By Rodrigo Acuña
20 July 2017
Images of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) firing tear gas at protestors in Venezuela cannot be provided to us in large enough quantities by the mainstream media. Look through the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or even the UK’s liberal Guardian and the government of president Nicolas Maduro is a dictatorship in all but name. As of the time of writing this article, with 103 people dead, television and print images of opposition protestors being tear gassed by police are what count and not any actual context of the violence taking place, or who, for that matter, is predominantly perpetrating it.
After the government last year suspended elections for the country’s governorships (they have now been re-scheduled for December this year), and the National Electoral Council (CNE) declared that the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) carried out irregularities in order to trigger a recall referendum for the presidency in late 2016, Luis Almagro – General Secretary at the Organization of American States (OAS) – led a full diplomatic assault aimed at isolating Caracas. Despite Almagro’s efforts not being backed by the majority of the OAS’ members, and most of his arguments being debunked in an embarrassing interview with Al Jazeera recently in May, the opposition is undeniably winning the media war. This is not without precedent.
In 2002, when a small section of the Venezuelan military carried out a short lived coup d'état and kidnapped president Hugo Chavez, a New York Times editorial on April 13th was all too happy to endorse the take over. Once Chavez was restored to power, in a half-apologetic manner on the 16th the Times conceded that it had “overlooked the undemocratic manner in which [Chavez] was removed”.
Fast forward to 2017, the Times, like most of the global press, has been reading from the same script running articles with titles like: ‘Police and Protesters in Venezuela Share Common Grievances’ and ‘Stop Totalitarianism in Venezuela’. On May 30 the Times ran an open editorial which could have not been clearer: 'Venezuela Needs International Intervention. Now.’ Written by Jared Genser, the international human rights lawyer argued that, given Venezuela’s food and medical shortages, “the world must develop and be prepared to execute a major relief operation the moment permission is granted or otherwise becomes possible.” The country’s security forces, Genser insisted, were shooting at peaceful demonstrators.
In late June, when a member of the aerial section of Venezuela’s special investigative police force (CICPC) went rogue and flew over the Justice Ministry and Supreme Court while firing shots and dropping grenades, The Guardian’s headline for the story read: ‘Patriot, or government plant?’ Roughly two weeks later, Venezuela’s ‘James Bond’, as another headline called him, appeared at an opposition rally in Caracas.
For those familiar with the region’s history, none of this of course is new. What Venezuela is really experiencing is an old style Latin American coup d'état. For all of the faults of Maduro, or that of his predecessor Chavez (1999-2013), lobbying to push up the price of oil through cuts in production at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), spending oil revenues on social programs for the poor and challenging US foreign policy was never going to be palatable to Washington – Republican or Democrat.
Predictably, the hard right in Venezuela have had a very sympathetic ear in the United States with the latter, according to one report, having a “longstanding practice of funding programs that it often claims are aimed at promoting fair elections and human rights, but also strengthen Venezuelan opposition groups.” Between 2007 and 2009, through the Washington-based Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), the State Department directed roughly $4 million to journalists in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. According to another report, since 2009 the Venezuelan opposition has received $49 million from the United States.
In 2015, The Wikileaks Files was published by Verso with an entire chapter devoted to Venezuela. Here, observing that the United States had a preference to support the more “radical” actors within the opposition, the authors also noted that Venezuela, just after Brazil, was the second most mentioned Latin American country in US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.
With oil prices declining in recent years, and the Maduro government vacillating in terms of how to readjust the country’s complex foreign exchange rate, the opposition made an important electoral stride which, in late 2015, landed them with a majority in the National Assembly. Emboldened by this victory they have grappled with the incumbent administration with almost every issue while “business sectors friendly to the opposition”, as one expert notes, “are waging an aggressive and protracted campaign of economic sabotage to deliberately stir up social unrest to destabilize and discredit the governing Chavista bloc.”
When the opposition has perceived that tensions are likely to be particularly high, they have mobilized their supporters onto the streets. Although most of these upper-middle class Venezuelans demonstrate peacefully, once home, violent thugs who create roadblokes and harass motorists replace their ranks. Known as “guarimberos”, these youths have vandalized government buildings, attacked a maternity hospital, burnt down dozens of public buses, set fire to food subsidies for the poor and, among a long list of crimes, assaulted police officers with an arsenal of home made weapons, explosives, and the use of mortars.
When a US journalist for TeleSUR interviewed these thugs, the message to her was clear: film what the police do to us, not what we do to create chaos.
Meanwhile, criminals of a more sophisticated sort have engaged in a campaign of political assassination of trade union leaders and distinguished government supporters. In early June the judge Nelson Moncada was shot dead on his way home. Having sat on the panel which sentenced to prison the right-wing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez for inciting riots in 2014, the judge’s murder has not been ruled out as potentially being politically motivated.
Of course, for much of the press, little of the above has been deemed worthy of reporting at length. Venezuela’s opposition are so confident of the favorable international media coverage they are receiving, their 2013 presidential candidate Henrique Capriles walks the streets of Caracas with the guarimberos.
On May 20, similar guarimberos beat, stabbed and set on fire with gasoline Orlando Jose Figuera. A 21-year old Afro-Venezuelan man, Figuera’s crime was that he was Black, poor and hence must have been a government sympathizer in the eyes of his attackers. A few days later, with over 80 percent of his body burnt, Figuera died of his wounds. But this was not before giving an interviewwhere Figuera directly contradicted much of the mainstream media’s version of events that had him attacked for being a petty thief.
Commenting on the actions of the guarimberos, Frederick B. Mills from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington states that: “The MUD leadership’s failure so far to denounce all terrorist violence and to completely repudiate the use of children at the barricades, as well as the continued reluctance of some opposition mayors to act to restore public order in their municipalities, is not consistent with a principled stand on human rights.”
Speaking recently at Florida International University, Juan Requesens - a member of Venezuela’s National Assembly for the hard right party Justice First (PJ) – sheds much light on unfolding events. From his perspective the “current stage” of violence in Venezuela is necessary in order to provoke a “foreign intervention”.
Make no mistake about it. What we are witnessing in Venezuela is a violent regime change in real time.