Protests over growing scarcity and criminal violence in Venezuela are entering their 10th day. They have been met with violent government repression and censorship. International support is needed to convene the actors in this crisis to engage in dialogue and craft a peaceful outcome.
On February 12, nation-wide marches were convened by the political opposition and civil society to protest growing scarcity and criminal violence. While they began peacefully, they ended in violent confrontations between police, pro-government criminal gangs (known as colectivos) and some protestors. Public property in downtown Caracas was damaged, three persons are known to have died from gun shots, and over 70 were arrested by police, intelligence and military forces. The government and opposition have traded charges on who is responsible for the damage and the deaths, although subsequent reporting identified the shooters as government agents. Remarkably, the only broadcaster carrying live feed from the protest, NTN24, was an international channel, and was censored by the Maduro administration as events were unfolding. In the wake of the protest, the government ordered the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on the charge of fomenting violence.
Venezuela has since witnessed daily marches and counter-marches by opposition and government supporters, several of them accompanied by further violence and arrests. Protests intensified on February 18, the day that Lopez led a march to turn himself in to authorities. He was initially detained by the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana and held at the Ramo Verde military prison outside of Caracas. In the absence of live coverage of events, social media services such as Twitter and Facebook are filling the gap in documenting the level of repression and abuses by state security forces and paramilitary armed actors.
The worrisome economic and social trends identified in the Brookings Big Bets, Black Swans briefing book memo on Venezuela continue to worsen. Criminal violence has been high for some time, but the recent murder of a former Miss Venezuela has increased its salience on the public agenda. Student protestors cited criminal violence, including a recent rape attempt at a university in Tachira state, as a motivating factor behind their marches. Venezuela’s inflation also remains high and the scarcity of consumer goods still registers record levels. The government has been progressively restricting the sale of foreign currency, and rumors abound that it is experiencing serious cash flow problems. Certainly the devaluation of the official exchange rate from 6.3 bolívares fuertes (Bs.F) to the dollar to 11.36 is an effort to constrain official demand for dollars and control government cash flow. However, the differential with the black market rate for dollars (currently fluctuating around 87 Bs.F to the dollar) remains high. With two thirds of Venezuela’s consumer goods imported, the shortage of foreign exchange will inevitably contribute to further scarcity. The combination of scarcity and devaluation perpetuates a vicious cycle of inflationary pressures in the economy.
The geographic extent of the protests in Venezuela suggests that criticism of the government is spreading. Government repression of protestors and orders to arrest opposition leaders indicate that the Maduro administration has decided to double down on its present policies. The labeling of protestors as right-wing conspirators and participants in a coup d’etat suggests that President Maduro remains largely focused on finding opportunities to maintain political advantage, rather than on addressing the root sources of the protests, or broadening the base of support for his government. Some have begun to demand that the president resign from office immediately (known by its Twitter hashtag #LaSalida), which is a departure from the opposition’s previous consensus on an electoral strategy to replace Chavismo.
Although there are a number of reasons for deep concern over what is happening in Venezuela, the recent protests highlight two features of Venezuela’s current regime that are major obstacles to finding a negotiated way out of the current crisis.
The first is the type of repression that we are witnessing in Venezuela. Protesters have not been afforded police protection as they demonstrate, yet such protection is routinely used in democratic states to minimize the likelihood of violence and protect constitutional rights. Rather, the police and Guardia Nacional (Venezuela’s gendarmerie equivalent) appear only to repress or block protests. The colectivos and the intelligence service, Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN), are conducting the most violent repression and have been frequently cited in the past week for the indiscriminate use of firearms against civilians. These entities are the least accountable elements among the pro-government armed actors, operating in secrecy, out of uniform, and in the case of the colectivos, without being a formal part of the security forces or under a legal chain of command. They may therefore feel a particularly high sense of impunity, which can result in gross abuses of human rights. Most recently, the western Venezuelan city of San Cristobal has been placed under military control. So far, reports indicate that repression is still mostly the work of the Guardia Nacional and colectivos. The employment of regular Army troops would indicate that the Maduro administration has decided to escalate. This creates a risk that the army may begin to reconsider its support for the regime rather than fire on unarmed civilians.
