Venezuela: two dead in student protests

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse student protesters who turned out by the tens of thousands in Caracas Nov. 1 to protest constitutional reforms that would permit Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely. Chanting “Freedom! Freedom!,” protesters marched on the National Electoral Council (CNE) to deliver a document calling for the referendum on the reforms, scheduled for Dec. 2, to be postponed. Authorities broke up the protest outside the CNE headquarters, where six police officers and one student were reported injured. Protesters said the 69 amendments drafted by Venezuela’s Chavista-dominated National Assembly would derail democracy. But as the march passed through the poorer area of Parque Central, the protest was met with spontaneous cries from Chavez supporters of “Chavez is not going” and “They will not return”—a reference to the political leaders of the pre-Chavez era. (AP, Nov. 3; VenezuelAnalysis, Nov. 2)

In protests at the University of Zulia in Maracaibo the following day, one student, Flavia Piscapia, 21, was killed and four others injured when a gunman fired on the demonstration from a passing car. One of the gunmen was also reported killed in the confrontation that followed. The Maracaibo protests were over a delay in student elections at the University of Zulia. (El Nacional, Venezuela, Nov. 2)

See our last post on Venezuela.

  1. Venezuela’s constitutional amendments
    AP outlines some of the proposed constitutional amendments:

    * Allow authorities to detain citizens without charges and censor the media when the president declares a state of emergency.

    * Prohibit torture, being held incommunicado and sentences of more than 30 years.

    * Enable the government to expropriate private property without a court ruling and allow property to be managed by state-organized cooperatives.

    * Give the executive branch total control over the currently independent Central Bank. Allow the executive branch to set monetary policy.

    * Reduce the workday from eight to six hours and prohibit forced overtime.

    * Reduce the minimum voting age from 18 to 16.

    * Create a state-run social security fund for Venezuelans working in the “informal economy,” such as taxi drivers, hair dressers, artisans, fishermen and farmers.

    * Prohibit “associations with political objectives” from receiving foreign funds.

    * Extend presidential terms from six to seven years. Eliminate limits on two consecutive presidential terms.

    * Increase from 20 percent to 30 percent the number of voters’ signatures required to trigger a presidential recall vote.

    Note that the amendments are a mix of populist measures and prescriptions for authoritarianism and repression. Should this be read as a carrot-and-stick tactic: wealth redistribution and social security guarantees to sweeten the pot as an authoritarian state is consolidated? Or are the populist and repressive measures more fundamentally unified: draconian measures will be necessary in order to effect the wealth redistribution—especially given the demonstrated putschist designs on Chavez by Washington and its local proxies?

    Sound off, readers.

  2. Constitutional reform polarizes Venezuela
    From VenezuelAnalysis, Nov. 5:

    Over a hundred thousand Venezuleans marched in support of President Chavez and of his constitutional reform on Sunday, which Chavez described as the most important referendum of his presidency.

    Marchers, almost all dressed in red – the color of Venezuela’s Bolivarian movement – filled the entire 1.3 km (0.8 mi) Bolivar Avenue and spilled into side streets. The demonstration proceeded without incident and culminated with a three hour speech by Chavez. During the 8.5 km (5.3 mi) march, which passed through most of Caracas, rains poured down on marchers for part of the time.

    From AP, Nov. 5:

    A longtime ally of President Hugo Chavez who until recently was his military chief condemned constitutional reforms on Monday that would let the leftist leader run for re-election indefinitely.

    In a sharp break with Chavez, former Defense Minister Raul Baduel said if the public approves the reforms in a Dec. 2 referendum, “in practice a coup d’etat would be consummated, violating the constitutional text in a shameless way.”

    The high-profile defection filled Venezuelan TV talk shows with debate — both about the retired general’s possible motivations and about whether his objections are echoed within the ranks of the military.

    Baduel, who was replaced in July, was a close confidant of Chavez who helped him return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup. But he strongly opposed the constitutional change, saying “it seizes away power from the people.”

  3. More student clashes in Venezuela
    From AP, Nov. 8:

    Gunmen opened fire on students returning from a peaceful march Wednesday in which 80,000 people denounced a constitutional referendum planned for December that would expand Chavez’s power. At least eight people were injured, including one by gunfire, officials said.

