In late October, Chavista twitter erupted in reaction to news of opposition leader Leopoldo López fleeing the country for a Madrid suburb. López’s was just the latest chapter in a series of escapes of high-profile opposition figures involved in violent and conspiratory acts.
He had sought refuge at the Spanish embassy after the failed coup attempt of April 2019. But that didn’t stop him from actively coordinating opposition activities, including the failed paramilitary invasion known as Operation Gideon.
Self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaidó tweeted about the escape of his mentor: “Maduro, you don’t control anything. By circumventing your repressive apparatus, we managed to get (…) Leopoldo López to international territory.”
With such a statement, Guaidó was also pouring salt in an open wound of part of the Chavista base, who has long been victimized by violent acts.
Among those voicing their aggravations on social media was Carolus Wimmer, the International Relations secretary of the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), who lamented on a tweet that the disappearance of Chavista militant Carlos Lanz was still unsolved, as is the murder of campesino leader Luis Fajardo, while López escaped right under the authorities’ noses.
“Who protects us?” asked the veteran communist leader. A cry that touches a sensitive nerve.
Politics of class, race, crisis and corruption
Finding itself as the target of political violence is something that the Chavista base is accustomed to. This is the same historical subject that endured the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship, puntofijismo [deal between political parties] and the neoliberal corollary it buttered into a restless population when the IMF touched shore in the 1980s.
The process of profound political and social change brought about by the Bolivarian Revolution gave visibility to their struggle like never before. The revolution granted legitimacy to the emergence of a collective “memory” and a collective “history” of the Venezuelan pueblo, challenging the narratives favoured and sanitized by the ruling classes.
Unlike simplistic analysis might imply, the Bolivarian Revolution is a process: dynamic, contradictory, and incomplete. The revolution is far from over, and while the redistribution of power it implemented shattered many of the 4th Republic power structures, others still linger, and new ones were forged.
This means that several of the factors that led to the victimization of “the people” didn’t disappear completely, and are in turn compounded by the internal and international reaction to the revolution, and new contradictions brought about by the revolutionary process.
For instance, there is no shortage of biased and racialized takes on Chavista victims of violence, as if their racial, ethnic or class origin and their political preferences were the only explanatory factors that made them more prone to be victims of a certain type of violent crime. In other words, they “had it coming”.
Such a phenomenon was present since the Bolivarian Revolution’s inception, but has much deeper roots: “the plague of the XXI century”; “a horde of shoeless riffraff”; “a mob of resentful brutes”, all epithets that foster the dehumanization of the political opponents, justifying the employment of extraordinary measures against them.
Its outcome is that it normalizes violence against the Chavista base, and the further away these victims are from centres of influence, the less their cases feature in the media, the less political and judicial attention they receive, and the more the narratives around them are decisively framed by rumours.
If this dynamic is not certainly new, the draconian sanctions that the United States and its allies have imposed against Venezuela introduce new dimensions. There is a well detailed link between economic stress and increased criminality, and Venezuela is no exception.
As the economic context deteriorates, organized crime, endogenous and exogenous, takes the opportunity to make inroads and expand its influence. The flipside of this trend is an increasingly heavy-handed security response. The FAES special police forces have come under increased scrutiny following several high-profile cases of extrajudicial executions, with the Attorney General himself endorsing a restructuring of the body.
A different aspect the economic crisis highlights is the insidious effect of emphasizing persistent corruption. As unbridled scarcity calls attention to misappropriation and misuse of resources, along with fostering a “shadow economy” based in smuggling and contraband, it recurrently falls upon those facing these realities on the ground to denounce cases of wrongdoing.
Violence and Media
Even the most casual observer of Venezuelan politics would have come across references to the victims of guarimba violence, such as the dreadful murder of Orlando Figuera, while only the more inquisitive would have followed the developments surrounding the murder of high profile Chavista cadres, such as special prosecutor Danilo Anderson, Lt. Coronel Eliézer Otaiza or Deputy Robert Serra, given the lack of international media coverage such incidents have received.
For the Chavista rank-and-file, were it not for alternative outlets, social movements and friends and family pushing the issue on social media, victims of violence, in particular that which is politically motivated, would be left in obscurity.
That is, until mainstream media find a way of portraying the issue as Saturn eating its children, a revolution that devours its own, spiced up by the insinuation that the violence “appears to be,” if not directly ordered, at least politically sanctioned directly from the presidential palace, with characteristic superficiality and absence of historical memory.
If the piece can be timed to coincide with an electoral event, even better, while the stories of those wounded by the guarimbas, the victims of Puente Llaguno [incident that triggered the 2002 coup], or the dozens of dead peasants in the fight for land around lake Maracaibo have not met this type of timeliness criteria for the last couple of decades.
Furthermore, inefficient and bungled criminal and judicial processes have done very little to shed light on the motives and the perpetrators victimizing the left. On the contrary, it has allowed rumours and conspiracy theories, stoked via social media, to spread like wildfire, taking over the narratives surrounding these episodes and framing them as betrayals, inside jobs or drug related incidents.
The frontline: the campesino movement – the case of Fajardo and Aldana
The frontlines of those confronting corruption have been manned by and large by the Bolivarian grassroots, particularly the campesino movement, which has consistently denounced abuses committed by landowners, both of an economic and criminal nature. Since the approval of the 2001 Land Law, there have been over 300 peasant activists murdered by hitmen, with the crimes largely going unpunished.
One high-profile case was the murder of campesino activists and communist militants Luis Fajardo, also a member of PCV’s Central Committee, and Javier Aldana, nearly two years ago. They led a movement of 300 peasant families in the lawful occupation of idle lands in southern Zulia state. The movement repeatedly denounced the abuses perpetrated by a local landowner, who encroached into state owned land, as well as the actions of local officials and security bodies against campesinos.
