- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
Beginning last week, massive student-led protests all but shut down several of Venezuela’s major cities, including the capital. There have been at least five deaths and scores of injuries and arrests, coming to a head on Wednesday night when armed, pro-government militias (the so called "colectivos") descended on demonstrators in the nation’s bloodiest act of repression in recent history. But, taken in context, the protests are tragically unremarkable in Venezuela. After all, opposition minded university students involved in the first protests against the Chávez regime would today be in their mid to late thirties. And there have since been a great many others: each wave had goals, each worked hard, and still the socialist revolution soldiers on….
But this time something feels fundamentally different. There’s no Chávez. There’s no independent media. And yet the world actually seems to be paying attention.
There are two reasons for this. The first is the consistent failure by the regime of President Nicolás Maduro to paint a coherent, believable picture of what’s really going on in Venezuela. The second is international concern about Venezuela’s current media blackout and restrictions on the foreign press.
Connecting with the global community has posed a real problem for the government during this most recent crisis. Last Friday, during a failed attempt at transnational public relations, Elias Jaua, Venezuela’s Chancellor for the Exterior, gave a cringe-inducing interview on CNN Español. Nervous and twitchy, so much so that at one point he actually dropped his earpiece, Jaua accused a great many people of being fascists while claiming to be "out of the loop" on most every topic broached upon by his interviewer. He also reproached CNN for "fomenting violence" and the questioner himself for, first, trying to trick him and, later, for "being angry" with him. (This episode may explain why Chávez himself never allowed his lieutenants to address foreign media outside of state channels.)
Things have actually gone downhill from there. During a rambling, multi-hour speech Sunday, broadcast by decree on every station in Venezuela, an exhausted-looking Maduro attempted to explain that every government has the right to defend itself against intrigue, and that, given cause, Washington authorities would almost certainly have acted in the same manner. Only later, did he accuse the opposition of "breastfeeding crows that will now peck out your eyes for your cowardice" — a comment every bit as bizarre in Spanish as it comes off in translation.
By Monday, state authorities had given up their charm offensive. Instead they shifted to publicly accusing the United States of having "activated" former Chacao mayor Leopoldo López, whose Voluntad Popular party organized the protests. The government alleges that López was tasked by his handlers with ensuring a creeping coup in Venezuela, and perhaps even the assassination of Maduro himself. The government expelled three U.S. diplomats, and López turned himself into the authorities on Tuesday afternoon whilst surrounded by thousands of his supporters in a confusing, and very public spectacle.
Since that time, the regime has been vague in describing the exact nature of López’s captivity, seemingly unsure whether to call it "protective custody," "arrest," or "detainment." The fact that Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the Venezuelan National Assembly and, next to Maduro, the most powerful figure in chavismo, personally showed up to escort López away (despite having no police or judicial authority) further muddies the waters.
The regime’s erratic behavior is rendered all the more confusing by Venezuela’s lack of a functional independent media. Venezuelan coverage of the protests is still virtually nonexistent, and when NTN24 — a cable station based in neighboring Colombia — attempted to provide its own coverage of the protests and subsequent dispersals, it was soon restricted by government censors. The move raised eyebrows abroad, and may have brought still more international attention to events on the ground.
During the Chávez era, a few opposition stations were allowed to operate, and international media retained moderate access to events as they happened. Though their coverage might have been critical of the government, the outlets were by and large professional, requiring fact-checking for news reporting and at least a veneer of neutrality.
In contrast, Maduro, lacking sufficient personal charisma to bridge the gap between the revolution’s vast promises and flawed results as Chávez once did, has increasingly sought to limit opposition access to conventional media. Buying out or expropriating the principal independent television and radio broadcasters, his government has likewise made clear that what remains must self-censor (or else).
In response, Venezuelans who don’t support his government have come to rely on less discerning mediums such as Twitter, further widening the gulf between what is reported by the state and what is relayed by its critics to the outside world.
Some of the detained student protesters from last week have now resurfaced, accusing authorities of torturing them, issuing ransom demands to their families, and even of sexually assaulting them while in custody. Such horrifying personal accounts have since been picked up by various international media outlets. The government has denied the claims, but since the country lacks a neutral authority or functional fifth estate to credibly investigate the matter, the allegations may very well fester, further harming the regime’s credibility abroad.
As with any campfire ghost story, darkness has a way of making the very worst seem believable. By attempting to muffle domestic criticism, the regime in Caracas may well be exposing itself to something worse, on a much larger stage. Venezuela’s gloomy media landscape is making it easier for the world to believe that Maduro’s regime has a great deal to hide.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.