Reading the daily reports on Venezuela’s protests, we find that “At least 31 people have died” (CNN) or the headline “Venezuela death toll rises to 33” (Reuters) and dozens of similar statements in television and radio reports. There is nothing inaccurate about this on its face, and no one can accuse the journalists involved of having exaggerated anything.
But let’s look at this for a moment from the perspective of the reader or listener, who is generally not an expert on Venezuela. What do they think when they read or hear these statements? If you want to find out, just ask anyone who happens to be near you when you are reading this right now: “Who is responsible for most of these deaths?” Unless they have done their own research, they will tell you that the government and/or security forces are responsible.
In fact, it appears that the majority of the deaths described in the headline “Venezuela death rises to 33” appear to have been caused by protesters. The average reader, of course, has plenty of reason to think the opposite; that it was the state security forces that were responsible for most of the deaths. In most countries where street protests take place and there is violence, the vast majority of the violence is indeed caused by police or armed forces. Even in places where protesters engage in violent acts, they will generally provoke greater violence from the state.
So because this situation is so contrary to what people are understanding from the reports, perhaps reporters should include a simple statement that he majority of deaths appear to have been caused by protesters, not security forces. Otherwise, although it is not intentional, these reports continually reinforce the widespread belief, which is promoted by U.S. politicians and pundits who want Americans to believe it, that the government of Venezuela is violently “cracking down” on “peaceful protesters.”
Earlier this week, in a highly irregular move, Panama offered its seat at the regular meeting of the OAS Permanent Council today to Venezuelan opposition lawmaker María Corina Machado. Machado, along with Leopoldo López, are the leaders of the “La Salida” -- “The Exit” -- campaign, which calls for street protests to oust the current government.
At the beginning of the meeting, the OAS representative from Nicaragua called for a vote on whether the meeting should be public or private. After much debate, 22 countries voted to make the meeting private, while 11 countries voted in favor of it being public. It should be noted that this is far from the first time the OAS Permanent Council has held a meeting that was closed to the media. Many of the meetings that occurred after the Honduras coup, for example, were also closed to the media.
Many within the Venezuela opposition and the media were quick to cast the vote as a move to censor Machado and prevent her message from being heard. Others have presented the vote as a barometer of support for the Venezuelan government and opposition. Brazil, which voted to make the meeting private, has quite a different explanation:
The objective of this meeting is not to turn itself into a circus for an outside audience as some representatives have shown they want to do.
Today’s report from the New York Times trashes the government for “combative tactics” and “cracking down” on protesters, but if you watch the accompanying video, all you see are protesters attacking police, and the police – without venturing forward, defending themselves with water cannon and tear gas.
One can criticize the decision of the government to block the march from going to hostile territory, but given the continuous presence of violent elements among the protestors, and that Venezuela is a country with a very high homicide rate and many armed civilians, it could have been the prudent thing to do. The government also believes, with some justification, that these protests seek to provoke violence in order to de-legitimize the government. Their stated goal is to overthrow the democratically elected government, and given that the vast majority of the country is against the protests, this really is their only chance of getting anywhere. And the government also knows that the media (both national private and international) will generally blame them for any violence.
In the United States, and especially here in Washington DC, you have to get a permit for marches like this, and they are often denied or re-routed; and if you try to defy this the police will generally beat you and throw you in jail. And these are actually peaceful protests here.
As for the violence so far associated with the protests since they started on Feburary 12, the statistics show that more people have died at the hands of protesters than security forces:
Of the 29 people killed (full details here),
-- 3 appear to be protesters allegedly killed by security forces; 1 other was killed by security forces but it's not clear if he was a protester.
-- 5 appear to be protesters allegedly killed by civilians (the opposition always alleges that these civilians are somehow taking orders from the government, but there has not been any evidence linking the government to any killings by armed civilians; and in a country where there are on average more than 65 homicides per day, it is most likely that these armed civilians are acting on their own).
-- 11 civilians appear to have died at the hands of protestors: four of them shot, and the rest killed by various barricades or other obstructions (e.g. motorcyclist beheaded by wire allegedly strung by protesters).
Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil, released a statement in support of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro on the occasion of the one year anniversary of the death of Hugo Chávez. In the letter, Lula discusses Chávez’s legacy in the region, saying that he fought for “a more just and sovereign Latin America,” and expresses his confidence in Maduro as a leader who is defending the principles of Venezuelan democracy. Of course, Lula’s message comes at a time when tensions are high in Venezuela as segments of the opposition wrestle for power after having lost two major elections in 2013.
Below is a translation, you can read the original in Spanish here.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Ex President of the Federative Republic of Brazil to His Excellency
President Nicolás Maduro Moros
Sao Paulo, 5 March 2014
To my friend President Nicolás Maduro:
I am writing to you on this sad date for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to offer my vows of respect and sorrow over the death, one year ago, of the unforgettable and beloved friend, Hugo Chávez Frías.
Since February 23, CEPR has been keeping track of those who have died during the last month of protests in Venezuela. Below is the most recent available information on the location, causes and status of investigations into the deaths. This list will continue to be updated as more information becomes available. As of March 24, the list contains 37 individuals; however in some cases press reports indicate that the death was not directly associated with the protests. Never the less, as they have often been reported as such, they are included below.
There are deaths on both sides of the political spectrum. In some cases, members of Venezuelan security forces have been implicated and subsequently arrested for their involvement. Over 10 individuals have reportedly been killed by crashing into barricades, from wires strung across streets by protesters and in some cases from having been shot trying to remove barricades. Six members of the National Guard have been killed.
- Bassil Alejandro Da Costa, an opposition demonstrator was shot, reportedly in the head, and killed in Caracas during the opposition protest that took place on February 12.
- Juan Montoya, a pro-government community activist, was reportedly shot in both the head and chest and died. Montoya’s body was found a short distance from the body of Da Costa. On February 26, the Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz, announced that 8 officers from SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence agency, had been arrested for their role in the killing of Da Costa and Montoya. As of March 11, 6 SEBIN officers remain in jail. President Maduro has also removed the head of SEBIN.
- On February 12, Roberto Redman, another opposition demonstrator was also shot, reportedly in the head, and killed. The killing took place in a neighborhood in eastern Caracas. Witnesses attributed his death to armed civilians. There has been no update on the status of any investigation.
- On February 18 José Ernesto Méndez, a 17-year-old student who was participating in a demonstration in the Sucre department, was hit by a truck and later died. The Attorney General stated that the driver of the truck has been apprehended and charged with homicide.
- On the same day Genesis Carmona, a student and beauty queen was shot and killed in the state of Carabobo. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the she was shot from behind, potentially from within the group she was protesting with, though others contest that version of events. The government has pledged a full investigation. There have been no further updates on the status of the investigation.
- On February 19, Julio Gonzalez, a member of the public ministry in Carabobo reportedly died after crashing his vehicle while attempting to avoid a roadblock put up by protesters.
As a result of the recent events that have taken place in Venezuela, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have both called for discussions. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would like to see the conflicts resolved within the context of UNASUR and has rejected attempts by the OAS to address the situation.
Last week, the OAS held a private meeting to consider the request of Panama to convene a Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs with regard to events in Venezuela, leading to the decision by President Maduro to break diplomatic relations with the Panamanian government.
Although the OAS meeting was held behind closed doors with no media allowed, Secretary General José Miguel Insulza made a lengthy public statement, which was posted on Thursday. Among other things, he stated, “For decades already, no single member has been able to dominate the will of the others.”
However, as was pointed out in the most recent Congressional Research Service report [PDF], historically, the OAS has acted consistently with U.S. foreign policy objectives. It’s also worth noting that the United States was the organizations largest donor, contributing nearly $65.7 million [PDF] in fiscal year 2013, which is equivalent to 41 percent of the total 2013 OAS budget. Considering these sizeable donations it would be safe to assume that the US plays a dominant role in defining the organizations foreign policy.
The Congressional Research Service report states that:
Although OAS actions frequently reflected U.S. policy during the 20th Century, this has changed to a certain extent over the past decade as Latin American and Caribbean governments have adopted more independent foreign policies. While the organization’s goals and day-to-day activities are still generally consistent with U.S. policy toward the region, the United States’ ability to advance its policy initiatives within the OAS has declined.
