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Venezuela - Reality is a Very Different Story

Mark Weisbrot shows the daily protests are anything but peaceful. In fact, about half of the daily death toll from Venezuela that we see in the media - now at 41 -- are actually civilians and security forces apparently killed by protesters. Dario Azzellini argues the protests in Venezuela represent a vicious attack on the country's social progress under Hugo Chávez, spurred on by anti-Chavista politicians in affluent regions.

The barrios of Caracas, Venezuela. Film still from Comuna Under Construction (2010), directed by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler.,Comuna Under Construction // Creative Time Reports

The Story of Venezuela's Protests May Be Different From What You Are Told

By Mark Weisbrot
Huffington Post, April 28, 2014
Folha de Sao Paulo (Brazil), April 13, 2014

In reacting to the protests in Venezuela, the biggest Western media outlets have drafted a charmingly simple narrative of the situation there. According to this story, peaceful protesters have risen up against a government because of shortages, high inflation, and crime. They have taken to the streets and been met with brutal repression from a government that also controls the media.

It doesn't take much digging to take down this narrative. First, while there have been some peaceful opposition marches, the daily protests are anything but peaceful. In fact, about half of the daily death toll from Venezuela that we see in the media - now at 41 -- are actually civilians and security forces apparently killed by protesters. A much smaller fraction are protesters alleged to have been killed by security forces. As for the media, state TV in Venezuela has only about 10 percent of the TV audience; the New York Times recently had to run a correction for falsely reporting that opposition voices are not regularly heard on Venezuelan TV. They are on TV, even calling for the overthrow of the government - which has been the announced goal of the protest leaders from the beginning. These are not like the protests last year in Brazil, or the student protests from 2011-13 in Chile, which were organized around specific demands.

Of course, the increased shortages and rising inflation over the past year have had a political impact on Venezuela, but it is striking that the people who are most hurt by shortages are decidedly not joining the protests. Instead, the protests are joined and led by the upper classes, who are least affected.

In fact, the protests really got going largely as a result of a split within the Venezuelan opposition. Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez and then Maduro in the last two presidential elections, was considered too conciliatory by the more extreme right, led by Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado. They decided that the time was ripe to topple the government through street protests. Both were involved in the 2002 military coup against then President Chávez; María Corina Machado even signed the decree of the coup government that abolished the elected National Assembly (AN), the Constitution, and the Supreme Court.

Don't get me wrong: I am not defending the jailing of López or the Venezuelan AN decision to expel Machado, just as I would not defend the French government's prosecution of far-right politicians for Holocaust denial, or the proposed banning of the fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece. But we should be honest about who these Venezuelan opposition leaders are and what they are trying to do.

The strategy of Venezuela's extreme right is to make the country ungovernable, so as to gain by force what they have been unable to win in 18 elections over the past 15 years. It is clear from the statements of Brazil's former president Lula da Silva and current president Dilma Rousseff that they have no illusions about what is going on in Venezuela. It is now 50 years since Brazil's coup brought in the military dictatorship that put them in prison, but they can remember what a coup looks like. So, too, can the other governments of South America, who have made similar statements. But they have also offered to mediate between the government and any opposition leaders who are willing to participate in a dialogue. This process looks encouraging so far. Let's hope so; that is the only way forward in Venezuela.

[Mark Weisbrot received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He writes a column on economic and policy issues that is distributed to over 550 newspapers by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. His opinion pieces have appeared in The Guardian, New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and most major U.S. newspapers, as well as for Brazil's largest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo. He appears regularly on national and local television and radio programs. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.]

[Reprinted with permission of Center for Economic and Policy Research.]

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Venezuela: Where the Wealthy Stir Violence While the Poor Build a New Society

By Dario Azzellini Berlin, Germany

April 28, 2014
Creative Times Reports

Before Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1999, the barrios of Caracas, built provisionally on the hills surrounding the capital, did not even appear on the city map. Officially they did not exist, so neither the city nor the state maintained their infrastructure. The poor inhabitants of these neighborhoods obtained water and electricity by tapping pipes and cables themselves. They lacked access to services such as garbage collection, health care and education altogether.

Today residents of the same barrios are organizing their communities through directly democratic assemblies known as communal councils - of which Venezuela has more than 40,000. Working families have come together to found community spaces and cooperative companies, coordinate social programs and renovate neighborhood houses, grounding their actions in principles of solidarity and collectivity. And their organizing has found government support, especially with the Law of Communal Councils, passed by Chávez in 2006, which has led to the formation of communes that can develop social projects on a larger scale and over the long term.

What the wealthy in Venezuela are afraid of, and what mainstream media channels won't show, is that a different world is possible - and Venezuela's working classes are trying hard to build it.

You will not hear about the self-governing barrios in Western reports of protests spreading across Venezuela. According to the prevailing narrative, students throughout the country are protesting a dire economic situation and high crime rate, only to meet brutal repression from government forces. Yet the street violence that has captured the world's attention has largely taken place in a few isolated areas - the affluent neighborhoods of cities like Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia, San Cristóbal and Mérida - and not in the barrios where Venezuela's poor and working classes live. Despite international media claims, the vast majority of Venezuela's students are not protesting. Not even a third of all people arrested in connection with the demonstrations since early February are students, even though Venezuela has more than 2.6 million university students (up from roughly 700,000 in 1998), thanks to the tuition-free public university system that Chávez created.

