Transitions

Debunking the Venezuelan Government’s Defense

Venezuela’s opposition is entering the third week of its massive street protests, which were triggered in part by high inflation, persistent scarcity of basic goods, and one of the worst crime waves in the world. Protesters are constantly clashing with security forces, sometimes violently. Yet the battle is also being fought in the public sphere, ...

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela’s opposition is entering the third week of its massive street protests, which were triggered in part by high inflation, persistent scarcity of basic goods, and one of the worst crime waves in the world. Protesters are constantly clashing with security forces, sometimes violently. Yet the battle is also being fought in the public sphere, where both sides are working hard to make their case.

With the aim of parsing truth from fiction, this article fact checks the government’s statements. These can be summarized as follows:

1. The people protesting are fascists, intent on destabilizing the government through a coup.

The government seems to be using the term "fascists" to discredit the protesters as right-wing extremists who are opposed to the socialist government. That begs the question: Do Venezuela’s protesters really represent extreme right-wing views?

Protestors form a wide array of Venezuela’s opposition society, from center-left parties such as Voluntad Popular, whose leader Leopoldo López was imprisoned on questionable charges, to far-right politicians such as Diego Arria. It also includes a large contingent of elected student leaders from the country’s universities, who do not subscribe to right-wing views. (In the photo above, protesters pose with a statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí.)

As for their goals, it is clear that protestors are exasperated. They have very little confidence in the government’s willingness or ability to solve their problems. In that regard, while they are clearly not employing a military strategy to topple the government, a majority of the people in the streets surely want the president’s resignation and a transition to a different regime. This is a legitimate request in a democratic society, and does not constitute a "coup." The statement is false.

2. Protests are violent, and are mostly from the middle class.

Although most protesters claim to be peaceful, there have been acts of violence reported. For example, some protesters have used nylon string to topple motorcycle drivers they deem threatening, and they also have used hoses laced with nails to stop vehicles. Barricades are being widely used.

As for the protesters’ class status, there have indeed been few protests in poor neighborhoods. Most protests have been held in Caracas’ wealthier East side. While it is unfair to categorize all protesters are violent, it is fair to say that they are largely middle-class. The statement is partly true.

3. We are open to dialogue.

The government says it is open to dialogue, but so far it has not followed through in a serious manner. The opposition has no confidence in the government, and authorities have not done anything to increase trust and bring the opposition to the table, instead choosing to ratchet up the rhetoric against their foes.

Although the government has been hosting "Peace Conferences" with business people and a few opposition politicians, none of the major actors have sat at the table. The government has not shown any willingness to make the changes that would allow for a true dialogue, including more relaxed responses to peaceful protests or the freeing of dissidents. Given that the government has done little to engage the main actors in the opposition in any serious way, one can only conclude this statement is mostly false.

4. The Venezuelan government does not violate human rights.

Serious concerns about human rights have surfaced in the last two weeks. These go from the rough treatment of protesters at the hand of authorities, to the deaths of more than a dozen at the hands of "colectivos," or government paramilitary gangs. The government has also censored media such as channel NTN24 and Twitter. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, as well as local NGOs such as Foro Penal Venezolano and Cofavic, have all questioned the government’s actions during this fortnight, and have called for more restraint. While there does not seem to be enough evidence of institutionalized human rights violations, the government’s record on this front is far from unblemished. The statement is mostly false.

5. Students are being manipulated by opposition politicians and by the U.S. government.

The protest movement in Venezuela is not controlled by any one group. Although students seem to be taking the lead, numerous sources confirm that the other parties participating are not always in consensus with the students. Last year’s losing presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, has veered from lukewarm support of the protests to downright hostility toward them, and he hasn’t accompanied all of the massive marches in Caracas and in other cities. It seems clear that opposition politicians are not driving this movement.

As for the U.S. government, its official position is that both sides need to talk. The Venezuelan government has yet to offer any convincing proof that the U.S. administration is behind this movement, and even chavismo’s staunchest supporters have failed come up with any evidence of significant foreign funding of the opposition. Therefore, the statement is largely false.

In sum, most of the government’s arguments have serious flaws. Unless they can come up with more convincing evidence, they will find it increasingly difficult to win the battle for public opinion.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

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