The price of standing-up to corruption – the cases of Sancocho Paguer and José Bislick
On August 20, muralist Miguel Mejía, better known as “Sancocho Paguer”, lost his life in a Caracas apartment where he had been staying temporarily. Sancocho was a street-urchin who turned his love of graffiti into agit-prop campaigning for the Bolivarian Revolution.
He was the dynamo behind several movements working with the barrio youths such as “El Otro Beta”, “La Pandilla Ros” and “Es el Barrio”, and he was also a militant of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Throughout April, Sancocho published several testimonies regarding corruption on his social media accounts, from bribery in a notary’s office in his native Aragua to a fuel contraband scheme which involved members of the armed forces.
Having reported the situation to authorities, he left his residence for the capital out of concern for his safety. “Stories” published in his Instagram account testify to his growing uneasiness, revealing the existence of death threats, compounded by efforts to hack his electronic equipment.
On the night of August 19, Sancocho was accompanied by two females at his apartment. One of them took his life. Having been detained by authorities immediately after the incident, the perpetrator confessed to the murder, while the other woman was revealed to be a long-term acquaintance of the victim.
The autopsy revealed that Miguel had been killed through “mechanical asphyxiation”, which the perpetrator claimed was the accidental outcome of a drug related incident, leading to her detention for narcotics possession. These revelations offer a convenient outcome and match the class-based preconceptions about the Chavista base, which in the case of Miguel were heightened by his stint in prison as a youth.
Miguel’s work, however, shows the opposite trend: his projects were committed to the prevention and rehabilitation of youths who had been involved with drugs and the drug trade. Furthermore, no traces of illegal narcotics were found in his body, contradicting the perpetrator’s version of the incident.
Nonetheless, both individuals were released within 72 hours, despite authorities’ inability to close the case due to the irreconcilable contradiction between the autopsy report and the women’s statements. The case’s original prosecutor has been removed in face of the registered irregularities.
Community media outlets have also been a vehicle to place the spotlight on corruption. Born through the democratization of access to the media spectrum, they are another facet of the revolutionary process that gained pace in the aftermath of the 2002 coup. Grassroots communicators, through their foreground role, have increasingly been targeted for their reporting of corrupt and abusive practices.
This was the case of José Bislick, a radio show host for Omega 94.1 FM in Sucre state, who was also a local PSUV leader and a PE teacher. After reporting extensively on his radio show “The People in Combat” on smuggling operations involving fuel, drugs and people, as well as several instances of extortion and corruption, on August 17 he was abducted from his residence by masked men and found dead the following day in a vacant lot. The Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigation Service Corps (CICPC) is investigating the case but there are no reports of suspects or arrests so far.
“Where is Carlos Lanz?”
The above-mentioned case of guerrilla veteran Carlos Lanz bears testament to how the lack of clarity in criminal and judicial investigations leaves the narrative open to speculation and rumour to fill in for facts. On August 8, Lanz left his residence in Aragua state without alerting his family and breaking with his well-established routines, and has not been seen since.
The scarcity of clear leads in the case has fuelled conjectures around the fate of the high-profile leftist. Family and friends, already distraught due to the disappearance and engaged in the search, are forced to recurrently dispel rumours surrounding the case driven by social media and pro-opposition outlets.
From the little that is of public knowledge, the family and several Venezuelan personalities expressed their opinion that there is a direct relation between the disappearance and Lanz’s intellectual work exposing the asymmetrical aggression that Venezuela faces from the United States. Moreover, they have repeatedly dispelled notions that Lanz’s mental and physical health could be behind his disappearance. At the same time, no ransom demands have appeared (opportunist scams notwithstanding), which discredit the possibility of a kidnapping.
Dispelled is also the idea that Lanz was involved in a conspiracy against the government of President Maduro, and was consequently detained, which stands in stark contradiction with the political engagement and activism of an entire life. This rumour is mirrored in the opposite direction: that Lanz’s disappearance could be due to some sort of special counterintelligence role he had been assigned, a speculation extrapolated from an advisory position he plays for the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB).
AG Tarek William Saab has assured the family that the investigative efforts will continue while social movements and grassroots media are battling to keep the case in the media spotlight as time marches on.
How to move forward
It is undoubtedly politically critical for the revolutionary project to conclude these investigations in such a manner that guarantees to the families and the movements of the victims that justice is served. Doing so would assure the Bolivarian grassroots that state institutions, however constrained they might be due to the crisis, are not completely captured by powerful interest groups and still retain their popular character.
Being the target of right-wing violence, intensified by external aggression from the US and its allies and bearing the brunt of an economic crisis, while maintaining commitment to a revolutionary process, answering the challenges posed by holding up the productive sector, mobilizing communities in defence of the revolution and building the organizations that deepen the process, in a context of a pandemic, is in itself a daring endeavour.
Failing such an essential task, that of protecting those who repeatedly put themselves on the line in defence of the revolution, runs the risk of further alienating a base that already shows signs of a widening fracture, a phenomenon that might reveal itself too costly for the future of the Bolivarian Revolution, and that the recent parliamentary election appears to intensify.
Simultaneously, political violence will inevitably be amplified by mainstream media, portraying any form of political, social and economic conflict as part of a trajectory of political and social decomposition, while laying the responsibility exclusively at the government’s doorstep. This tactic aims to polarize emotions, generate fear and anger, and further separate the government from its popular support base and international allies, in its eagerness to roll back the progress made by the Bolivarian Revolution.
This was the sociological reading of the current political situation in Venezuela that Carlos Lanz attempted to illustrate. A reading which might have led to his disappearance.
Pedro R. Nunes is an Associate Tutor in Politics at the University of Leicester.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.