Venezuela is once again in the grip of violent protests, targeting the post-Chavez administration of Nicholas Maduro and which have claimed at least 19 lives as of writing. The official reasons for these protests range from a high crime rate (particularly violent crime) to shortages of basic goods, high inflation and the ‘dictatorial nature’ of the Chavista government of Maduro.
The mainstream is awash with misleading stories of a ‘Venezuelan Spring’, some sort of grand movement against an authoritarian government spearheaded by students and social media to bring about democracy à la Tahir Square. Jared Leto even gave a shout out to ‘the dreamers in Ukraine and Venezuela’ at his Oscar acceptance speech.
These innocent students, the opposition and the mainstream international media would have you believe, are being shot, tortured and beaten by Chavista thugs for exercising their democratic rights. All this is apparently happening under a media blackout due to the fact that the Maduro government controls almost all the media (a lie: 70% of the media is in private hands). According to the opposition the only accurate coverage can be found on social media, particularly Twitter.
But this media-manufactured international outrage is almost entirely misleading. While there are legitimate issues to take to the streets over in Venezuela, like crime and shortages, these protests are more akin to the 2002 failed coup championed by the United States, which attempted to topple Hugo Chavez, before being defeated by the mass mobilization of Venezuela’s popular classes.
First, not all the people killed during this round of protests have been opposition protesters. In fact, many were killed by the opposition forces, for example two motorcyclists who were garrotted with razorwire at a road block. Of the 19 deaths so far, only three can be attributed to government forces. At least six have died at opposition road blocks, two National Guardsmen have been shot and others have been killed for their links to the Chavistas.
Second, the opposition consists primarily of the middle- and upper-middle classes, backed by the big Venezuelan bourgeoisie and its elite expatriate network particularly based in Miami, with the backing of the United States government. These forces had been in power in the country from the time of its birth until Chavez came to power in 1998. Their democratic credentials remain questionable: from their 2002 attempt to overthrow Chavez to their refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the democratically elected Maduro government after last year’s elections. These forces remain intent on pushing back the gains of the Bolivarian revolution and returning to Venezuela to the rule of capital.
The protest movement has led to a split in the Venezuelan opposition between the far right, which is intent on removing Maduro, and those who are intent on taking an electoralist strategy. The far right is headed by Leopoldo Lopez (a son of one of the wealthiest families in Venezuela) and they are intent on removing the Maduro through extra-parliamentary means. They have never accepted the results of elections in Venezuela. The more moderate faction is grouped around the figure of Henrique Capriles and supports the protests but accepts the legitimacy of the Maduro presidency.
The Maduro government itself is facing a series of challenges, not least being the death of the colossal figure of Chavez, but also economic challenges and a high crime rate. While Venezuela’s economic situation is nowhere near as dire as its critics paint it, challenges facing it include curbing inflation and diversifying beyond petrochemicals. It also is facing pressure from the left social movement to deepen the revolution and tackle a new, bloated, corrupt elite that has embedded itself in the state. It lost significant support in the last national election but managed to take over 70% of municipalities in the more recent municipal elections, which was probably one of the causal factors in the opposition protests.
The key factor in these protests is the fact that the popular classes are still in support of the Bolivarian revolution and the working-class sections of the big cities, particularly Caracas, have been quiet, with no protests except in favour of the government. The wealthier neighbourhoods have been the primary location of opposition roadblocks and protests. There is a lesson here: every time somebody tweets from a protest or an occupation, it does not mean a new revolution is on the cards or that this is necessarily progressive.