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Don’t write off Maduro: why Venezuela is not another Ukraine

A wave of street protests, some violent, has been sweeping Venezuela. These attracted international media coverage, which often presented protests as the expression of a national crisis that anticipated…

Demonstrators clash with police in Caracas, Venezuela, where violent street protests have raged for weeks. EPA/Santi Donaire

A wave of street protests, some violent, has been sweeping Venezuela. These attracted international media coverage, which often presented protests as the expression of a national crisis that anticipated the fall of president Nicolas Maduro and the collapse of his leftist Bolivarian project.

Several analysts rushed to draw parallels between Venezuela and Ukraine. They suggested the turbulent ousting of Víktor Yanukóvich in the latter foretold that Maduro’s days as head of state were numbered. This comparison was misguided.

So far, 34 people have died and more than 460 people have been wounded. These figures include bystanders and anti- and pro-government supporters.

Maduro’s government originally did instruct security forces not to use firearms under any circumstances and not to confront protesters. When these orders were disobeyed, the head of the country’s intelligence agency was dismissed. Fourteen members of the security forces were arrested and charged after evidence of misconduct.

According to Venezuela’s attorney-general Luisa Ortega Díaz, by February 28 the government had detained 1044 people, of whom 418 were students. While most have since been released, by mid-March authorities in the state of Carabobo detained three paramilitary groups – some with C4 explosives and military-grade firearms.

This was a reminder of the government’s claims that it faces violent destabilisation plans from certain sectors of the opposition. Nevertheless, in response to criticisms of heavy-handedness, the Maduro administration has created a commission where people can report human rights violations by authorities.

Maduro has electoral legitimacy

Forecasters of Maduro’s political swansong ignored three key elements to understand where Venezuela is right now: the source of the president’s legitimacy; the high support he retains; and a weak opposition incapable of democratically channelling existing discontent.

In April 2013, Maduro was elected with 50.61% of the vote, only 1.49% ahead of opposition leader Henrique Capriles. These results were disappointing for the opposition bloc. After Hugo Chávez’s death a month earlier, they had considered their political rivals mortally wounded in electoral terms.

Ignoring the reports of national and international observers who backed the transparency of the election, the opposition was reluctant to recognise Maduro’s legitimacy. They requested an audit, which confirmed the initial result. The opposition validated the result by turning to preparations for the municipal elections in December 2013.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s party had a sweeping victory in municipal elections only three months ago. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez

The economy was weakening after years of extraordinary growth. Inflation, nearing 50% in a country chronically affected by this problem, brought extra burdens on the popular classes. Despite these circumstances and rising concerns about corruption within sectors of the government, pro-government candidates won a sweeping victory in the municipal elections.

Voters opted for candidates associated with a project that, warts and all, has demonstrated a commitment to redistributive policies and social rights. The opposition lacked a clear alternative project.

Opposition has dubious record

The opposition remains fragmented. This is largely due to a weak leadership, which over the past 15 years has ambiguously oscillated between electorally competing with the government and supporting extra-institutional adventures to oust elected presidents.

The opposition did the latter when it supported a military coup against Chávez in 2002 and an oil industry lockout in 2003. In 2005, it disbanded before the National Assembly elections. The opposition has repeatedly questioned electoral results not in its favour.

To add to its dilemma, the opposition has often turned towards the United States for guidance and financial assistance. This move has reinforced government legitimacy due to strong nationalist sentiments in the country.

In the past few weeks, the opposition leadership fell into an old trap by not clearly disassociating itself from violent protesters. Government buildings, private property, public transport and police vehicles were destroyed. Actions such as the blocking of roads not only angered commuters, but also indirectly contributed to the country’s death toll by obstructing people’s access to medical treatment.

On a couple of occasions, snipers assassinated citizens who tried to clear the barricades to facilitate transit. These actions seriously alienated sectors of the opposition base that do not support violent practices.

A large challenge for the Maduro administration will come now from the trial of Leopoldo López, the hard right-wing opposition leader at the centre of the protests. Calling on people to “show their rage” against the government, his main message was that protests must continue until Maduro resigns. Whether the attorney-general can put together a compelling case connecting López to the violence remains to be seen.

For now, support for the Venezuelan government remains high. Its repeated calls for peaceful dialogue with the opposition were not attended by a disoriented opposition leadership.

The lack of dialogue is a pity, since it could have contributed to stopping the violence that affected Venezuela over the past few weeks, saving lives. But it is also a pity for a country that deserves a democratic opposition.

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Unlike Venezuela, the Ukraine's problems stem from living next door to a big nasty bully called Russia. The Ukrainians stupidly thought they could court the EU without upsetting Putin - wrong. Just like poor little Georgia, they will pay by losing a big part of their country, and there is nothing the west will do to stop it - Putin knows it, Obama knows it but the Ukrainians and Georgians did not.

    Venezuela's problem's are entirely of their own making, no matter how they might like to portray…

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    1. Alexander Rodriguez

      Scientific researcher, Student at Australian National University

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      I take issue to this statement "Every country Spanish colony (sic) is an economic and moral basket case whereas most countries colonised by the British are robust democracies with strong well run economies".

