Days of street clashes between opponents and supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have left five dead, with scores injured or detained. The demonstrators, mostly students, blame the government for violent crime, high inflation, chronic shortages, and what they charge is repression of opponents. They are calling for Maduro to resign. The street fighting has mostly been in middle-class areas of Caracas, where it seems we are treated to the unlikely spectacle of well-heeled youth throwing Molotov cocktails at police and blocking streets with burning trash. Authorities even said a funeral procession for revered folk singer Simón Díaz, who died Feb. 19 aged 85, was held up by "violent groups" blocking roads. (Reuters, Feb. 20) Widely blamed for inciting violence is the leader of the right-wing Voluntad Popular party, Leopoldo López. CNN reported that López turned himself in Feb. 19 to face murder charges—which CNN reported the following day had been dropped. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles has also been supporting the protests, but is publicly urging nonviolence. The unrest extends beyond Caracas, with the government mobilizing troops to Tachira state following protests there. Maduro has also threatened to expel CNN from the country if it does not "rectify its coverage" of the protests. (BBC News, Feb. 20)
Preceptions are predictably polarized. The government and its supporters routinely refer to the protesters as "fascists" and "golpistas"—coup-mongers, implying that they are seeking a reprise of the April 2002 abortive coup against Hugo Chávez. The opposition press refers to the pro-government counter-demonstrators as "collectivos"—which an analysis from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) says is being used "to evoke a pejorative image of Chavistas who are associates of collectives." COHA also asserts that Maduro has exercised "restraint" in response to the protests:
Government officials have been urging against retaliation and are seeking to avoid any escalation of violence in the streets. Maduro charged that "these are trained groups who…are prepared to overthrow the government in a violent way, and I'm not going to allow this, so I call on Venezuela to be peaceful."
…The practice of extreme elements of the opposition during the past week does indeed look somewhat similar to the tactics used to engineer a coup in 2002. The balance of forces, however, is not on the side of counter revolution. First, the memory of the 2002 coup has produced an alert Chavista base that is prepared to join in a civic military alliance to defend the bolivarian revolution from any threats from within or without. Second, the opposition is not of one voice, with more moderate sectors opting out of violent confrontation and seeking to shake off the stain of golpismo…
The moderate response of Maduro to what he takes to be an attempted coup, should not be mistaken for a lack of resolve. Nor should this challenge by the extreme right sabotage the attempts by Maduro to build national unity with the more moderate opposition in the fight against crime. The current clash between revolution and counter revolution reflects an underlying dialectic between two different visions of the social and economic spheres… We can expect the government counter offensive, the struggle for food sovereignty, and the building of communes to continue unabated, despite challenges, sometimes violent, from the hard liners on the right. For the formerly excluded and dispossessed, for those working towards building 21stcentury socialism, there is no turning back.
Contrast the above portrayal with this one, from the pro-opposition Caracas Chronicles blog, Feb. 20:
What we have this morning is no longer the Venezuela story you thought you understood.
Throughout last night, panicked people told their stories of state-sponsored paramilitaries on motorcycles roaming middle class neighborhoods, shooting at people and storming into apartment buildings, shooting at anyone who seemed like he might be protesting. People continue to be arrested merely for protesting, and a long established local Human Rights NGO makes an urgent plea for an investigation into widespread reports of torture of detainees. There are now dozens of serious human right abuses: National Guardsmen shooting tear gas canisters directly into residential buildings. We have videos of soldiers shooting civilians on the street. And that's just what came out in real time, over Twitter and YouTube, before any real investigation is carried out. Online media is next, a city of 645,000 inhabitants has been taken off the internet amid mounting repression, and this blog itself has been the object of a Facebook "block" campaign.
What we saw were not "street clashes", what we saw is a state-hatched offensive to suppress and terrorize its opponents.
Note, however, that nearly all of the links in the above account go to murky YouTube videos, not actual press accounts. Note also that an account on Slate by William J. Dobson refers to the "collectivos" not as a mere pejorative for members of collectives, but as "paramilitary gangs" of "regime supporters."
There is no more clarity about the current labor conflict, especially in the critical and troubled oil sector. The pro-opposition El Universal reported Feb. 3 (Spanish version) that 10 oil workers had been detained after demanding a new collective bargaining agreement, to replace the one that expired in October. The arrests reportedly took place during a protest at the Puerto La Cruz refinery, east of Caracas. Among those detained was the secretary general of the United Federation of Oil-Sector Workers of Venezuela (FUTPV), José Bodas. The arrest was also reported on the website of International Workers Unity-Fourth International (UIT-CI), voice of Venezuela's small but active Trotskyist opposition.
Yet Cuba's Prensa Latina agency (which is of course sympathetic to the Maduro government) reported Feb. 18 that FUTPV president Wills Rangel took the occasion of the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement to announce a mass march of oil workers in support of the government. He said some 40,000 would rally at the Miraflores presidential palace in support of Maduro at the signing ceremony. "We, the revolutionary people, have to be clear that this is a war," Rangel said.
Venezuela's anarchist Libertario journal ran a statement from the Syndical Base Movement (MOSBASE), apparently labor dissidents seeking trade unions independent of the state, saying "we support the just and democratic struggle of the Venezuelan students; this is not the first time that youth have taken to the streets to demand respect and denounce that various atrocities that are daily committed against the fundamental rights of the Venezuelan people." The statement charges that "paramilitary groups assassinate, abduct, torture and persecute citizens, supported by the authorities of the state." It especially cites the Feb. 12 "abduction and torture" of Inti Rodríguez of the human rights group PROVEA—a case that was also reported by El Universal.
Without providing details or speculation as to who may be behind the slayings, the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) reports that at least 59 trade unionists were assassinated in Venezuela in 2013. (If accurate, this is twice the figure for Colombia.)
So… Are Venezuelan Trotskyists and anarchists in danger of being exploited by fascists and golpistas? Or is the Maduro government demonizing a more heterodox protest movement as fascists and golpistas in order to justify repression? Sound off, readers…