    Higher Education Minister Luis Acuna offered Wednesday to send in troops to quell the violence, but university authorities quickly rejected the offer as an attempted power grab.

    “We won’t fall into the trap,” Eleazar Narvaez, rector of the Central University of Venezuela, said Thursday.

  4. US fomenting Venezuela violence?
    From VenezuelAnalysis, Nov. 9:

    Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro rejected statements from the US State Department yesterday, and accused the government of the United States of being involved in the violent events in Caracas. US spokesperson Sean McCormack had criticized the recent student violence in Venezuela, calling it “appalling,” but Maduro claimed that the statement from the US is proof of their involvement in the acts.

    “We don’t have any doubt that the government of the United States has their hands in the scheme that led to the ambush yesterday,” said Maduro, referring to a shootout between students at Caracas’ Central University on Wednesday. Opposition groups quickly blamed the Chavez government after several students were wounded at the university, including at least one from gunshot wounds, after a violent clash between pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez students.

    “We know this whole scheme. And the people of Latin America have reached a level of maturity about the politics of the empire, so that we know when a high-ranking official comes out about something happening in the world, in some country, that it means that the government of the United States is involved in some way or is looking to produce a further action,” said Maduro.

    The US State Department criticized Wednesday’s violent events at a press conference on Thursday. Upon being questioned by reporters, State Department Spokesperson Sean McCormack labeled the events in Caracas “an appalling act.”

    “It’s just an appalling act, and just another indication of the kind of atmosphere that you’re seeing in Venezuela,” he said, although he admitted that they do not know who is responsible, or who fired the shots. McCormack emphasized that violence had occurred against “peaceful protesters” who were expressing themselves against the proposed constitutional reform.

    But the Venezuelan foreign minister rejected the claim and assured that the event at the university was “a vile attack” on a group of students that was meeting and organizing peacefully in support of the constitutional reform. Maduro accused both the US government and major media such as CNN of misrepresenting the events.

    “It is obscene the role that CNN is playing right now, to attempt the impossible: the destabilization of the political atmosphere,” he said.

    Maduro accused the United States of playing a destabilizing role in the world, and assured that their discourse proves it.

    “The desperation in the face, expressions, and language of this member of the state department that came out against our country, shows that their hand is behind all of these events.” Maduro assured that the only thing that is “appalling” is the “criminal government” of the United States.

    Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also claimed that the government of the United States is behind the Venezuelan opposition movement, and offered his solidarity with the Venezuelan president.

    “What we can do is express our solidarity with the revolutionary people of Venezuela and with our friend Hugo Chavez, who is being subjected to aggression from a counterrevolution fed by the traitors from inside the country and by the empire.”

    Ortega made the comparison to his own country, stating that the United States is also organizing opposition movements in his country that are “financed by the United States Embassy” in Managua.

    But the Venezuelan minister discounted opposition efforts to defeat the upcoming referendum on the constitutional reform proposal, assuring that the Chavez government would win the election.

    “We have no doubt that, as the surveys show, a huge majority of Venezuelans will vote ‘yes’ on the reform. And that moment on December 2nd, will be the moment that the Venezuelan people will cut down the declarations of the State Department, and we will teach them a lesson.”

    From the New York Times, Nov. 10:

    …Mr. Chávez continues to disparage the student movement, calling the student protests a “fascist attack.” The president has also described the students as “daddy’s boys” — children of privilege resisting social change…

    In other statements, the president has gone further, accusing opponents of conspiring to carry out a “soft coup” supported by the United States and being inspired by groups like the Albert Einstein Institution, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., that advocates nonviolent struggle.

    1. Stephen Zunes replies to Z mag. on Venezuela and NGO’s
      Via MRzine editor Yoshie Furuhashi,
      Inaccurate and unfair attacks on the ICNC

      Stephen Zunes
      31 August 2007

      Michael Barker’s reply (“Promoting ‘democracy’ through civil disobedience,” GLW #722) to a letter-to-the-editor by Jack DuVall (GLW #718, online edition) contains some serious factual errors and misleading comments regarding the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), for which I serve as chair of the board of academic advisers.

      Green Left Weekly readers may recognise me as the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Zed Press, 2003) and scores of articles for Common Dreams, Alternet, Tom Paine and other progressive websites, including Foreign Policy in Focus, where I serve as a board member and Middle East editor. My visibility as an anti-imperialist scholar has earned me a prominent place on lists of the most dangerous “anti-American” and “anti-Israel” professors on websites and in articles of those backing US President George Bush’s global agenda.