The second important element to consider is the Venezuelan government’s growing efforts to censor the media. After shutting down NTN24’s signal in Venezuela, the government communications regulator, CONATEL (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones), threatened to fine local media that carried images of the violence. These threats are credible since it previously imposed such a fine on El Nacional, a major Venezuelan daily newspaper. As protests gained strength last week, President Maduro also tried to block Twitter from carrying anti-government images and information. Independent newspapers have been progressively unable to provide an alternative due to shortages of newsprint – most of which is imported; as a result, more than 29 have canceled or shortened their print editions.
This is the culmination of a long term trend towards greater government control over the flow of information in Venezuela. One of the major private television stations, RCTV, was ordered off the air in 2007 and dropped from cable television offerings in Venezuela in 2010 for being a persistent critic of the government. Globovisión, a private cable television channel formerly known for its extensive coverage of opposition political activities, was purchased by pro-government businesspeople in 2013, and has since adopted a less aggressive editorial line. Internet providers have been threatened by CONATEL for allowing their users to access websites with information on the black market bolívar exchange rate. The overall result is that media has become highly concentrated in the hands of government officials and pro-government private owners, with the independent media forced to carefully consider the news they report for fear of losing access to the foreign exchange they need to run their business. This means that it will become progressively more difficult for both Venezuelans and outside observers to obtain accurate information about what is a progressively deteriorating situation.
Venezuela’s own citizens have shown a way ahead in counteracting impunity among the state security forces and in increasing the availability of information to the public. Using the widespread availability of cell phone video cameras and social media websites such as Twitter and YouTube, Venezuelans are documenting the protests. Already, this has allowed journalists to identify SEBIN agents by name as responsible for the shooting deaths on February 12, and it has led President Maduro to fire the head of the political police. The knowledge that all government actions are being documented and disseminated widely should encourage officials, especially in the security forces, to ensure that their actions meet the strictest letter of the law and international human rights standards. Repressive actors in other regimes in Latin America, from El Salvador to Argentina, have eventually faced justice due to an active civil society willing to document and preserve a record of their illegal actions. Social media companies, internet service providers, private companies and international civil society should do what they can to contribute to Venezuelans’ ability to document and share the actions of their own government during this crisis. At least in this way, Venezuelans will be able to begin to counteract the repression and censorship that are aggravating the present political crisis.
International responses to the crisis have thus far been cautious. Most countries in the Americas have issued calls for dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the crisis while avoiding criticism of the government’s response. The Organization of American States has been paralyzed by divisions among its members over how to respond. The United States called for the protection of press freedom and freedom of assembly, which provoked the Venezuelan government to predictably expel three U.S. diplomats. Relations between the United States and Venezuela are so poor that there is realistically very little the U.S. can do at this point to contribute to a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The countries that are best poised to make a difference in Venezuela are either interested in preserving the status quo (China and Cuba), benefit from a large trade surplus with the present Venezuelan government (Brazil), or believe they need President Maduro’s good will to resolve their own domestic conflicts (Colombia). Chile has been more forthright in its criticism, but its center-right president, Sebastian Piñera, is about to leave office and therefore faces fewer constraints.
International support is needed to encourage dialogue between the government and opposition. This dialogue should be aimed at reducing violence, finding a solution to the present economic crisis, avoiding the use of presidential decree power to short circuit the political process, and ending media censorship. This would require the Maduro administration to accept a substantial change in its present policies. That might seem a dramatic move given the legacy of Chavismo. Yet Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru recently faced social protests, and have all adjusted their policies as part of a strategy to restore peace. The Maduro administration should be able to do the same. Given the combination of repression and censorship in Venezuela, there are no reasonable actions the opposition can unilaterally take to bring about a peaceful solution. However, it should hold fast to its previous commitment to elections and democracy as the way forward. Support from the international community therefore plays a pivotal role in convening the actors in Venezuela’s crisis to design a path towards a peaceful outcome.
 “Diario internacional da indentificación de agentes de Sebin que dispararon,” El Universal, February 18, 2013., accessed at http://www.eluniversal.com/sucesos/140218/diario-internacional-da-identificacion-de-agentes-del-sebin-que-dispar; “Destrozos en la Fiscalía tras muerte de estudiante en marcha opositora,” Ultimas Noticias, February 13, 2014, accessed at http://www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve/noticias/actualidad/sucesos/fotos---destrozos-en-la-fiscalia-tras-muerte-de-es.aspx; “Uniformados y civiles dispararon en Candelaria el 12F,” Ultimas Noticias, February 19, 2014, accessed at http://www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve/noticias/actualidad/investigacion/video---uniformados-y-civiles-dispararon-en-candel.aspx