The United States government, as well as many in the media and punditry, has consistently laid blame for the rising death toll on the Venezuelan government. Last week, in prepared remarks for an OAS meeting on Venezuela, the U.S. representative stated:
The United States notes with concern that the situation in Venezuela has continued to deteriorate since the Permanent Council last met on February 19. The death toll was 13 then, it is now at least 19 and we are gravely disturbed by what appears to be a pattern of security personnel using excessive force.
There is no doubt that some members of the Venezuelan security forces have used excessive force – in fact, at least 14 of them have been arrested for these abuses. The Venezuelan government is not denying this fact, something recognized by the Secretary General of the OAS yesterday when he stated:
Much of this is recognized by both the Government and the opposition; nobody denies it, everyone says something must be done about it.
Far from trying to hide the role of some members of the security forces in human rights abuses or the deaths of citizens, the Venezuelan Attorney General (AG) has released statements to the press almost daily detailing exactly how many deaths there have been, how many individuals have been detained, released and remain in jail; how many human rights violations have been documented and are being investigated; and updates on the status of investigations into abuses.
Each death is as unnecessary and devastating as the one prior, but not all are the same and to portray the violence as one sided – from either side – is both incorrect and misleading. While the death toll tragically reached 21 on Thursday, March 6, it’s important to note that as many have been killed either crashing into barricades or by wires strung across streets as have been killed while protesting. In the last week, two members of the National Guard have been shot and killed while attempting to remove barricades blocking streets.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro made news this week by breaking off relations with Panama following Panama’s proposal for the Organization of American States (OAS) to take up the situation in Venezuela. Panama’s move followed weeks of calls from members of the U.S. Congress, pundits and others to use the OAS against the Maduro government for supposed government repression of “peaceful” protesters.
In remarks yesterday, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized what he described as hypocrisy from both those who support and oppose such a move. Insulza stated:
here we see a swapping of roles: Those who just a few years ago brandished the Inter-American Democratic Charter to demand severe sanctions against the de facto government in Honduras are now saying that even mentioning a crisis that has already led to the deaths of a large number of people constitutes interference; while those who denounced (and still denounce) the steps we took when faced with an obvious coup d’état as an attack on a nation's sovereignty –I’m referring again to Honduras-, now demand that we help them overthrow a government recently chosen in a democratic election.
It appears that Insulza is playing a role that he has played on numerous prior occasions – most recently in April when he refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, until South American pressure forced him (as well as the U.S. and the right-wing government of Spain) to accept democratic election results. This is unfortunate, but the manipulation of the OAS by Washington and a diminishing number of right-wing allies is the main reason that Latin American countries created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, to have a region-wide organization without the U.S. and Canada.
While it is important for officials such as Insulza to reaffirm the importance of Venezuela’s democratic processes and remind the OAS membership that Venezuela’s government was recently elected (and had its strong public support reaffirmed less than three months ago in local elections), other remarks equate extreme sectors of the Venezuelan opposition and the Venezuelan government, even though the government has won elections and the opposition has not:
Today, it is undeniable that there is a profound political crisis, characterized above all by a split and confrontation between most political and social actors into irreconcilable bands. When the opposition mobilizes, it does so on a massive scale, and poses strong demands; when the Government's supporters take to the streets, their numbers and the fervor of their demands are also huge.
But for the last few weeks, it isn’t “massive” opposition protests that are occurring, but rather small protests designed to wreak havoc in a few neighborhoods throughout the country. In essence, Insulza and the U.S. administration are suggesting that when extremist groups demand the immediate departure of an elected president, and try to achieve their aim by barricading streets and engaging in violent acts, the government has an obligation to dialogue with them.
On Saturday, March 1 the New York Times ran a graphic accompanying its article on Venezuela that showed an “implied inflation rate” of more than 300 percent.
This is a statistic that was manufactured by the Cato Institute. It is not a meaningful measure of inflation, and there are few economists who would accept it as such. I will explain below why the Times has violated both the standards of basic economics and also standard journalistic procedures with this decision, which as of today (March 6), the editors have refused to correct, despite being presented with explanations of why it is wrong. But first, a note on the significance of this kind of misreporting.
