For more than 60 days, anti-government protests have been taking place in Venezuela.
In a country plagued by sky-high inflation and an extreme scarcity of food and medicines, confrontations between protesters and the National Bolivarian Guard have led to more than 70 fatalities.
But interpretations of this political crisis as simply a dictatorial regime cracking down on a united and suffering population do not do justice to the complexities and severe polarisation of Venezuelan society.
Jose only protests when he has earned enough to feed his family. Whenever he spots the National Bolivarian Guard while out driving his taxi he calls them “cowardly rats” under his breath.
He studied engineering at university, but because of the economic crisis, there isn’t enough work for people with his skills. So, he has taken up taxi driving on the side.
“We must protest, as much as we can. This government is destroying Venezuela, and if we stop now it will be over. They will have won,” he says.
When asked what he will do if the situation does not improve, Jose says he will leave.
“My son is very small still, but I don’t want him to go to school in a country like this. I want him to have a future and opportunities. With this government, he will have none of that.”
It is a common sentiment here. In marches, people carry signs that read “Luchemos hasta morir si es necesario, por un mejor porvenir” (We fight until we die if necessary, for a better future).
Almost daily thousands of opposition supporters, convoked by their leaders and dressed in white and the colours of the national flag, gather in upmarket neighbourhoods in the east of Caracas.
They then begin their marches towards the city centre, joined along the way by opposition sympathisers from other parts of the city. But they never reach their destination because, time and again, the marches are stopped by riot squads, armed with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets.
As the marches come to a halt, it is often youngsters, armed with home-made shields, helmets, gas masks, and some with Molotov cocktails, who make their way to the front. Some cheer them on, others chant “no more violence”.
As the street battles begin, motorbikes drive back and forth, bringing new protesters to the front and returning with those who have been wounded.
The wounded are tended to by the Green Cross, medical students who voluntarily help those injured during the protests.
‘The opposition is trying to defeat a legitimate government’
The opposition is trying to defeat a legitimate government. That is why they turn violent. They provoke in order to get a violent reaction.
Fernando Bossi, the director of portalalba.org, a website that provides information on the Latin American “socialist and anti-imperialist project”, says it isn’t the government that is using violence, but the opposition.
“The opposition is trying to defeat a legitimate government. That is why they turn violent. They provoke, in order to get a violent reaction.”
Bossi, who says those police officers who have used excessive force have been imprisoned, describes the opposition as “fascists”.
In fact, several parties in the MUD (the Table of Democratic Unity, which is made up of about 20 opposition parties) identify as centrist or left-of-centre, and three of the largest ones are members of the Socialist International.
Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group disputes Bossi’s argument.
“The MUD has consistently promoted an agenda which is absolutely, explicitly, electoral and democratic. However, every step of the way, its space to operate is reduced further, but it has persisted with a peaceful, non-violent protest,” he says.
“The opposition knows perfectly well that they would lose a violent struggle. If they start shooting back, everything is over. So the violence on the opposition side is reactive, because the government has used excessive force in controlling the demonstrations. It has used firearms, because a tear gas canister directly aimed at a person is a firearm that can kill, as we have seen. Those elements of the opposition that have used violence have done so mainly defensively.”
Gunson believes opposition violence would only benefit the government. “That is logical to assume when you look at their propaganda: ‘This is terrorism, an attempt to overthrow the government, financed from outside the country and by lackeys of imperialism from inside’,” he says, adding: “And I know for a fact that there is a minority within the opposition who want to shoot back. And opposition politicians are holding them off, telling them ‘please don’t do that, because we will lose’.”
‘When someone hits you, you have to hit back’
So who are the protesters, and do they represent all layers of society, as the opposition claims?
Gunson believes they do. “The hooded protesters are students, high school kids, kids from the barrios, and even street kids,” he says.
Two young protesters, Miguel and Darío*, say they have been opposing the government for five years.
Both are from the lower-middle class and went to university.
“At first our protest was peaceful. We simply marched, but sent a strong message that we were not afraid of the government. That was already a form of aggression to them and they used tear gas, so we needed gas masks. Then they started shooting, so we needed Molotov cocktails,” Miguel explains.
“Many think we are violent, but they do not understand that when someone hits you, you have to hit back,” Dario adds.
Both say they are on the run from the police and that when they were arrested before, they were tortured. Miguel laughs as he recalls it. The laughter is his way of dealing with the trauma.
“They started by pulling out my nails with a plier. The first two, I managed to keep quiet, but by the third, I lost it. They pulled out all 20,” he says.
“Once they beat me up so badly I vomited blood and lost consciousness. When I woke up they had hung me from the ceiling with my arms spread like Christ.”
Disillusioned, they say they have no faith in the opposition, even though they fight at the front of the MUD’s protests.
