Brief on Venezuela Protests
This has not been a spontaneous wave of student protests, but a planned campaign organized by radical rightwing opposition leaders including Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado. On January 23, Lopez and Machado launched their “La Salida” (“The Exit”) campaign with a press conference. As shown in this video, they stated that the goal is the ouster of the democratically-elected Maduro government, and the means would be by, as Machado put, “creat[ing] chaos in the streets.” “Let’s ignite the streets,” she said. “Every corner, every market, every school and university.”
The protests seek to accomplish through extra-legal means what the opposition has been unable to accomplish at the ballot box. Reuters reported just after the opposition suffered a clear defeat in municipal elections in December that “Several other opposition leaders have advocated more confrontational tactics, such as street protests, against Maduro.”
Key figures within the opposition have rejected the “Salida” protest campaign, which aims to remove the government via street protests. As the campaign was gearing up, state governor and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said “I don’t believe in violent removals [of governments] (…) A struggle with violent characteristics that prevents us from finding the path toward achieving the country that we love? There’s no doubt that isn’t our struggle.”
The protests have been violent; it appears that protesters have killed more people than government security forces. Over 10 individuals have reportedly been killed by crashing into barricades, from wires strung across streets by protesters and in some cases from having been shot trying to remove barricades. Ten state security agents have been killed. In some cases, members of Venezuelan security forces have been implicated in killings and abuses and have been subsequently arrested for their involvement.
On February 18th, Leopoldo Lopez was arrested on charges of instigating violence. He remains detained. On March 20th, two mayors – Vicencio Scarano of San Diego – and Daniel Ceballos – mayor of San Cristobal – were arrested and subsequently found guilty of disobeying a High Court order to remove barricades in their jurisdiction, for ceasing to fulfil their mayoral duties, and for instigating violence. Scarano received a jail sentence of 10 months and 15 days and Ceballos received a 12 month sentence.
Some major media headlines reveal the violent nature of the protests and roadblocks, at odds with social media portrayals of “peaceful protests” and congressional statements along such lines:
“Mayor: city worker killed in Venezuela” – Associated Press, March 19
“Venezuela unrest toll rises as soldier is shot in head” – Reuters, March 17. The article states: “officials said a municipal worker was shot and killed while removing a street barricade in a middle-class neighborhood.”
“Chilean is first foreign fatality in Venezuela unrest” – Reuters, March 10. The article begins: “A Chilean woman was shot dead while clearing a barricade put up by anti-government protesters…”
Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega has recognized that some security forces have engaged in “excesses” but has highlighted judicial actions taken to hold security agents accountable for alleged abuses. On April 11th Luisa Ortega told the press that since the start of the demonstrations, state prosecutors have opened 120 investigations into alleged human rights violations and imprisoned 15 officials in connection with those incidents. 175 individuals were still being detained on April 11th, only 12 of whom were students according to Ortega.
Prominent protest leaders have an anti-democratic and sometimes violent history. Leopoldo Lopez participated in the 2002 coup d’etat that temporarily overthrew the democratically-elected government. As mayor of Chacao at the time, Lopez oversaw the violent arrest of the Interior Minister as he was dragged out of the building where he had taken refuge and beaten by an angry mob. As governor of the now-defunct Federal District of Caracas, now Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma oversaw a violent police crackdown on protests in 1992 in which protesters were killed.1 Maria Corina Machado was among those present at the presidential palace when the 2002 coup regime headed by Pedro Carmona dissolved the congress, the constitution and the Supreme Court.
The Maduro government has repeatedly asked for dialogue since the protests began and has created a National Peace Conference. Maduro invited opposition leaders to the first meeting of the Peace Conference February 24 but opposition leader Henrique Capriles rejected the offer. However, other opposition leaders – like the legislators Leopoldo Pucci and Pedro Pablo Fernandez – attended, as well as business leaders close to the opposition like Jorge Roig, the president of the main business federation, and Lorenzo Mendoza, head of food and beverage giant Empresas Polar. Bloomberg quoted Roig as saying “We have profound differences with your economic system and your political systems but democracy, thank God, lets us evaluate these differences.” On April 8th most of the key leaders of the opposition agreed to initiate talks with the government and, on April 15th a first round of negotiations was held in which both sides agreed to form a truth commission to investigate the deaths that have occurred during the protests.
UNASUR – made up of the 14 governments of South America – has organized a commission of foreign ministers of the region tasked with “accompanying, supporting and advising a broad and constructive political dialogue” in Venezuela. In a March 26 communiqué, the Commission noted the “openness and willingness of [President Maduro] to take on the recommendations made” by the Commission and reaffirmed Unasur’s “support for a broad and respectful dialogue, taking into account the National Peace Conference” and its “condemnation of any attempted rupture of the constitutional order.” Following the mediation of an UNASUR delegation of foreign ministers, opposition leaders agreed to begin a process of dialogue with government officials.