If this bogus statistic is picked up by Venezuela’s opposition media and becomes another “fact,” it could have a significant influence on the actual dynamic of inflation in Venezuela. To the extent that this statistic is believed, many Venezuelans would not want to hold domestic currency and would move their money into dollars or other assets, thus fueling both black market currency depreciation and inflation.
Ecuadorians went to the voting polls last Sunday to participate in municipal and provincial elections for the second time since Rafael Correa was elected president. Early results indicate that 11,682,314 Ecuadorians voted which is equal to a 16.9 percent voter abstention rate; this is nearly 8 percentage points lower than in the previous municipal and provincial elections. Following the elections, UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) issued a statement congratulating the Ecuadorian people for what they called “transparent and normal” elections.
The preliminary election results reveal that governing AP (Alianza PAIS) party candidates won a larger share of mayoral (30 percent) and prefecture (43 percent) elections than any other party.[i] In addition, AP achieved a 4 percent gain in prefecture electoral victories compared to the previous election. Table 1a shows the prefectures where Alianza PAIS won the highest percentage of voter shares.
Members of Congress and the Obama administration have consistently placed the blame for the violence stemming from protests on the Venezuelan government, while overlooking or ignoring violent incidents by opposition protesters, including the decapitation of motorcycle riders, the burning of government buildings and metro stations, attacks against state media companies, and the killing of individuals seeking to dismantle barricades, including a National Guard officer. Officials have referred instead to “systematic” human rights abuses and government repression, without citing evidence.
Based on these assertions, momentum is building to implement sanctions on members of the Venezuelan government. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) told the press on Monday that, “There should be sanctions on individuals. ... The administration is looking at those.” Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, cited a “high-level” State Department official that she had recently spoken to.
That the administration is considering sanctions comes on the heels of demands from members of congress that the Obama administration go further in its application of pressure on the Venezuelan government. After introducing legislation “supporting the people of Venezuela as they protest peacefully for democracy,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) stated that:
"But this resolution can only be the first step to hold Maduro and his fellow regime thugs accountable for their violent response and their abuses of the Venezuelan people's liberties and human rights. I have already begun circulating a letter amongst my colleagues in the House, addressed to President Obama, asking him to take immediate actions against Maduro and other Venezuelan officials who are responsible for violations of their people's human rights. We are calling for the President to enact immediate sanctions against these officials, under authorities granted to him under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), including denying them visas to enter the United States, blocking their property and freezing their assets in the U.S., as well as prohibiting them from making any financial transactions in the U.S.”
Ros-Lehtinen also plans to introduce a bill that would require the administration to take these steps. The moves from the House of Representatives have been echoed in the Senate, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have introduced a resolution calling for sanctions. Menendez stated:
"Now is the time to pursue a course of targeted sanctions by denying and revoking visas, and freezing the assets of Venezuelan officials complicit in the deaths of peaceful protestors. Human rights violators should be held accountable for the crimes they committed and their presence should not be welcome in our nation. Venezuelans today are denied basic rights, freedoms, and the ability to peacefully protest the dire economic circumstances caused by President Maduro and his government. We stand with the Venezuelan people and the brave opposition leaders in their pursuit to build a more hopeful Venezuela that embraces a bright future while discarding a failed past."
Marco Rubio even made the case for sanctions on NBC News’ “Meet The Press,” telling host David Gregory that, “I would like to see specific U.S. sanctions against individuals in the Maduro government that are systematically participating in the violation of human rights and anti-democratic actions.” Florida Governor Rick Scott has also called for sanctions. Although neither the House nor the Senate have passed these resolutions calling for sanctions, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last week that, “with respect to Venezuela, Congress has urged sanctions.”
On February 12th, (Venezuelan Youth Day and the commemoration of the independence battle of La Victoria) some university students and traditional conservative opposition groups took to the streets in Venezuela. In Caracas students and others attacked a government building, burned cars and damaged the entrance to a metro station. The demonstrations extended for several days, as it quickly became obvious that the principal purpose of the protests was to destabilize the government and seek the ouster of the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro faced a hotly contested presidential election shortly after the death of Hugo Chávez, in which he narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles. To gain support, Capriles promised to continue social programs initiated by the late president becoming what some called a “Chávez lite” candidate. The hard line elements of the opposition, including Capriles refused to accept the results of the elections and street violence generated by conservative forces left close to a dozen people dead.
