As is by now well known, the February 12 student protests in Caracas erupted into violence that left three people dead and a couple dozen others hurt. Two of the dead were from among the opposition students; one was from among government supporters.
In typical fashion, Venezuela’s polarized political forces have spent the past twenty-four hours accusing the other side of responsibility for the violence. On social media, each faction provides moving tributes to their fallen, while completely ignoring the dead on the other side. And in Venezuela few are interested in providing objective analysis and evidentiary standards are low.
From the available information can we make any progress in trying to understand Wednesday’s violence? I have no inside information either way, much less proof of a “smoking gun.” Here I am going to look at the set of political interests of the major actors and how they might be related to what we know happened.
What Interest Would Maduro Have in Violence?
Would organizing violence against an opposition march make sense for the Maduro government right now?
The Maduro government controls all branches of the national government and the majority of state and local governments. Most importantly, it controls the military, as well as the state oil company which is Venezuela’s main source of wealth. Two months ago it enjoyed a solid victory at the polls which effectively ended public questioning of its legitimacy. Finally, since the December elections the opposition has been beset with internal conflict and divided regarding what path it should take in the coming months and years.
Put differently, at least viewed from the outside, the Maduro government is not in a particularly vulnerable political position and it would make no sense in such a context for the government to organize violence against a modest student march (with a turnout of around 10,000 it was much bigger than recent protests, but by no means was it a big protest by Venezuelan standards). Violence that could be blamed on the government is perhaps the only thing that could unify the opposition at this point, and could provide an impetus for large-scale anti-government mobilization. Furthermore violence is bound to draw negative international attention, strengthening the “rogue state” narrative that critics have used to portray Venezuela during the past fifteen years.
Having said this, it should be noted that the Maduro government has done a couple of things that do not exactly exhibit strength and confidence. Yesterday during the conflict it took Colombian television channel NTN24 off the air while it was providing live coverage of the clashes in its usual tendentious style. NTN24 is openly anti-government, but its reach and impact is minimal, much less than the impact taking it off the air had.
The rest of the Venezuelan broadcast media showed very unflattering signs of self-censorship throughout the afternoon, restricting its transmissions to telenovelas, interviews with athletes or obligatory government messages.
Much worse, it has been reported that the Attorney General’s office (Fiscalía) has ordered the arrest of Leopoldo López on charges of homicide and terrorism (at this writing this is still unconfirmed as there is some doubt among analysts regarding the veracity of the warrant shown on El Universal’s web page). If true this is a very serious miscalculation on their part of the Maduro government. It will make López into a cause celebre for the opposition and could seriously accelerate anti-government mobilization
In general this suggests that perhaps the government feels more vulnerable than its institutional hold on power would suggest. I think that James Bosworth is right that a good part of what Maduro does has less to do with positioning vis-à-vis the opposition than with positioning himself with respect to behind-the-scenes struggles within his own coalition. In addition, only the government really knows where the economy stands and they could be anticipating significant difficulties in the coming months.
Was Maduro Responsible for the Violence?
In an evening press conference, Leopoldo López mentioned the colectivos saying the government “is who finances, organizes and gives them arms.”
López also pointed out that Maduro had said the day before that somebody would die. “What a coincidence that Maduro predicted that a day before. Perhaps he knew something.” López concluded that with the violence at the end of the march the government’s “mask is off.”
López got ample international backing. In an interview on NTN24 Otto Reich said “the violence you are seeing in the streets is not the result of the people complaining, it is the result of the hordes that Mr. Maduro has organized to attack Venezuelans that are fed up with the incompetence and abuses of this government.”
Claims that the government has organized and armed the colectivos have been frequent over the years, yet evidence has always been sketchy. Of course when you see armed citizens on motorcycles attacking the opposition the natural assumption is that it is coordinated from the very top of the government.
But that is not the way these things usually work. In a situation of highly concentrated power and strong revolutionary discourse, sectors close to the government frequently try to demonstrate their affinity and value by autonomously coming up with violent, pro-government mobilizations. They see as themselves doing that which needs to be done but which the government can’t do because its hands are tied by the law. Of course acting out on behalf of the government is a great way for aspiring leaders to position themselves as being self-starters and committed revolutionaries.
In the Chinese Cultural Revolution this process was referred to as “moving towards the Chairman.” At the time commentators thought that all of the bizarre and violent actions of student groups and the Red Guard was obviously coordinated by Mao himself. But later scholarship shows this was not the case. Rather it was a process of grassroots activists demonstrating their worth by showing themselves to be of one mind with Mao.