      This fact alone should raise serious questions regarding Barker’s claim that ICNC’s program is geared toward supporting US hegemony. If that were true, why would they have someone like me in such an influential position? And why would I agree to take such a post for an organisation if it really supported an imperialistic agenda?

      As a result, I feel obliged to address specifically some of the false allegations brought up by Barker:

      First of all, ICNC does not “work closely” with the Albert Einstein Institution, does not “provide its theoretical underpinnings” and has never had a single operational meeting with anyone representing them. The primary connection between the two independent non-profit institutes has been ICNC’s support for foreign-language translations of their literature, which have been used by nonviolent activists struggling for freedom and justice in dozens of countries.

      (In any case, contrary to Barker’s assertion, the Albert Einstein Institution has never received any government funding nor does it take ideological sides in conflicts. The research on the power on nonviolent action by its founder and director Gene Sharp — who began his career as the personal assistant to the legendary radical pacifist and labour organiser AJ Muste — has inspired generations of peace and social justice activists in the United States and around the world. No evidence has emerged that he has ever worked with the CIA or any other organ of the US government, an idea that those of us who know Sharp and his work find completely absurd.

      In addition, the Albert Einstein Institution has funded research and educational activities for scores of left-leaning scholars and activists, including Palestinian feminist Souad Dajani, Rutgers University sociologist Kurt Schock, Common Courage Press co-founder Greg Bates, Israeli human rights activist Edy Kaufman, Kent State University Peace Studies professor Patrick Coy, Nigerian human rights activist Uche Ewelukwa and Bradford University Peace Studies professor Paul Rogers, among others, all of whom have been outspoken critics of US foreign policy.)

      Secondly, while some ICNC staff members attend conferences and meet with various individuals connected with foreign policy think tanks in Washington, this hardly constitutes a conspiracy to advance US imperialism. Indeed, anyone who bothers to read articles or speeches by ICNC president Jack DuVall and other ICNC staff would find that they regularly criticise the failure of the foreign policy establishment to appreciate or understand the power of nonviolent struggle. As DuVall, in a recent speech, put it, “It will not be Western policymakers [or] international institutions … who will rescue from oppression the people of the Middle East or Africa or any other region soaked with injustice and misery. It will be the ordinary people inhabiting what we call ‘civil society’, who are now usually treated by outsiders as victims or beneficiaries of action by others.” This is hardly the perspective that would be taken by a supporter of US hegemony in the name of “democracy”.

      Indeed, the idea that nonviolent theorists like Sharp and DuVall subscribe to a hegemonic ideology is ridiculous. Both have long sought the greatest possible diversity of thought and experience in the understanding of popular nonviolent struggle, for which the left has had far more experience and understanding than any government will ever have. Prominent American radical pacifists like George Lakey, Michael Nagler and David Hartsough — who are leading activists against US imperialism — have worked closely with both Sharp and DuVall and have strongly supported the work of their organisations.

      The ICNC spends far more time with nonviolent activists from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America than they do with anyone from the Washington establishment. The ICNC has supported workshops for progressive activists around the world challenging US-backed governments, including Palestinians struggling against the Israeli occupation, West Papuans struggling against the Indonesian control and Sahrawis struggling against the Moroccan occupation, as well as pro-democracy activists in Egypt, Azerbaijan, the Maldives, Guatemala and elsewhere.

      Barker is also totally wrong in claiming that ICNC’s goal is to “help promote revolutions in geo-strategically useful countries”. In reality, ICNC’s only purpose is to help develop and disseminate knowledge regarding strategic nonviolent struggle in support for human rights, democracy, and social justice. ICNC’s operating guidelines prohibit the organisation from initiating contact with activists from any country; the initiative must come from activists themselves. In fact, ICNC responded favourably to an inquiry by Medea Benjamin — co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink — about leading seminars for anti-war activists in the United States.

      Barker’s claims regarding ICNC president Jack DuVall are particularly absurd: DuVall has had absolutely no associations with the Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy. In his five years as head of ICNC, he has had just one meeting with one NED staff member for purely informational purposes, and there was no follow-up on either side.