Last December, Venezuela held municipal elections that the opposition purposely turned into a referendum on the Maduro presidency. Despite the opposition’s winning of several important areas in Caracas and the city of Maracaibo the government sponsored coalition (Polo Patriotico) won over 70% of the country’s municipalities. The election results revealed that the opposition had not won over the majority despite the country’s serious economic problems and the loss of the charismatic Hugo Chávez as leader of the left.
Roger Cohen, what a disappointment. He is not Tom Friedman or David Brooks, and shouldn’t be insulting an entire nation based a clump of tired old clichés and a lack of information. Argentina is “the child among nations that never grew up” he writes, and “not a whole lot has changed” since he was there 25 years ago. OK, let’s see what we can do to clean up this mess with a shovel and broom made of data.
For Cohen, Argentina since the government defaulted on its debt has been an economic failure. Tens of millions of Argentines might beg to differ.
For the vast majority of people in Argentina, as in most countries, being able to find a job is very important. According to the database of SEDLAC (which works in partnership with the World Bank), employment as a percentage of the labor force hit peak levels in 2012, and has remained close to there since. This is shown in Figure 1.
Argentina: Employment Rate, Percent of Total Population
Source: SEDLAC (2014).
The Wall Street Journal today published a report trashing Argentina based on an economic mistake which renders the article meaningless. The headline:
Devaluation Hurts Argentina's Regional Standing: Colombia Has Likely Overtaken Argentina as Latin America's Third-Largest Economy
The article is laden with gloating and derogatory language such as the opening sentence: “Following Argentina's humbling currency devaluation, the country is suffering another economic embarrassment …” and “’This is symptomatic of a broader trend that is seeing Argentina's economic model unravel..’”
Actually, it’s not symptomatic of anything, including the relative living standards in Argentina and Colombia or the rest of Latin America. When the peso is devalued against the dollar, the size of the Argentine economy measured in dollars is smaller. This does not mean that the living standards of Argentines have fallen.
If the U.S. dollar falls against the euro, Americans who travel in Europe will find it more expensive. But most Americans get their income in dollars and spend it in dollars, and will only be affected negatively by the exchange rate to the extent that some imports become more expensive. (In fact, there is a very strong argument that most Americans would be better off with a significantly lower dollar, as we would reduce our trade deficit, increase employment and therefore wage growth, and cease to be dependent on asset bubbles for growth as we have in the past two decades.) U.S. GDP measured in euros will be smaller, but who cares?
On Wednesday, Brazilian ex-president Lula Da Silva spoke out regarding recent events in Venezuela:
I think that in the first place, Venezuela needs peace and tranquility, so that it can recover all its potential insofar as creating wealth and well-being for its people. All Venezuelans, both pro-government and opposition supporters, should understand that a country can only grow and develop with a lot of peace, with a lot of dialogue. [President Nicolás] Maduro has the best intentions; he wants to give his best for Venezuela.
These remarks come just a day after two other statements from Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff commented on Venezuela’s “advances …in terms of education and health for its people” and a representative of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said that he sees the situation as one in which “the principle of non-interference must be respected.”
As we have noted, Brazil has not been the only country in the region to make statements in support of President Maduro, but there remains the question of which multilateral forum would most effectively allow for a fair and representative consideration of the situation in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government itself has, in statements made by Foreign Minister Elías Jaua, indicated its support for UNASUR over the OAS. The Venezuela representative there, Ambassador Roy Chaderton, has blocked, for the time being, a special request by Panama’s representative to the OAS who had called for a meeting on Venezuela while the president of the Permanent Council was absent.
Uruguay’s foreign minister Luis Almagro said in a press conference that his government agrees with Venezuela that UNASUR would be the preferred forum: “UNASUR has been the natural arena for addressing these regional issues. If we have the possibility of a request [for discussion] at UNASUR, for us that would be fine.” Most of the region, especially South America, recognizes that the United States has too much power in the OAS, because of its disproportionate funding and control over the bureaucracy, as well as a few allied right-wing governments. That is one of the reasons that Latin America created CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations), which excludes the U.S. and Canada, and also UNASUR, in recent years.
