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A Sketch of the Venezuelan Crisis

by maracatu Tue Feb 25th, 2014 at 02:31:36 AM EST

As reported by Venezuela's Education and Human Rights Action Program (PROVEA), on February 12, student organizations and opposition parties called for marches in various parts of Venezuela to demand the release of students that had been detained in different cities. At much the same time the country's National Executive called on pro-government students to march "For Peace and Life" in observance of the country's Youth Day. The result was at least 16 opposition marches in cities like Caracas, San Antonio de los Altos, Acarigua, Porlamar, Maracay, Valencia, Maracaibo, Merida, San Cristobal, El Vigia, Puerto La Cruz, Puerto Ordaz, Barquisimeto Cabimas, while government supporters were mobilized in at least 3 cities: Caracas, Merida and Maracay. PROVEA reports that up until 2 pm the marches had developed peacefully.

front-paged by afew

However, PROVEA reports that in Caracas, at the height of Carabobo Park, clashes broke out involving protesters, police groups, members of the National Guard and the National Bolivarian Police which resulted in two deaths: Juan Montoya (40) described as a popular leader of the January 23 Group, a member of the Revolutionary Venezuela Secretariat, and a student demonstrator by the name of Bassil Dacosta (24). According to the report of the organization "Médicos por la Salud" 6 others were injured and hospitalized in medical centers in the city. In other cities, violence was also reported.  In the evening hours the mayor of the Chacao Municipality, state of Miranda, reported the murder of another unidentified protester - a boy by the name of Ramón.

Given the situation,  PROVEA called on authorities to carry out a transparent investigation to determine those responsible for the three murders in Caracas on that day.  The Panamerican Post has a good rundown of what was reported that day.  Of course, as is known, demonstrations have continued since then culminating with two large rival demonstrations today.

Since I am not in the country (and even if I were, it would likely still be difficult to figure out what is happening, given all the misinformation), I would like to quote extensively from a translated article by a professor of Political Science at the Central University of Venezuela:

Before the protests of February 12... the opposition had a clear and politically legitimate leadership that was attempting to stem the explosion which seemed eminent, and to construct an effective and non-insurrectionist path. The government had tried for its part, somewhat clumsily, to open a dialogue with the recently elected opposition mayors and governors. At the same time President Maduro had been cautiously and discretely distancing himself from the most radical wing of the PSUV that even went so far as to question his loyalty to the ideas of Chávez.

This last sentence seems corroborated in the mainstream media:
The Chavistas (supporters of the late President Hugo Chavez) are divided over the governance of Nicolas Maduro, with an important sector expressing their displeasure over the performance of the regime in respect to the collapse of the economy and the wave of protest demonstrations shaking the country. Surveys and focus group interviews conducted recently show that the popular support Maduro has is actually very low, and a significant portion of the sector that traditionally was attracted by the discourse and the political project of the late Hugo Chavez feels distrust of the new leader.

The UCV political scientist (cited previously) continues:
Those interested in dialogue, from both sides, were cautious and advanced slowly. This appeared to be the only solution after fifteen years of intense polarization and mutual distrust. As recent events have shown, the situation indeed merited extreme caution and care. This caution was seen as an opportunity by three political leaders who were not part of these dialogues: a mayor who had not been invited to the dialogue, a political leader who had been inhabilitado (disqualified for holding public office) until 2017, and a National Assembly representative. These three found in street actions a prominence they could not find through dialogue. The tensions of these political leaders with the opposition coalition--Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, or MUD--went far back and were well known because they claimed a prominence they could not back up with votes.

These three included at least two names I would like to highlight: María Corina Machado Parisca, founder, former vice president, and former president of the Venezuelan volunteer civil organization Súmate, and Leopoldo López Mendoza, a Venezuelan politician and economist who was the mayor of the Chacao Municipality, but rose to prominence during events surrounding the 2002 Venezuelan coup d'état attempt, where "he orchestrated the public protests against Chávez and he played a central role in the citizen's arrest of Chavez's interior minister", Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, though he later tried to distance himself from the event,[1].  Please read Max Blumenthal's highly informative piece about López Mendoza, that ties him up with "...the son of a CIA asset who channeled money from Venezuelan oligarchs to the Nicaraguan Contras(!)"  On the other hand, some years ago, María Corina Machado:

...was charged (together with other Súmate representatives) with conspiracy for funds Súmate received from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), triggering condemnation of the administration of ... Hugo Chavez from human rights groups. In February 2010, Machado resigned from Súmate and announced her candidacy for the September 2010 elections for the National Assembly of Venezuela; she was elected as the highest vote-getter in the national elections.

