By Shane Cassidy
The purpose of this article is not to support any particular political persuasion nor does it seek to defend the killings of any citizens by the government or the military. All violence and intimidation in all of its guises by any institution contradicts the very principles of a democratic country. The focus of this article instead is an attempt to create a deeper understanding of the current events in Venezuela.
In his seminal text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the late sociologist Stanley Cohen talks about how a moral panic can manifest in society;
Societies appear to be subjext, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and sterotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or ( more often ) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.
Over the last ten days internet forums, news agencies and social media sites have brought our attention to the current social unrest in Venezuela. The events, as presented by the mainstream media would lead the casual observer to believe that huge social and civil unrest is occurring in Venezuela which has been caused directly by Nicolas Maduro and his left wing government. This reaction to the events and panic which has been cultivated by the media has been reckless, uninformed, simplistic and decidedly one-sided. On closer inspection it is apparent however that this is far from the reality of the situation.
Following the outbreak of protests and civil unrest primarily by private university students and forces who oppose the current democratically elected, left-wing, Chavista government, headed by President Nicolas Maduro, the government issued an arrest warrant for the supposed leader of the protests, Harvard educated, Venezuelan politician Leopoldo López.
In a country where the current opposition parties are in disarray due to a collapse of any real leadership, Mr. López, the former mayor of one of Venezuela’s wealthiest districts, Chacao, a man who was virtually unheard of on an international scale until this last week has been elevated to the status as de facto leader of the opposition and has emerged as an apparent opponent to all things abhorrent in Venezuela. “Our youth have no jobs, no future because of this economic model that has failed,” Mr. López declared this week to his supporters, before continuing: “If they put me in prison, it’ll wake up the people. That’s worthwhile.” On February 18th 2014, in what must surely be viewed as a shrewd political maneuver, he voluntarily handed himself in to be questioned regarding his role in protests which led to the deaths of 3 people and injury to over 100 more on the streets of Caracas. He did this only after first attempting to goad Maduro into arresting him by posting on Twitter ” Do you not have the guts to arrest me?”. It is important to note that he did not hand himself in until he had released a video on the internet declaring his intention and thus making himself a living ‘martyr’ for the current opposition supporters currently occupying some of the streets and whipping up even stronger support for himself. Many news agencies and blogs are attempting to present the current dynamic socio-economic-political situation in simplified terms with utter disregard shown to the complex history of the country.
A common statistic which has been repeated verbatim by practically all the major news agencies is that a major reason for the unrest is the level of homicide rate in the country. Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates that 24,763 killings occurred in 2013 and this is a staggering statistic. Unfortunately crime is a depressing reality in Venezuela. It has, however, been ignored across all media outlets that Nicolas Maduro has actively sought to reduce these figures by introducing the program Por la Vida y Por la Paz whose primary objective is to reduce criminal homicides and has shown signs that it is being effective.
As a way of illustrating the highly complex socio-economic situation, the figure which has been constantly attached to the murder rate in Venezuela has most certainly risen over the previous decade. The statistics regarding this are undeniable. What the media and commentators have repeatedly failed to mention is that during the same period, unemployment rates, especially among the poor, have been halved from 14.5% to 7.6%. So in a country where unemployment rates are plummeting and homicide rates are increasing a much closer inspection of the fabric of Venezuelan society must be undertaken.
There is definitely violence in Venezuela without doubt but these recent events have been initiated by the violent, Molotov cocktail throwing, in-some-cases-murdering rioters and these current riots have been a concentrated effort by the opposition to destabilize a democratically elected government. The US government or its media i.e CNN etc doesn’t support this current democratically elected government. Strikingly, as of February 21st, the US has yet to release a statement condemning the violence of the oppositions protests or the threat it poses to the democratic ideals it purportedly subscribes too. In its 2014 budget, the US has even set aside $5 million for funding “opposition activities” in Venezuela. In other words, they want a more right-wing, US friendly government installed that ‘plays by the US rules’. In 2002 the US attempted, aided and supported a military coup of Hugo Chavez’s totally democratically elected government in Venezuela only for the Venezuelan people to revolt and the US had to admit defeat. A few years later, in 2004, they attempted an oil embargo in Venezuela to make the government less popular. Again, that failed. Last year, John Kerry initially refused to recognize the election results of this sovereign nation but in the end, in a humiliating U-turn, he had to accept the results of an independent nations elections. Just this week, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay released a statement making it abundantly clear that they support the Venezuelan government so it is clear that although pressure is being applied by the US and the media, Venezuela’s closest neighbors are fully behind the country.
A more incisive question must be asked; Since 1999, in a country where unemployment has been halved, where GDP per capita has risen from $4,105 to $10,801, where poverty has fallen from 23.4% to 8.5% and it must also be mentioned that in 1999, Venezuela’s proven oil reserves stood at $14.4bn but by 2011 that figure had risen to $60bn – who stands to gain from overthrowing this current government and economic system? Certainly not the majority of Venezuelan citizens who represent the poorest and most vulnerable members of society and who have largely benefited from this system.
Mainstream media’s reporting of Venezuela has also sought to overstate the current economic situation in Venezuela. Though an unequal country, this was not the creation of the current or Hugo Chavez’s governments but a far more deeply rooted socio-economic situation created by those vested interests who had maintained control over the media, industry and oil reserves for the decades prior to Hugo Chavez’s election. The Bolivarian Revolution of the last 15 years has been an attempt to more evenly redistribute this disproportionate wealth to more of it’s citizens. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean recently declared Venezuela to be now the least unequal country of the region (GINI Coefficient) having reduced inequality by 54%. A fact that mainstream media has conveniently forgotten to mention during these events.
A lot has been made of the protests and unrest and it is paramount that the right to protest and the right to free speech and assembly be respected by the Venezuelan government. It must be stated that the attempts by the executive to conduct the business of the judiciary is deeply troubling and coupled with the recent violent actions and attempts to suppress media which isn’t to the regimes taste indicates a hugely flawed process of government. However a fact, which has been continuously and conveniently overlooked over the last week, is that Nicolas Maduro and his government have been democratically elected by the majority of the Venezuelan electorate and therefore hold a mandate to carry out their reforms. This, in no way, justifies any and all illegal actions which it may carry out but it is unthinkable that these current protests, which have been directly orchestrated by the opposition parties to create instability, could lead to anything other than an eventual admission of defeat from Leopoldo López. For López, regardless of what develops, he has successfully established himself as the face of the opposition in a country whose government has overcome massive barriers in it’s attempt to create a more fair and equal society. It’s important to ask why a democratically elected, socialist government with 3 times more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and who aspires to the ideals of Simon Bolivar who has attempted to wrestle power away from the minority, wealthy elites is being portrayed in the generally privately owned, corporate media as a renegade government ?