In light of the recent political demonstrations that have swept the country, Venezuela has received considerable attention from both the US State Department and mainstream media. In recent days, President Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and several others have issued numerous statements regarding the protests. In the US major media, The New York Times has published articles nearly every day since the protests began. Extensive reporting can also be found in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post.
It is worth comparing the extent of this coverage to protests of similar importance next door to Venezuela. In August of last year, Colombian farmers launched large-scale demonstrations in opposition to Colombian trade policies that are strongly supported by the U.S. government.
Unlike the protests in Venezuela, the Colombian protests received very little coverage from mainstream media, as CEPR pointed out at the time. The graph below compares the amount of coverage, in total number of articles published, that four of the United States’ most influential newspapers to the protests and violence in Colombia and Venezuela. The difference ranges from more than two times to 14 times as many articles devoted to the Venezuelan protests as compared with Colombia, despite the fact that the period covered for Colombia is twice as long.
Kudos to the New York Times for correcting its error regarding TV media in Venezuela. I had written about this error here on Monday (Feb 24). It was an important mistake--the Times had led its Friday report with this statement:
“The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”
The Times’ correction reads:
Correction: February 26, 2014
An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Globovision. Before its sale last year, it broadcast more voices critical of the Venezuelan government than any other TV station, but it was not the only one to regularly feature government critics.
It sure wasn’t, and it still isn’t during the current protests, as documented here. This is important because the opposition leadership is trying to say that they are living under a dictatorship, and they are justifying their demands for the overthrow of a democratically elected government on this basis.
Many other news outlets have made the same error in reporting on the TV media in Venezuela. Hopefully they will be more accurate in the future.
Many thanks to Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy and the nearly 13,000 people who quickly signed a petition to the New York Times asking for this correction.
People often ask what they can do to change U.S. foreign policy, and one important thing that almost anyone with an internet connection can do is hold the media accountable for these kinds of misrepresentations. On the one hand, the mass media can play a huge role in legitimating terrible crimes, as in the run-up to the Iraq War, which cost more than a million lives and probably wouldn’t have happened if the media had done its job. On the other hand, there are thousands of reporters and editors who are trying to do their job and adhere to basic journalistic standards of accuracy and balance. Readers and listeners can help them do this.
Now, what about the Committee to Protect Journalists? Their statement was more outrageously false than the one corrected by the Times: "Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests."
Will they correct it? Ask them.
Yesterday the Organization of American States (OAS) announced that a meeting of the Permanent Council, would take place Thursday morning at 9:30 EST. It now appears that the meeting has been postponed, or that it may not occur at all, as a result of objections presented by Venezuela based on the OAS’ internal directives. The meeting would “consider the request of Panama to convene a Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs to consider the situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” It would take 18 votes in favor of Panama’s request for the extraordinary session to move forward.
Ahead of the planned meeting, a spokesperson for the Brazilian Foreign Ministry told EFE that “Brazil understands that the principle of non-interference must be respected.” The official added that Brazil “perceived” willingness for dialogue on the part of the Venezuelan government, citing President Maduro’s calls for a “Peace Conference” today. It remains to be seen if opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who chose not to attend a meeting with the government on Monday will attend the meeting with the Venezuelan president today. Bloomberg reported that “Maduro called on a cross-section of Venezuelan society, including union workers, intellectuals, clergy, students and governors to come to Caracas today and sign an agreement condemning violence.”
The Brazilian official also referred to statements made by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff earlier this week, in which she stated, “for Brazil, it is very important that we always look at Venezuela from the point of view of the advances that the country has achieved, during this entire process, in terms of education and health for its people.”
On January 25, during the Third Social Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre, representatives of urban social movements affiliated with the National Urban Reform Forum started a campaign to support a referendum for removing political reform power from Congress, passing authority over to a newly-created, democratically-elected and sovereign body.
The referendum represents the largest concession that President Dilma Rousseff announced after last year’s June and July protests. Although critics say that it could end up giving too much power to the incumbent PT party, it is supported by 76 social movements and labor unions because it addresses one of the most important problems in Brazil: the fact that a full transition to democracy was never made when the military dictatorship ended in 1985.