Back to UCV political scientist  Ángel Álvarez:

The first secessionist action by the three was the creation of a parliamentary group called la movida ("the move") which effectively divided the MUD representation in the National Assembly. Their second initiative was la calle ("the street") which they enacted on their own, and into which they tried, with all their might, to drag (moderate opposition leader) Capriles and the MUD.

According to David Smilde (writing on 21 February):

The demonstrations began with students supporting Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado's #lasalida mobilization. Machado and Lopez do not agree with the opposition coalition's (MUD's) strategy of trying to grow their constituency through longer term groundwork, nor with their willingness to dialogue with the government in January. They want a more aggressive and immediate strategy because they feel the situation is unsustainable and that in a couple years' time there will not be enough democratic liberties for them to fight for power.

And political scientist Ángel Álvarez concludes:

Maduro felt threatened by the intensity of the protests and the violent expressions of discontent. As a result he seems to have again embraced the most radical groups that present themselves as the last stop guarantee of stability for his government.  What was initially presented in social media as "#lacalle" and "#lasalida" has become a dark and smoky alley with several dead.
The MUD and Capriles have tried to stop the violence, but have been unable to do so since they were against violence from the start and therefore do not have contact with the radicals that now seem willing to do anything. These violent protestors will perhaps only listen to those leaders that originally called them to the streets.

Of course, Leopoldo López is now in jail and has urged his supporters to continue protesting.

It is hard not to reach the conclusion that radical elements of the opposition see an opportunity in the economic malaise which has enveloped the region.  According to the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean:

The Latin American and Caribbean region recorded GDP growth of 2.6% in 2013, down from 3.1% in 2012, testifying to the continuation of the economic slowdown apparent in the region since 2011.
 While the region is expected to grow 3.2% this year, Venezuela is expected to only register a growth of 1%.  What better moment to push for regime change? +++ Also posted at the Daily Kos.

Thanks for this full overview, maracatu!
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Feb 24th, 2014 at 02:36:18 AM EST
A few more tidbits:
In 2008, the US-based Cato Institute awarded the US$500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to student leader Yon Goicoechea for his role in mobilising protests against the suspension of private broadcaster RCTV's licence. At the same time, a sizeable amount of the US$45 million in funding provided annually by US institutions to Venezuelan opposition groups was channelled to `youth outreach' programmes.

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne
by maracatu on Mon Feb 24th, 2014 at 01:03:02 PM EST
It seems pretty clear that there is dissension in the opposition ranks, which is not surprising since Chavez had been able to win and hold onto power so long largely because center-left and rightist opposition leaders to the socialist rule have been at each others throats, as they have been for decades before Chavez ever came on the scene.  The little known, young rebel Lopez is seeking to make a national name for himself as an opposition leader after being sidelined by Capriles, who doesn't want give any more space to hotheads who might also be contenders with him for the presidency some day. So although the protests are pretty organic and genuine, the real rebellion in this story is against Capriles' leadership of the opposition, not against Maduro.  

While Lopez is an obvious rightist, with some questionable connections to cloak and dagger types, I'm not sure the label applies to Machado at all.  The only dirt I've seen on her is a photo of a younger her shaking hands with President Bush during a White House tour a decade ago.  She earned the ire of Chavez when she won a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy -- you know, that nefarious, mainstream, US-funded NGO whose primary, and really only, activity is, horror of horrors, providing community organizing training to nonpartisan civil society groups and giving exciting instruction on how to manage corruption-free political activism and grassroots lobbying by applying basic financial reporting skills. It's a group run, almost since its founding nearly 30 years ago,  by a former executive director of Social-Democrats USA, that hotbed of neoliberal activity.

While economic malaise in Venezuela may be part of the genesis of the street protests, it is just one piece of an amazingly, but colorfully, incompetent public administration by Hugo Chavez's successor Nicolas Maduro. The reasons for Venezuela's lack of economic growth are not mysterious.  The country has frustrated even its potential allies and trade partners in China and Russia by not providing any re-investment to its dilapidated oil industry, whose production and exports have declined significantly since the peak oil era began, contrary to every other major oil producer in the world.  At the same time, inexperienced and poorly trained patronage bureaucrats have been in charge of setting prices for consumer goods which are supposed to limit annual profits to producers and merchants to around 10% but instead effectively make production impossible for many products, resulting in both unemployment and goods shortages, as occurred infamously in the toilet paper market several times during the past year.