Latin American leaders from across the political spectrum have condemned the violent protests and expressed their solidarity with the Maduro government. The Organization of American States issued a declaration of “Solidarity and Support for Democratic Institutions, Dialogue, and Peace” in Venezuela. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) issued a statement supporting the Venezuelan government’s efforts to foster dialogue and expressing concern over “any threat to the independence and sovereignty of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has stated that “we will never support a movement that wants to violently overthrow a constitutionally-elected government,” and proclaimed “the Chilean government’s willingness to support & help the Venezuelan people & government.” In a letter to Maduro on the anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, former president of Brazil Lula da Silva praised Venezuela’s democratic and economic system and referred to “forces ready to violate the constitutional order” in Venezuela.
The Catholic Church has condemned violence by protesters as well as government security forces.
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino of Caracas stated, “We…reject the deaths caused by roadblocks presumably put in place by protesters and the disproportionate use of force in repressive actions, which has lead [sic] to some deaths and a large number of wounded,” and called for dialogue.
The Latin American Council of Churches, a regional ecumenical organization whose members include 175 Latin American churches in every country in the region, issued a statement on February 28th that stated: “We have seen in the protests in this month of February in Venezuela, directed by the opposition, that their own leaders have confessed the aim of “regime change”. The Venezuelan Constitution offers the possibility of a revocative referendum half way through the term of a presidency, and in that legal and democratic way a government can be changed. However, the recent opposition protests (…) have demonstrated the impatient claims of the opposition, that don’t want to wait to move forward legally (…) The protests are legitimate in their call for greater security, against shortages and inflation, but the demand for a “regime change” does not match the democratic will of the majority of the Venezuelan people expressed in the last elections in 2013.”
The protesters do not have broad support, but are mainly comprised of upper- and middle-class Venezuelans. Media reports have noted that the road blockades have mainly been in wealthier areas, and that the protesters have failed to broaden their movement to lower-income sectors of the population.
Recent elections and opinion polls both show the Maduro government with strong majority support. Political parties aligned with the Maduro government won municipal elections in December with a 10-point margin of victory over the opposition. Prior to these elections, the opposition had framed them as a referendum on Maduro’s government, a line which was picked up in the international media.
A poll conducted in early March by polling firm Pronóstico, and described on March 16th in Venezuela’s largest-circulation newspaper, Últimas Noticias, shows that a strong majority of the 2,400 people surveyed in Caracas and Carabobo – 64% — oppose the current protests. They also show that if presidential elections were to be held now, Maduro would receive more votes than all the leading opposition figures combined.
The U.S. administration has adopted positions that clash with those of nearly all the governments of the region. Declarations from the State Department and the White House have portrayed the protests as peaceful and democratic and placed all the blame for the recent violence on the Venezuelan government. Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that President Maduro is waging a “terror campaign” against the Venezuelan people and said that sanctions against Venezuelan officials are being considered. Only the U.S., Canada and the rightwing government of Panama refused to sign on to the OAS declaration of “solidarity and support” of Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
In the U.S. Congress, sanctions legislation was introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-FL) in the House and Senator Bob Menendez (D-FL) in the Senate on March 13th. The Menendez bill – The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act – “requires President Obama to impose sanctions on persons that have been involved in serious human rights violations against peaceful demonstrators and others in Venezuela or that have directed or ordered the arrest or prosecution of a person due to their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly.” It also “authorizes $15 million in new funding in the FY2015 budget to defend human rights, support democratic civil society organizations, assist independent media, and strengthen good governance and the rule of law in the face of the massive violence and repression”, according to the Menendez press release.
The Ros Lehtinen bill has the same name as the Helms Burton Act, with the name of Cuba replaced by Venezuela: the Venezuelan Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. It contains three different forms of sanctions, a statement of policy for reducing oil imports from Venezuela and a “strategy” section that recycles various passages from the Helms Burton Act including the demand that Venezuela move “toward a market-oriented economic system based on the right to own and enjoy property” and make “constitutional changes that would ensure regular free and fair elections.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also said that sanctions against Venezuela could be an “important tool.” President Pepe Mujica of Uruguay recently spoke out against this threat: “when the entire world asks the U.S. to shelve its economic blockade policy against Cuba, voices emerge from within that government threatening sanctions against Venezuela. Are the lessons of history never learned? (…) the first thing that Venezuela and all of Latin America need is to be respected.”
1 Agence France Presse, “Caracas governor should resign after police violence: human rights leader.” June 26, 1992