On Saturday evening it was reported that Karen Berendique, daughter of the Chilean Consul in Venezuela, had been travelling in the Western city of Maracaibo with her elder brother and another male companion on the way to a friend’s when they were stopped by a police truck. Fearing that they were being robbed, the driver of the car panicked and drove through the checkpoint. Without warning, the police then reportedly opened fire on the vehicle, injuring the passengers and causing the death of Karen Berendique.
This act of police brutality and malpractice highlights more than ever the need for a humanistic police force with respect for human rights throughout the country. This is certainly not an easy task. Venezuela’s police force has been formed and consolidated on practices such as bribery, corruption and brutality.
Back in 2009, before beginning an intrinsic overhaul of the national police service, Justice Minister Tareck El-Assaimi claimed that officers were responsible for around 15-20% of actual crimes committed. Not only have the police in Venezuela historically profiteered from crime and corruption, but they have also traditionally repressed the civilian population with virtual impunity; specifically when this repression was directed against, as it often was, the politically active or just the plain poor. In the 1990s, it was perfectly possible to be stopped and searched by Venezuelan police, and even be taken to the police station and knocked about or worse, simply for wearing military-style boots associated with being on the radical left.
Such a legacy of police violence is difficult to overcome. Not only in creating counter-values and respect for human rights, but also in surmounting the widespread mistrust of the police that runs rife throughout the population. Nevertheless, the Bolivarian government decided that it was paramount to address the issue. In 2009, the government began to build a new police force, starting with UNES, or the National Experimental University of Security. The government’s new policing system is perhaps one of a kind, although it draws on experiences from other countries such as Brazil and France.
UNES’ main objective is to reform policing practise towards a respect for human rights and to reconceptualise the police’s role as an integral part of a society in the transition towards socialism, which crucially works alongside organised communities. The training process at the university includes history, sociology and political classes, which explain the nature of global capitalism, its relationship to social exclusion and the history of police and military repression in the Southern cone. Before community police go out on patrol in an area for the first time, a team of “negotiators” who have an established relationship with the organised communities are sent out to discuss the police’s presence in the area and to solicit the communities’ help and cooperation. I have been told that, in areas where police repression has been particularly brutal, meetings with social organisations can last up to 6 hours before they agree to cooperate.
In a ceremony in La Mamera barrio in Caracas earlier this year, I witnessed the government handing over resources to the community police. I was surprised to be told by members of the communal councils there that the community police regularly attended their political meetings, sought their opinion, asked them for direction and helped with identifying the needs of the community, as well as cooperating with them to develop social programs aimed at crime prevention. For instance, in locating problematic community spaces, which may have traditionally been used for illicit activity such as drug dealing, so that they can be renovated and converted into usable spaces for the neighbourhood.
Last weekend, I was equally surprised to see a police patrol car whizz by at about 8.30 pm right up at the very top of barrio Carapita. Perhaps what was most shocking was not the car’s presence, but the fact that members of the community did not visibly recoil in horror at the sight of this presence. These are all tangible gains, yet the opposition refuses to recognise the government’s efforts.
Shockingly, when Karen Berendique’s death was announced, rather than directing their criticism at the police officers in question, opposition governors took to the nation’s airwaves and media outlets, letting rip at the government and indulging in a veritable political mudslinging campaign.
Secretary general of the Justice First party, Tomas Guanipa, lamented the “crisis of anarchy, delinquency and insecurity that we Venezuelans are living through,” whilst the opposition’s presidential candidate, Capriles Radonski, said that the government, “doesn’t have the will to resolve the problem of violence,” before adding that Venezuelans should install a new government to have this problem resolved.
Similarly, these sentiments were echoed by the governor of Zulia state, Pablo Perez, who blamed the 19 year old’s death on the government’s “politicization” of the police service. There was even criticism of Chavez’s “dictatorial” regime in Chile.
“This practise of arriving and shooting people,” said representative Jorge Tarud for Chile’s Party for Democracy (PPD), “is only carried out in dictatorial regimes.”
“It really is very serious that the Venezuelan police is shooting left right and centre at people, and that reflects the mentality of Hugo Chavez’s regime,” he concluded.
With unbridled hypocrisy and cynicism, the rightwing opposition is exploiting the situation, using it to denounce the Venezuelan government in the national and international arena and distorting a tragic event into a political gimmick, citing it as symptomatic of wider crime issues which they claim have worsened under the government of Hugo Chavez.