      Furthermore, also contrary to Barker, DuVall had no involvement in the founding of the Arlington Institute, though he did serve on its board for a couple of years at the request of his friend John Peterson, whom he got to know when they were active in the left wing of the Democratic Party back in the 1980s. There is nothing in common between the work of the two organisations and they have had no joint projects, no cooperation and no meetings. (Incidentally, Peterson, a co-founder of the Arlington Institute, is a member of the Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy, which is a group of “scholars, policy makers and concerned citizens united by our opposition to an American empire”.)

      Similarly, Barker’s misleading and highly selective overviews of past affiliations of ICNC staff fail to mention their far more significant work in promoting democratic struggles against US-backed regimes and their involvement in other progressive movements.

      For example, Barker’s reference to ICNC’s manager for educational initiatives Maria Stephan’s work with NATO and the Pentagon fails to mention that these positions were short-term fellowships while she was in university some years ago; her primary focus since graduating has been research and advocacy in support of the resistance by the people of East Timor, Palestine and Western Sahara against US-backed occupation forces and she has become known as a sharp and persistent critic of US Middle East policy.

      Senior advisor and former ICNC vice-president Shaazka Beyerle, a former resident of East Jerusalem, has been active in research and advocacy in support of the nonviolent Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. Former ICNC director of research and programs Hardy Merriman’s principal work with the Albert Einstein Institution was editing Waging Nonviolent Struggle — a book endorsed by leading radical scholars and activists — and his major personal contribution to the collection was the chapter on the United Farm Workers Union’s organising efforts among Mexican and Filipino farmworkers in California.

      Joanne Leedom-Ackerman has no affiliation with ICNC. In any case, her work for International PEN and the International Center for Journalists, in which she has defended persecuted journalists and writers, can hardly be considered part of an imperialist plot, particularly since most of the people she has supported are being persecuted by US-backed regimes.

      There are other errors and misleading statements in Barker’s response as well, but the bottom line is this: Unlike the National Endowment for Democracy and other US government-backed “pro-democracy” efforts, which focus primarily on conventional political campaigns led by pro-Western parties, the work of ICNC and related NGOs focus upon nonviolent direct action led by grassroots movements unaffiliated with established political parties.

      The US government has historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’etats and other kinds of violent seizures of power by an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent “people power” movements of the kind supported by ICNC and other NGOs, by contrast, promote regime change through empowering pro-democratic majorities that the United States and other foreign governments cannot control.

      As result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world comes from civil society, not the policies of the US government, which should neither receive the credit nor the blame for the growing phenomenon of largely nonviolent democratic revolutions which in recent decades have toppled authoritarian regimes from Indonesia and the Philippines to Madagascar and Mali, from Czechoslovakia and Serbia to Bolivia and Chile. (Most of the governments emerging from such struggles have not been as progressive as I would like to see, but they are certainly improvements over the dictatorships that preceded them.)

      The emergence of civil society organisations and the growing awareness of the power of nonviolent action in recent years has been one of most positive political developments in what has otherwise been largely depressing political times. It is most unfortunate, then, that supposedly “progressive” voices have chosen to attack this populist grass roots phenomenon and the NGOs which support them as part of some kind of Bush administration conspiracy.

      It is also ironic that so some on the left — after years of romanticising armed struggle as the only way to defeat dictatorships, disparaging the potential of nonviolent action to overthrow repressive regimes and dismissing the notion of a nonviolent revolution — are now expressing their alarm at how successful popular nonviolent insurrections can be, even to the point of naively thinking that nonviolent revolution is so easy to pull off that it could somehow be organised in foreign capitals.

      In reality, every successful popular nonviolent insurrection has been the result of a protracted home grown movement rooted in the belief by the majority of the population that their rulers were illegitimate and the current political system was incapable of redressing injustice. By contrast, no nonviolent insurrection has ever succeeded when the movement’s leadership and agenda did not have the backing of the majority of the population. Washington cannot “cause” a nonviolent revolution to occur any more than Moscow could “cause” an armed revolution to occur. To pretend otherwise invalidates popular movements for freedom and justice everywhere and implies that the oppressed masses are simply pawns of great powers rather than the powerful revolutionary forces capable of making their own history that they are.

      [Stephen Zunes ( is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.]

      From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #723 5 September 2007.