades came when I asked what the majority of the barricaders were doing now.
“Well if I am totally honest, those guys are legislators now,” Gabriel said.
The mayor of Hatillo, David Smolansky, and legislator Gabriela Arellano "were both up to their necks in it," according to Gabriel. "Those who aren’t in the opposition rank and file, are in prison,” he concluded.
Another question mark which also still hangs over the violent barricades is where the money came from to pay for tents, food and drink, transport, walky-talkies, weapons and a whole cohort of other not so cheap items in Venezuela.
While I was informed that many of the barricaders were paid approximately 600 bolivars a day to take part - especially to dissuade people from going on holiday during carnival - Gabriel also confirmed that he was approached and asked if he wanted to “make a bit of money.”
But the currency circulating among the violent barricaders gives even more pause for thought.
“I would actually go as far as to say that there were more dollars inside the camps than bolivars,” stated Gabriel, who added that the guarimbas coincided with a hike in the black market price of the dollar against the bolivar on website, Dolartoday.
What is clear from all this is that the guarimbas were not “student protests” or the youth in rebellion, as the mainstream media portrayed. While there were some middle class students among the ranks who didn’t intend to harm anyone, it’s also true that there were many others who came from Venezuela’s well seasoned and highly organized right-wing student movement and who were happy to flirt with violence, and even to let other other people do the dirty work on their behalf. Likewise, there were evidently highly violent groups within the protests who received funding and military training.
The Fish that Didn’t Want Water: 'He Who Tires, Loses'
“They lost strength, people came out less and less, maybe we would have achieved something if people had stayed in the streets… Also, because of the places that (the barricades) were carried out, in Altamira, you can’t do anything in Altamira, you have to do this in the center of Caracas,” one barricader, who also preferred to be anonymous, said.
So why did the Guarimbas peter out? From a big protest in Caracas to barricades of main roads in other cities, the right-wing then also set up local barricades in their own communities.
This was undoubtedly the straw which broke the camel’s back. In fact the barricade slogan, “he who tires, loses,” was meant to inspire people in their local communities to weather the formidable storm.
But the slogans didn’t stop people from getting tired of being barricaded in for months, without access to work, school, health, and food- no matter how disaffected these sectors were from the government.
In fact, the violent barricader I spoke to even admitted that his life in Altamira was “too affected” by the barricades.
Rather than capitalizing on local discontent, the guarimberos managed to alienate their upper and middle class support base by terrorizing them in their own homes. Even their fellow students became sick and tired of the university strike — which meant many were delayed in graduating.
With no desire to engage with the popular sectors in the country’s barrios - who the barricade leaders identified as home to the “Chavista collectives” that were “even more their enemy than the police” — the movement literally had nowhere to go inside of Venezuela.
“They tried maybe once to bring (the barricades) up here… but the collectives, the organised community, we chased them out,” said community activist Laura from a community radio station in the eastern barrio of Petare, whose local community went head to head with a group of guarimberos, not far from where they had managed to decapitate a motorcyclist in a barbed wire trap.
“People would do the same again,” she said
2016 = More Guarimbas?
I was told by another former barricader that “if we have to take to the streets again then we will, but you know that’s not so easy, it involves organization”.
Despite the fact that barricades across main roads and targeted arson attacks continue to take place in Merida and Tachira, as Laura told me, it is unlikely that more barricades on a national scale will erupt this year because the rightwing is focusing its energies on its new found power in the National Assembly, as well as on organizing the recall referendum against president Nicolas Maduro for mid-2016.
The problem for the right-wing is that the latter requires a much more consolidated level of organization than the violent barricades ever did, and it can’t be pulled off through riding the wave of media lies and discontent.
In order to organize a recall referendum, the opposition will have to collect the signatures of 20 percent of nationally registered voters - that means approximately just under 4 million signatures. And although the opposition won big at the National Assembly elections last December, they only managed to do so because of mass Chavista abstention - not because they substantially increased their vote or political presence.
In spite of the discontent, says Laura, “the opposition know they still don’t have the people in the street … that’s why more guarimbas would be a last resort.”
And in the meantime, Chavismo is looking to regroup. In the streets, in community media, and in workplaces.
The violent barricades were the result of absolute frustration by the right-wing after having exhausted all options to oust Chavismo. But although the right-wing may have had a short term game plan to deal a series of blows to the government, they have never had an overall long-term political strategy.
While the right-wing National Assembly continues to attempt to weaken the Bolivarian revolution and its gains through legislating and the option of a recall referendum is open, it’s possible that further violence may be kept at bay.
But if the Supreme Court blocks legislative decisions, or the recall is a failure for the right-wing, “In that scenario, I think it’s possible that all hell will break loose,” states Laura.
Whether it’s 2006 or 2016, violence is always on the opposition’s cards, especially when it has exhausted all other means.