By ROGER D. HARRIS
With demonstrating students in the streets confronting state security forces, the recent unrest and violence in Venezuela that began on February 12th superficially bears a resemblance to the Occupy Movement that began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011. But there the similarity ends.
The overwhelming character of Occupy was its spontaneity, unpredictability, and certainly its independence from corporate or government influence. Occupy appealed to and was supported by the disposed and marginalized. The Venezuelan unrest has been the opposite. Building on genuine popular discontent in an already highly polarized context, the recent violence in Venezuela has all the elements of a manufactured crisis.
To find a script for the violence to come in Venezuela, one need only go to the Brookings Institute’s January 23rd memo to President Obama suggesting “inciting a violent popular reaction” could “oust the radicals and president.” In the polite doubletalk of the Washington consensus, the memo deplores violence at the same time it welcomes its possibilities including a “traditional coup” in Venezuela.
The source of this memo is not a fringe right-wing nut-shop. The Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute is funded in major part by the U.S. government and is ranked as the most influential think tank in the U.S. and in the world. Some 98% of Brookings’s employees’ political donations went to Democrats. The positions of the Brookings Institute are generally considered reflective of official U.S. policy, which is to achieve regime change in Venezuela despite the democratic will of its people.
Venezuela is experiencing serious problems: rampant inflation, scarcities of basic consumer goods such as toilet paper, and one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. Crime and consumer product shortages are complex problems deeply rooted in Venezuela’s history and the predominant role of oil in its economy. Neither President Chavez nor President Maduro’s governments have been able to fully resolve these problems; both committed missteps as well as had their efforts blunted by individual corruption within state agencies. But in major part, the Venezuelan people have been victims of deliberate sabotage by elite domestic elements backed by the U.S. Unlike the under-funded Occupy Movement, the opposition in Venezuela has enjoyed hundreds of millions of U.S. aid dollars according to WikiLeaks documents.
Unlike the militantly leaderless Occupy Movement, the Venezuelan opposition is headed most prominently by the U.S. prep school and Harvard educated Leopoldo Lopez, a scion of one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families. Ditto for Maria Corina Machado, who founded the non-profit Sumate, a major recipient of U.S. regime-change funding. Or take retired General Angel Vivas who tweeted instructions to opposition followers on how to “neutralize the criminal hordes” by stringing taunt wire across roads, which could (and has) decapitated people.
Far from spontaneous, what triggered the current unrest in Venezuela have not been upticks in crime, inflation, and shortages of consumer goods. Under the leadership of President Maduro, there have been modest improvements in some of these indices (though there is a long way to go). Rather the December 8th municipal elections in Venezuela were a significant precipitating factor. The opposition had touted the upcoming elections as a popular plebiscite that would condemn the Maduro government and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. And indeed the elections proved to be a mandate, but not as the opposition hoped. The government party won by a landslide of over 70% of the municipalities.
Defeated electorally, the more right-wing elements in the opposition implemented a strategy of fomenting violence to provoke a government over-reaction which could then be used as an excuse to call in outside assistance from the U.S. and its allies with the hope of overthrowing the democratically elected government.
This strategy of deliberately provoking violence is backfiring on the opposition. More moderate elements in the opposition, such as former presidential candidate Enrique Capriles, have broken with the more militant right and criticized them. Even more telling is that the violence has almost entirely been perpetrated by the rich and middle-class and contained in their own neighborhoods.
The majority poor and working class people, although suffering from the current economic and security problems, continue to support the Bolivarian government. The majority of the Venezuelan people see their elected government as the solution not the cause of the difficulties as shown in recent public opinion polls.
It comes as no surprise that one of the most bellicosely reactionary members of the U.S. Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) sponsored a resolution condemning the Venezuelan government and accusing it of promoting violence, eroding democracy, and engaging in political intimidation. The resolution urges the U.S. State Department to work with other countries and the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene in the international affairs of Venezuela. (Unlike Occupy, where the neo-conservatives in the U.S. never suggested that there was a need for international intervention on behalf of the beleaguered Occupiers.)
The response of the U.S. House of Representatives was sobering and reflective of the military bent of the Washington consensus. On March 4, House Resolution 488 was approved by a nearly unanimous 393 in favor and only one dissenting vote from a Republican congressman from Kentucky. The entire progressive caucus from California fell in line behind the resolution. Now both Democrats and Republicans in a bipartisan effort are considering sanctions against the sovereignty of Venezuela.
As shown by the lead-up to the Iraq War, Congressional resolutions such as this can pave the way for future U.S. aggression. The distortions by Representatives who should know better need to be directly challenged. Ask your Representative why, in the recent words of a Colombian commentator, “Venezuela is an odd country, the only place where the rich protest and the poor celebrate.” And demand that they renounce their vote and let the Venezuelans solve their own problems without the meddling of the U.S.
Roger D. Harris is president of the Task Force on the Americas a 29-year-old human rights organization that works in solidarity with the social justice movements of Latin America.