“We cannot leave the country because they will arrest us. We have to fight or they will kill us. We have seen our friends die by our side, right next to us. And they call us terrorists! We have stones and Molotov cocktails while they have weapons and shoot straight at us. So who are the terrorists?” Dario asks.
‘An economic war’
Gunson says the opposition is diverse. “Most are middle class, but what we see now is people coming from Petare [a large suburb of Caracas, mostly made up of slums] as well.”
He says there is a risk for these people in being seen as supporting the opposition.
“The colectivos [collectives of civilians who work to promote the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution] made a very explicit declaration that they would knock on the doors of people who go to the protests,” Gunson explains.
This kind of intimidation, Gunson says, is one of the reasons why people from the barrios do not go out onto the streets to oppose the government. And with so little food available, they often have neither the time nor the energy to protest. Their time is better spent trying to put food on their tables, they believe.
But there is a third reason why Gunson believes that poorer Venezuelans are not joining the anti-government protests.
“A lot of people, although they hate [President Nicolas] Maduro, don’t like the opposition. All the opinion polls reflect this. You get hard-core opposition supporters, hardcore government supporters, and in the middle, you got about 40 percent who would be opposition, if they felt that there was a party within the MUD that they could identify with, but [who] feel that all parties represent a return to the past,” he says.
This fear of a return to the pre-Chavez era is felt especially strongly by those who still support the government, many of whom live in the barrios.
Enrique has a small house high up on the hills of Antimano with his son, his son’s wife, and their five daughters. He is a bricklayer, his son drives a taxi, and his wife is a hairdresser. Their three wages, supplemented by a monthly food delivery service through a government scheme called CLAP, are just enough to feed the family.
But despite their struggles, Enrique sees no reason to support the opposition.
“I completely support Maduro. If the opposition would come to power they would enrich themselves like they did before Chavez and we would only get poorer,” he says, adding: “Chavez worked for us.”
In 17 years, all they did was deepen the country's dependence on oil, which was a disaster
“We did not have access to health services, so he brought us doctors. Our children had no education, so he started programmes to get them to school. What has the opposition ever done for us? I have never even seen them here,” Enrique explains.
A short journey downhill via concrete stairs installed by the government, passing houses with red, government-provided roofs, leads to the Community Council.
These councils were set up by Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, to coordinate social programmes his administration designed in order to improve the lives of those living in the barrios. There are drawings of Chavez, Maduro, and Che Guevara on the walls of the Community Council. On the ground floor, Cuban doctors offer free consultations to the locals.
Amada is in her 70s and works at the council. She blames the opposition for the economic crisis. “These people have money and they are affiliated to the US. You only hear what the opposition says, so everyone thinks that here the people are dying. We are not dying, we are working, and the government is doing everything they can to help. The opposition, meanwhile, is fighting an economic war.”
Fears of a return to neoliberalism
This often-repeated accusation of economic warfare is denied by the opposition.
“It is complete nonsense,” says Lilian Tintori, a human rights activist and the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. “The cause of the crisis is government corruption. They take money from the people and forget that we need medicine and food. Nobody is fighting an economic war.”
Gunson agrees: “If you need an explanation of why there is an economic crisis, bad government policy is sufficient on its own. The government talks about putting prices up, but there is over 500 percent inflation per year, so obviously, you are going to put prices up. They talk about hoarding goods, but again, if you know the price of something is going to double tomorrow, you would be crazy to sell it today.”
Julia Buxton, a professor at the Central European University and an expert on Venezuelan politics, agrees. “In seventeen years, all they [the government] did was deepen the country’s dependence on oil, which was a disaster.
“They also embarked on this huge process of nationalisations, which they could never afford in terms of maintaining all these industries or the compensation they had to pay for it. So the emphasis has to be more on the failure of economic strategy than on this concept of economic warfare.”
But Amada fears the opposition. “If the opposition would win, they would throw us back to pre-Chavez times and take away everything we gained in terms of health, education, and development,” she says.
Buxton believes Amada’s fears are not ungrounded. “The big worry is that the opposition has just not presented a plan. If we are going to talk about a democratic transition and the building of a rule of law, we really need to know what the opposition strategy is. People are terrified there will be a return to neoliberalism. From the opposition, there is just no other narrative apart from the narrative of regime change.”
When asked about concrete plans that might ease the worries of people like Enrique and Amada, Tintori speaks in generalities: “Our government is going to be a government of unity. We want to protect all rights of all people.This means the right to live, to work, to study, the right to food, medicine, and opportunity. We will take care of people who now have access to health and food through government programmes,” she says.
But that is a message that isn’t convincing many in the barrios.
*Names changed to conceal their identities.