The title of George Ciccariello-Maher’s book on revolutionary groups We Created Chávez says it all. These groups see themselves as world historical actors in a revolutionary struggle and as the ones who brought Chávez to power. One can definitely question the historical veracity of their narrative but it definitely captures their self-understanding. This does not mean it is impossible for them to be used by the government. But the mere fact that they act against the opposition does not mean they are taking their orders from the government. (Reuters just published a relatively balanced story on them.)
What Interests Would Leopoldo López Have in Violence?
The Venezuelan opposition currently controls no institutions of the national government and controls a minority of state and municipal governments. With the government’s successful domestication of Globovisión it gets little coverage in broadcast media. Furthermore, two months ago it received a significant setback at the polls. Since then it has been adrift with no clear direction. There is serious discontent with the leadership of Henrique Capriles Radonski (HCR) but it is not clear what alternatives they have.
While Capriles shook hands with Maduro in January, signifying not only a more conciliatory stance but tacitly recognizing Maduro’s legitimacy, Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado have both taken a harder line and are working outside of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD). They have created a movement using the hashtag #lasalida, which in Spanish means both “the exit” and “the solution.” In an interview with Reuters, López suggested he is seeking the exit of Nicolas Maduro as president not through a coup, but through peaceful, constitutional means.
The means for doing so is street protest. The street marches organized by #lasalida in recent weeks have been small. However, arrests and violence in protests in Mérida earlier this week helped mobilize people for yesterday’s march. Indeed, violence mobilizes in a way that can be seen in some tweets of opposition activists over the past twenty four hours.
Escualidox Reload @EscualidoReload 11h
hoy me pegaron una pedrada en la espalda, un cascazo por la nariz, trague bomba lacrimogena, cargue al chamo que fallecio, y tu que hiciste?
[today I was hit in the back with a rock, hit in the nose with a helmet, breathed tear gas, and carried the kid who died, and what did you do?]
Carmen Beatriz Ferná @carmenbeat 39m
Confío en que ayer muchas conciencias habrán dicho como Saramago “hasta aquí he llegado”…
[I trust that yesterday many consciences must have said like Saramago “enough is enough”…]
Without a doubt, in immediate political terms the biggest beneficiary of yesterday’s violence was López. His press conference showed all the energy and momentum that the MUD and Capriles have lacked in recent months. Towards the end he triumphantly announced to applause that the movement “is going to continue, is going to grow.”
Was López Responsible for the Violence?
López took pains before during and after to call on students to march peacefully. But putting together a movement whose slogan is #lasalida and organizing a route from Plaza Venezuela to Parque Carabobo made it highly likely that violence would occur. In Venezuela’s political tribalism the area the march was routed to is understood by all carqueños to a pro-government bastion and any sort of opposition march or demonstration is under threat of attack.
Indeed many opposition sympathizers I know did not let their kids go to the march precisely because they considered violence likely.
But here again, organizing a march in which it is likely that violence occur is different from being directly culpable. Apart from abstract accusations of conspiracy, so far there is no clear evidence that López directly coordinated or organized violence. His plan has been to put pressure on the government, get it to make mistakes, and use those mistakes to grow the movement. But the government still owns its mistakes and suggesting that López is legally responsible for provoking violence is only plausible if there is hard evidence of an illegal plan. The audio of Iván Carratú Molina and Fernando Gerbasi suggesting that the February 12 march would be similar to April 11, 2002 seems like a good place to start an investigation, but by itself doesn’t tell us much.
In sum, direct, top down coordination on the part of the Maduro or López is imaginable, but it is in no way sociologically necessary for the outcomes we saw on Wednesday. It is entirely plausible that after the march ended, groups of radicalized students stuck around to cause disturbances. And it is also entirely plausible that armed pro-government colectivos took it upon themselves to heroically defend their revolution.
Nevertheless, both Maduro and López deserve strong criticism. The Maduro government, like the Chávez government before it, could do much more to rein in violent, motorized colectivos that have frequently attacked opposition marches. I agree with political scientist Victor Mijares that in the end public security is the government’s responsibility and they are coming up tragically short.
Leopoldo López’s calls for peaceful mobilization are disingenuous when his acts seem to be intentionally creating the conditions for unintended violence. He is effectively putting student protestors in the line of fire to further what he sees as the interests of the country. With no actual governing proposals other than getting Maduro to resign, it seems like his efforts could well backfire as did the guarimbas of 2004.