A look at recent arrests reveals that the "protest" leaders are really a mixture of drug traffickers, paramilitaries and private military contractors - in other words, the mercenaries typical of any CIA military destabilization operation. In Barinas, the southern border state with Colombia, two heavily armed barricade organizers were arrested, including Hugo Alberto Nuncira Soto, who has an Interpol arrest warrant for membership in Los Urabeños, a Colombian paramilitary involved in drug trafficking, smuggling, assassinations and massacres. In Caracas, the brothers Richard and Chamel Akl - who own a private military company, Akl Elite Corporation, and represent the Venezuelan branch of the private military contractor Risk Inc. - were arrested while driving an armored vehicle in possession of firearms, explosives and military equipment. Their car had been equipped with pipes to be activated from inside to disperse motor oil and nails on the streets, not to mention tear gas grenades, homemade bombs, pistols, gas masks, bulletproof vests, night-vision devices, gasoline tanks and knives.

The poverty rate in Venezuela has been more than halved since 1998, and extreme poverty has been cut by 70 percent.

After Chávez's death in March 2013, Venezuela's opposition politicians saw an opportunity to win presidential elections, perhaps assuming that the public merely cared about Chávez's famous charisma. However, the opposition's leading candidate, Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, lost to Chávez's successor, Nicolás Maduro. Having been defeated in 18 of 19 elections since 1998, part of the opposition decided not to hold out hope for electoral victory any longer but instead to destabilize the country and violently oust its elected government. Most often the municipalities where the riots are taking place today are governed by anti-Chavista mayors who support them, either by participating in violent actions themselves or by ignoring the barricades defended with petrol bombs and firearms, instead of sending in municipal police, and by neglecting to collect trash so that the relatively well-off are stirred to revolt.

What the wealthy in Venezuela are afraid of, and what mainstream media channels won't show, is that a different world is possible - and Venezuela's working classes are trying hard to build it. This is the real reason why the country is under attack. And make no mistake: this is a vicious attack on Venezuela, its infrastructure and its very sources of hope.

On April 1, a group of rioters set the Ministry of Housing on fire with Molotov cocktails while 1,200 workers were inside the building. The fire was set close to the ministry's nursery school, and 89 toddlers had to be evacuated by firemen. This lethal act is no anomaly. During the last several weeks, a university has been burned down, as have nurseries, subway stations, buses, medical centers, food distribution centers, tourist information sites and other civic spaces. In Mérida, the drinking-water reservoir was deliberately contaminated with fuel, and in Caracas, the nature reserve on the north side of the city was set on fire to destroy the power lines that supply the city with electricity.

Most of Venezuela's students are decidedly not protesting. But in truth, hardly anyone in Venezuela is protesting: they are waging war.

These attacks follow the same logic employed by the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s: assail easy targets that symbolize the improvements to living conditions achieved by the government or organized communities and thereby spoil any hope that there is an alternative to the rule of capital. Yet there are ample reasons for such optimism. Through nationalizing its oil and gas reserves and investing most of its budget in social programs, Venezuela has become the only country in the world that achieved the UN Millennium Development Goals set for 2015, and it looks as if not many more countries will achieve them. The poverty rate in Venezuela has been more than halved since 1998, and extreme poverty has been cut by 70 percent. Today inequality is lower than anywhere else in Latin America and the Caribbean (not to mention the United States). The majority of people in Venezuela are far better off today than they were before Chávez was elected.

There is no doubt that Venezuela is now going through a difficult economic situation; it has suffered high inflation and acute shortages of food and electricity during the last year. While mismanagement and corruption are problems, as the government itself has admitted, the shortages were caused mainly by speculation, smuggling and intentional reduction of production and hoarding by the private sector, just as before the U.S.-backed coup in Chile in 1973. Even so, during a visit to Caracas earlier this month, a representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) underlined the admirable efforts of the Venezuelan government to deepen the impact of social programs. In 2013 the FAO officially recognized Venezuela as one of 18 countries in the world to have achieved huge progress in reducing malnutrition, which dropped from a rate of 13.5 percent in 1990-92 to less than 5 percent in 2010-12.

That's why millions of Venezuelans continue to live their lives normally even if the effects of economic crisis always hit the poorest first. The protesters behaving violently and getting international media coverage identify with or are beholden to the classes least affected by the shortages and inflation. Most of Venezuela's students are decidedly not protesting. But in truth, hardly anyone in Venezuela is protesting: they are waging war.

[Dario Azzellini is an artist, documentary filmmaker, writer and assistant professor at the Johannes Kepler University Linz (Austria). He holds a PhD in political science and a PhD in sociology. Azzellini's research and writing focuses on social movements, participative democracy, workers' control, the privatization of military services and extensive case studies in Latin America. He served as associate editor for The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to Present (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and serves as active associate editor for Cuadernos de Marte (University of Buenos Aires) and the website

He has published several books, essays and documentaries. With Oliver Ressler, he co-directed the documentary Comuna under construction (2010), about local self-government in Venezuela, and together with Immanuel Ness, he edited Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present (Haymarket, 2011). With Marina Sitrin he is co-author of They Can't Represent Us. Reinventing Democracy From Greece to Occupy (Verso, 2013) and Occupying Language (Occupied Media Pamphlet, 2012). With Stephan Lanz and Kathrin Wildner, he edited Caracas: Produktion von Raum und städtischem Handeln (b books/metrozones, 2013). His art projects focus on sociopolitical themes and have been exhibited in galleries, museums and biennials around the world.]

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by Alternet.