Although Maduro's administration, and its cheerleaders in places like Weisbrot's column at the Guardian, have been quick to blame "foreign and oligarchy remnants" for hoarding, currency manipulation, and an odd scheme to smuggle toilet paper to Columbia (where it is apparently needed in great quantities, maybe?) for the goods shortages and economic malaise, once one considers how many billions of $USD one would need to burn in order to accomplish such ends over a sustained multi-year period since the late 2000's, such a conspiracy plot begins to to seem pretty ridiculous compared to the more obvious alternative explanation of government mismanagement of price controls and discouragement of private investment.

by santiago on Tue Feb 25th, 2014 at 12:36:19 AM EST
I've no reason to doubt what you say about the Venezuelan oil industry because Chavez's own economic advisers have said as much in the past (they were saying this when I was there toward the beginning of this century).  However, may I ask how different is Venezuela from most other Latin American countries?  Take Mexico, for example.  CEO's I know personally who in the past have overseen operations in Mexico have long thundered to me about how it is nearly impossible to run a business over there.  There are parts of Colombia that the government doesn't even control, not to speak of the ongoing war over there.

The National Endowment for Democracy, just like USAID, is a projection of US soft-power.  You seem dismissive of suspicions surrounding the work carried out by such institutions in foreign countries that may have gone afoul of the US.  I can cite many examples, beginning with those by Philip Agee, that provide grounds for such suspicions.  One clear (and recent) example is a US citizen sitting in a jail in Cuba (who I understand has actually filed suit against his former USAID employers).  After what he's gone through, I wonder if he would be as dismissive about the "nefarious", to use your words, nature of such institutions.

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne

by maracatu on Tue Feb 25th, 2014 at 01:05:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here's why I am dismissive of soft power being portrayed as an instrument of nefarious empire, as the criticisms of the NED of late are doing.  

The NED is not just a "projection" of soft power as Nye defined it. It IS soft power -- the very praxis of it. But so what? The point of Joseph Nye's paper which introduced the term was that soft power is an inherently good thing, and powerful liberal democracies like the US should not neglect it as they do in favor of violence and the threat of violence -- hard power.  Unlike soldiers, ships, and spies (and now drones), everything about soft power is completely compatible with liberal democracy as well, because it is nothing more than engaging in consensual human relationships and discourse.  

There is therefore nothing inherently wrong in any way with soft power or organizations that foment it like the NED, even if it leads in some extreme cases to the eventual toppling of governments like in Egypt (twice), Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and now the Ukraine. It could only work to such an extreme if there is a genuinely large enough consensus for such an outcome in the first place, quite unlike the kinds of murder, threats, and trickery we associate with the CIA's coups and attempted coups, or the brute violence of even a minor military intervention.  Democracy is so embedded within approaches supported by the NED that an attempt at such a radical end as the overthrow of a government can be easily defeated by the same approaches used by defenders of such a government, if they do indeed have that kind of support (as I expect Maduro actually does in the case of Venezuela today). And since a democratically elected government must have been able to organize the kind of soft power needed to win a national election in the first place, whatever the NED might be teaching need only be feared by leaders who have lost so much legitimacy since their election in one way or another.    

Power of the masses is, after all, what community organizing and grassroots political action is all about -- exercising power through discourse and human relationships instead of coercion through force or violence. And there is nothing inherently problematic about the US engaging in such means of discourse either, because its own polity is completely open to anyone -- people, organizations, and governments of any other nationality -- doing the same kinds of things to contest power with US policymakers and elites within the US.

There are scores of demonstrations and actions every day on the National Mall in Washington, DC, from foreign funded outfits.  And foreign individuals, organizations and governments are allowed to lobby and organize politically as well as any citizen with the recent exception of participating in actual elections.
It's not another example of exceptionalism," in other words.  I believe the same is the case throughout Europe and in Japan and most other liberal democracies as well.  And if it isn't, it certainly should be.

For a big example: Why will the WTO never hold another summit level meeting within the US? Because the last time they did civil society groups converged on Seattle in 1999, and there has not been a single advance in any agreement toward further reducing global trade barriers since. (And yes, there were a few broken windows and molotov cocktails thrown by undisciplined troublemakers in Seattle too, but that's hardly what we mean by "violence".)