But what they fail to mention is that the City of Maracaibo and Zulia state, where Karen Berendique was killed, is in fact governed by the opposition and is also renowned for being one of the most dangerous cities in Venezuela. A report on crime statistics for 2011 published in February this year, showed that the states of Miranda, Zulia and Carabobo are the most violent in Venezuela, and that 48% of all homicides committed in 2011 were carried out in those three states. It is no coincidence that these three districts are all governed by the opposition, who refuse to implement government security measures and only do so when required by law. Where the government’s new strategies have been implemented, there has been a notable reduction in crime, with the Capital District experiencing a decrease of 11%. Paradoxically the crime rate in Zulia for January went up by 28% when compared to the same month for the preceding year, with homicides rising from 99 to 127.
Although El-Aissami said at the time that, “if you (the opposition) are not capable of tackling the problem of crime, then we are capable of assuming the responsibility of regional policing to avoid these lamentable events. We are noticing an absence of government and a policy of sabotage in regional management”, it is a lose-lose situation and not just for the government. The main victims of this issue are the millions of poor Venezuelans who, unlike the millionaire politicians locked in their compartmentalised Globovision reality, are actually affected by crime and insecurity in their everyday lives.
Whereas any government attempt to enforce its policies over the opposition is decried as anti-democratic, unilateral, and representative of the government’s lack of respect for political freedoms and the opposition’s right to exercise political office; opposition representatives consistently block the government’s attempts at reform in their respective states in blatant acts of sabotage, whilst the subsequent and soaring crime and corruption levels are laid firmly at the government’s door. Within this context, the opposition’s comments are beyond parody.
In their haste to criticise the government as the pressure mounts for this year’s election, the opposition’s warped perception of reality is now not only blind to reality and reason, but also to normal human emotions and respect. It is becomingly increasingly evident that they no longer see compassion or pain in real events; but rather the content for political statements and accusations, a day’s arsenal in Globovision or a political platform. Karen Berendique’s death was an opportunity for the opposition to exploit one of the Venezuelan population’s biggest fears - a fear which has proved to be constant, effective and crucial in opposition discourse – and with predictability, they grabbed at this opportunity like a pack of hyenas clamouring round a buffalo carcass.
The opposition’s capacity to dehumanise virtually anything is prevalent. Rather than seeing the president’s heartbroken but optimistic supporters gathering last month to wish him a safe operation in Cuba as a symbol of concern and solidarity; the opposition sees clientelism, bribery and a free meal ticket, or an ignorant flock of voters who don’t know any better. When they see Chavez, they don’t see a critically ill man who is suffering from cancer, who has a family and millions of people who love and respect him, but just a man who they despise. They see ugliness where there is real human affection, and they see statistics and political weaponry where there is just human suffering. Right now they don’t see the pain surrounding the death of Karen Berendique, who has been treated with the same distaste as the 18-24 year old males who make up the vast majority of Venezuelan homicide statistics when they too fall victim to Venezuela’s problems with insecurity. With the press giving itself free reign to bandy them about with all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.
The country’s issues with violent crime stem from problems which go much deeper than the hollow critical statements constantly spewed by the opposition, and nor are they specific to Venezuela. Just like in other developing countries, where global capitalism has left human debris in the form of poorly serviced slums and shantytowns stretched out across cities, these issues are rooted in structural oppression and exploitation. It is only by dismantling these structures that crime can really be addressed in Venezuela. Through building consciousness, community organisation, new policing models, new political organisational forms and the re-organisation of the mode of production; as well as through the creation of new cultural expressions in the media, in film and in art, and also through the music, sporting and dance programs produced and reproduced in the nation’s barrios. Of course, all of this takes time, creating new cultures and new socio-structural relations takes time, but we are in a process and it is on its way.
What is certain, however, is that these problems cannot be addressed by regressing to an era when police repression was the norm, when structural conditions created astronomical levels of exclusion and when capitalism emptied culture of all meaning, reducing it to a pair of named trainers that you can kill or be killed for.
Despite the government’s efforts, police brutality still exists within Venezuela, and on Friday evening a 19 year old woman was killed at the hands of the CICPC police. The 12 officers involved are currently under investigation to decipher the individuals responsible so that they might be brought to court where they will face justice.
Yet the opposition has once again shown itself to lack any kind of societal or historic understanding of the problems currently facing Venezuela, just as it has also shown itself to be totally and utterly impervious to real human suffering, converting the death of a 19 year old girl into a political circus. It is just a shame that Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” was not required reading just a few decades ago.