      I'll leave aside what Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey would think of this "strong well run economy"... "Budget emergency" anyone?

      If Latin America is a mess because of Spanish colonisation, then half of Africa is a mess because of (largely) British colonisation.
      Additionally, while Venezuela doesn't physically live next door to a bully like the US (which Ukraine has in Russia) the tentacles of the US reach far, wide and deep throughout the American hemisphere and the US would regard Venezuela as in it's own "neighbourhood"... just like Russia wants to dominate theirs.

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  2. Gustavo H.

    Geoscientist

    In general, your article seems to follow more an ideologic agenda and is only partially factual. Not something I was expecting from an article in The Conversation. Among the inconsistencies I picked up are the following:

    "Maduro’s government originally did instruct security forces not to use firearms under any circumstances and not to confront protesters."
    He CLAIMED he did so a day after the first killings, but there's no proof, speech or official document that shows so. The record of repression…

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    1. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Gustavo H.

      Their government has a lot of work to do regarding transparency, but I wouldn't trust Machado's motives either.

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    2. Leopold Tarzan

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gustavo H.

      You claim a the article has an ideological agenda, and then post Maria Machado's video montage of short clips that provide no context.

      When one examines the hard facts of the past seven weeks of violence in Venezuela, the article is balanced and rather straight forward.

      You wrote:
      "He CLAIMED he did so a day after the first killings, but there's no proof, speech or official document that shows so. The record of repression and excessive force use of the Venezuelan police and national guard…

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    3. Gustavo H.

      Geoscientist

      In reply to Leopold Tarzan

      First, I warned that people should ignore the text in the video in the sake of objectivity, but to give some context to the video, the images come from the last month in Venezuela. You see clear abuses of human rights, of which only a few have been followed up by the authorities. There are other recordings that show the complicity between the armed civilian pro-government groups and the national guard, when damaging property or people. For the rest, it seems that you are clearly defending the government…

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    4. Leopold Tarzan

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gustavo H.

      I may sound like I am in support of the government, but I am trying to put some things into perspective that I see as skewed the other direction with hyperbole.

      I totally believe that every instance of brutality and excessive force by the government should be investigated, and those responsible should be held accountable. Has that happened for every instance? I'm sure not. But like I said, do you know of any government on the planet that holds to that standard? For instance, in the United…

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    5. Leopold Tarzan

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Leopold Tarzan

      Here are a couple more good resources. The first is a thorough assessment of the recent events by a group of Venezuelan Human Rights Experts.

      Spanish: http://www.aporrea.org/actualidad/a184897.html
      English: http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/10536

      This second article is about the evolution of right-wing tactics against popular left-wing governments.

      Spanish: http://alainet.org/active/71859
      English http://alainet.org/active/72210

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  3. John Perry

    Teacher

    You rarely get to read articles like this in English dealing with Venezuela - thank you. One small point - I think you may have translated directly from Spanish with the term "popular classes". Do you mean the working classes?

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  4. Gustavo H.

    Geoscientist

    I forgot to include one link. Please ignore the text in the video, to keep the feedback more objective. This was the video that the opposition tried to present in the OAS (but were vetoed). Excessive use of power is evident. Images talk by themselves.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6mPR25qfu8

    In several occasions during the last six weeks, Maduro has ignored these facts. He even congratulated the National Guard for their "exemplary behaviour", despite the obvious violations of human rights.

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  5. José Gabriel Rujano

    logged in via Twitter

    Yeah, I guess it's easy to succumb to the "old trap" of piss poor journalism and present an opinion based on biased data when you lived in Sydney, and have no idea as to what's really going on.

    Let me try to put you all into context here.
    I live here in Vnzla, so I guess you could say that I have a pretty good vantage point.

    - Fact #1:
    Venezuela sit's on top of 1/3 of the total global oil deposits, yet it's easier to get cocaine, weed or a gun than basic medication such as insulin. Even…

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  6. Efrhen Gallego

    logged in via Facebook

    I just find it funny when College professors and leftists talk about how nice It is living under a leftist Dictatorship Government like the one We have in Venezuela. I should know I live there right now. I will not try presenting any arguments pro or against because enough has been said here .Rather I will just try explain how it is a normal day to day life in Venezuela. I live in a smalll town in the country where live is much easier than in big cities like Caracas or Valencia. Finding basic…

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  7. Gustavo H.

    Geoscientist

    To add to the comments of Efrhen and Jose Gabriel. I just find it 'funny' how the points of view expressed by the article and some of the commenters in the thread resemble so closely those of the government's press and propaganda, including blogs and websites like 'vainas verdes', 'aporrea', etc etc... that are never critic against the Chavista ruling party or the government itself.

    This just reveals the lack of objectivity. It is easy to support any dictatorship if you only read the official press and propaganda, and if you completely ignore the other side of the coin, idealising situations, recurring to generalisations, accepting theories without asking for proofs to -ultimately- support your ideology, in detriment to quality journalism and of the readers of this website.

    LIVE in Venezuela (don't just visit for a week) and see the reality.

    Watch the documentary La Minaccia, it explains part of my point here. http://www.laminaccia.com

    Regards.

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  8. Comment removed by moderator.