So, why, of all groups or people in the world, should Americans, or the US government, be excluded from engagement within civil society spaces around the world?  I mean, in addition to full spectrum dominance of the military, intelligence, and finance, does anyone really believe that US is also so dominant in community organizing (!?) that its citizens and government should be excluded from civil society spaces around the world too? That's a question that needs some exploration.

So, yes, I am quite dismissive of critiques of the NED or any other civil society based organization just because a few of its grantees might end up overthrowing a government someday by organizing the kind of protests which are perfectly acceptable and commonplace, even if also highly controversial and contested when successful, in liberal democracies. Civil society should not be excluded from the set of spaces that may be contested by foreigners in any country.  

by santiago on Wed Feb 26th, 2014 at 05:40:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For one I'm not convinced that the entire notion of "soft power" is more than a simple fraud. The US engaging in perfectly legitimate engagement in the civil space has all the charm of a Mafiosi smiling at your children.
by generic on Thu Feb 27th, 2014 at 03:50:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've seen calls for work from the Pentagon's DARPA research lab, cycled through Harvard and MIT, that sought to meld brain and cognitive science with literary theoretical analysis in an attempt to smooth and scientifically validate precisely these soft power entities.

I agree with you that there is no getting around it. There is a lot of work going on in these areas, a ton of money and expertise being thrown into "softer" attempts to control narratives.

I should mention that these calls for work and the research they produce are explicitly described as necessary for projects in foreign theaters.

by Upstate NY on Fri Feb 28th, 2014 at 10:49:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, and all I would have to say to DARPA (which is actually funneled much more through Johns Hopkins's APL than MIT or Harvard) is, "Good luck with that."

It's not like social scientists haven't been engaged in studying precisely these things, all around the world, for over a century with only questionable results to date, mostly employed in the advertising and marketing fields, with marginal success at best.  I'm not sure that more DARPA funds would ever be able to add a significantly more to the state-of-the-art of community organizing than Saul Alinsky's well-known and extremely effective classics have already provided, free of charge, a long time ago.  

by santiago on Fri Feb 28th, 2014 at 10:24:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...does anyone really believe that US is also so dominant in community organizing (!?) that its citizens and government should be excluded from civil society spaces around the world too? That's a question that needs some exploration.

We can explore it some more when the US permits community organizing funds to be channeled to the Gaza strip.

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne

by maracatu on Thu Feb 27th, 2014 at 06:24:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To my knowledge, it doesn't in any practical way, largely because it's almost impossible to prevent financial resources from reaching grantees, especially those with vast diaspora networks such as the people of Gaza.  As I understand it, Saudi Arabia, funds a lot of such civil society activities in Gaza, (and even Venezuela sends humanitarian aid, whatever that might be) perhaps to the chagrin of Israel and the many in US. And the US certainly allows political organizing against its policies in the middle east within the US, where the policy is actually made.
by santiago on Thu Feb 27th, 2014 at 10:45:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I suppose if you believe the US government is the personification of liberal democracy, then NED would be a beneficial tool.  How long do you expect the US to embrace liberal democracy?  Not long ago, that assumption was clearly not the case overseas in such places as Guatemala and Iran, though - granted - that military force was indeed used in those cases.  Are those days definitely behind us?  If you say yes, history may yet prove you wrong.

From another angle, I would argue that there is something of a parallel here with the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, upholding the rights of corporations to make political expenditures under the First Amendment.  While that is obviously a domestic affair involving the US constitution, I believe the same principle might be extended abroad concerning NED's activities (at the same time giving rise to similar reasonable objections as expressed in the domestic case).  If, for the sake of argument, Chevron is destroying the Ecuadorian rain forest and the government in power is threatening to expropriate their holdings, would it be a victory for liberal democracy for NED to engineer a defeat of that government (involving perhaps a completely different issue where the government has occasioned misdeeds) and it's replacement by one favorable to Chevron's continuation in the country?  Perhaps the government indeed deserved to lose the election, but whose interests are ultimately being served?  One might be skeptical in this day and age where there is a growing confluence of corporate and government interests.

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne

by maracatu on Wed Mar 5th, 2014 at 06:01:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My information on oil comes from this guy, whom I met when he was teaching at the New School and is now somewhere in Germany, I believe. He is a nuclear physicist who got into teaching international relations instead and now does mostly research on oil.  I don't agree with everything he says, but this article explains his views on the differences between Venezuela's and Brazil's oil industry, which has also had some difficulties similar to others in the region.
by santiago on Wed Feb 26th, 2014 at 07:47:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks very much for that...

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne
by maracatu on Thu Feb 27th, 2014 at 01:58:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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