In the last few months Venezuela has witnessed growing inflation and economic turmoil. Led by the most extreme elements of the political right, now violent protests have erupted which have left 13 people dead. While corruption within the Maduro government is a real problem, since last year powerful elements of the private sector and the opposition have stepped up their pressure on the administration. Their calculation is simple. Since Nicolas Maduro won last year’s elections by a slim margin of 1.6 per cent, he, unlike the late President Hugo Chávez, is weak and can be forced to resign through violence.
Speculating with dollars and hording consumer products like cornflour, cooking oil, coffee and milk, real necessities have been created amongst average Venezuelans. In a detailed article for the U.S. magazine Counter Punch, Venezuelan sociologist María Páez Victor has written on this economic war which is receiving next to no coverage in the mainstream press. The objectives of such tactics – known as low-intensity warfare in military literature – are aimed at exhausting popular support for a government. They were used successfully by local reactionaries and the Republicans in Washington against the Popular Unity government in Chile (1970-1973), and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (1979-1990). Today these tactics are being used in Venezuela.
While some sections of the opposition have genuine grievances towards the government which need to be addressed, key segments within them also continue turning towards the United States for funding and political direction. The Obama administration in this regard has been extremely disappointing despite the U.S. President’s symbolic handshakes with Chávez in 2009, and Cuban President Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial late last year.
Writing for the Latin American Bureau in London, Julia Buxton – professor of Comparative Politics in the School of Public Policy, CEU, Budapest – notes that in 2008:
the US-based Cato Institute awarded the US$500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to student leader Yon Goicoechea for his role in mobilising protests against the suspension of private broadcaster RCTV’s licence. At the same time, a sizeable amount of the US$45 million in funding provided annually by US institutions to Venezuelan opposition groups was channelled to ‘youth outreach’ programmes.
With financial support and media training, Venezuela’s student and opposition-aligned Juventud Activa Venezuela Unida (JAVU) became vociferous and mobilised, focusing after 2010 on the alleged censorship by the state of private sector broadcasters and on government legislation intended to democratise the administration of the universities. The latter was portrayed as a threat to university autonomy and some public institutions, such as the Universidad Central de Venezuela, were driven into the opposition camp.
According to another analyst, Washington this year alone has provided the Venezuelan opposition with $5 million from the U.S. federal budget – the ‘tip of the iceberg’, in addition to the millions channelled to them in the last 15 years.
Emboldened by their improved performance in the April 2013 presidential elections with their front man Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Venezuelan opposition expected to make further gains in last December’s municipal voting. They did not and instead Maduro managed to win three-fourths of the country’s municipalities with a margin of 49 to 43 per cent.
Now divided since Capriles shook Maduro’s hand at an anti-crime meeting with local governors earlier this year, Leopoldo López has decided that he should lead the opposition’s bloc Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD).
Using violent protests, and receiving favourable private media coverage, López has called on street marches until the government resigns. It’s a simple strategy and non-democratic. And despite Washington’s support, the majority of South American countries have rejected it.
Providing us with some final thoughts on the internal politics of the opposition Buxton writes that:
Capriles has been steering the opposition down the electoral path in recognition of the fact that ordinary voters are alienated by violent protest and disorder. It has been widely acknowledged that such a strategy will take time to produce results, but it allows the MUD to build an electoral base and credibility as a political alternative. This hard work will be undone by a return to unconstitutional activities. The students and MUD radicals offer no governance plan, with ‘salida’ serving as a hash tag, not a strategy, according to one opposition blogger.
Just as in 2002, radicals have forgotten that the people they must convince are Venezuelan voters, not international opinion. There can be no short cut to replacing a movement and government that is genuinely popular. Attempting to induce regime overthrow is unnecessary when the option of a recall referendum is available, and it is irresponsible when the outcome of violent change will only be a cycle of violent revenge.