Unlike other former dictatorships in South America, the Brazilian government refused to disband the brutal military police. It also gave full amnesty to the military and its puppet government. This meant that most congressmen and senators from the two legal political parties of the dictatorship era, ARENA [the National Renewal Alliance Party] and MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement], were able to stay in power and benefit from the advantage of incumbency in future elections. ARENA changed its name to PFL [Liberal Front Party] and then to DEM [Democratas], and MDB changed its name to PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party]. Every president between 1985 and 2002 governed in coalition with these two parties. President Lula broke with DEM but was only able to maintain a majority block in the house and senate with PMDB, led by the widely-hated former President José Sarney.
The social movements believe that, due to the inherent structural problem of a congress that is controlled by representatives of the former military dictatorship, it is incapable of reforming the political system. Instead, they support a bottom up process of change. During the next few months they will organize a series of national protests in favor of the referendum. On April 1, on the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964, the social movements will create neighborhood and village committees across the country to discuss the issue.
On the night of February 22nd, a bizarre incident took place in the Venezuela media-sphere. At around 4:00 pm Venezuela time, a number of the country’s private media outlets posted a release from a protest group identified only as the “student movement.” The rhetoric and tone of the statement matches the positions often expressed by extreme rightwing factions within Venezuela’s opposition over the last 14 years. Venezuela, it alleges, is in the grip of Cuban communists:
Foreign forces have laid a military siege on Venezuela. Their mercenaries attack us in a vile and savage manner. Their goal is to enslave us and be the masters of our existence, dishonoring the flags that we have held up in the street and that we will defend with our lives.
We want our Freedom. To protect it it's vital to defend the Sovereignty of the Nation, expelling the Cuban communists that are here usurping the government and the Armed Forces.
The release demands that “the usurper [Venezuelan president] Nicolas Maduro and all of his cabinet be deposed” and states that the protests will continue until this and other demands are met. The statement also calls for defensive action against state security:
The regime has declared war on any civilian who doesn't accept its marxist ideology. Our call is for defense: to not allow the invaders profane your street, your avenue, your property. Prevent their access so that they don't shoot up your neighborhood, don't destroy your properties, don't hurt your loved ones and, above all, so that they know that here there are battle-seasoned Venezuelans, who won't allow themselves to be enslaved through the use of force.
The rhetoric found in this release is reminiscent of the language used by the promoters of the “guarimba” protests in 2004 which – similarly to many of the protests that have been occurring in Venezuela over the last two weeks – involved protesters blocking major roads with bonfires and barricades and damaging public property. The explicit goal of the 2004 guarimba protests was to create enormous chaos in city streets thereby forcing the government to either step down or engage in mass repression. Or, in the words of Luis Alonso, the main promoter of the guarimba ten years ago:
The New York Times begins its news report on Friday from Venezuela with “The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote last week: "Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests."
Before surrendering to authorities for arrest last Tuesday (February 18), opposition leader Leopoldo López said, “we no longer have any free media to express ourselves in Venezuela.”
Are these statements true or false? Similar statements are made repeatedly in the major international news outlets covering Venezuela, and are generally accepted as true. However this should be a factual question, independent of whether one is sympathetic to the opposition or the government, or to neither.
As it turns out, data published by the Carter Center for the media coverage during the campaign for the last presidential election, in April of last year, indicate that the two candidates were fairly evenly represented in television coverage.
We will return to the Carter Center report, but first a quick fact check based on recent events and coverage. We can look at the recent broadcasts of the largest television stations in the country. The biggest broadcast television station is Venevisión, owned by the billionaire media mogul Gustavo Cisneros. According to the Carter Center, it has about 35 percent of the news-watching audience during “recent key newsworthy events.” If we look at their coverage of the events since the protests started on February 12, we can find plenty of programming where “voices critical of the government,” and in fact opposition leaders are “regularly broadcast.” For example, here is an interview on Venevisión news with Tomás Guanipa, leader of the opposition Primero Justicia (Justice First) party and a representative in the National Assembly. He defends the protests and accuses the government of having tortured students.