Perception Problems in the Venezuela Protests

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480252259In a recent New York Times op-ed, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro argues “the claims that Venezuela has a deficient democracy and that current protests represent mainstream sentiment are belied by the facts” and “the antigovernment protests are being carried out by people in the wealthier segments of society who seek to reverse the gains of the democratic process that have benefited the vast majority of the people.”

Western media has been disingenuous in portraying the protesters as peaceful, Maduro writes. The protesters are to blame for instigating most of the violence and, in the few cases where security forces were guilty, the government has arrested the aberrant personnel.

In Maduro’s mind, the protesters don’t even represent true Venezuelans, but “the 1 percent who wish to drag our country back to when the 99 percent were shut out of political life and only the few — including American companies — benefited from Venezuela’s oil.”

It’s almost audacious of Maduro, leader of a country that has no free press, to publish such a piece in one of the most widely-read media outlets in the Western world. But the piece, which clearly is an attempt to sway the American public to his side, reeks of desperation.

Like his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, Maduro has drawn much of his political capital from positioning his regime as pro-poor and anti-American government. Given the U.S. government’s track record of meddling in Latin American affairs (almost always on the side of big business), this hasn’t exactly been a difficult narrative to maintain.

To be fair, Venezuela has managed to reduce moderate poverty significantly, from 50 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2012, according to The World Bank. Inequality also has decreased, as seen by the Gini Index, which fell from 0.49 in 1998 to 0.39 in 2011 — one of the lowest rates in the region.

All of this has been made possible by Venezuela’s massive oil reserves, which account for over 96 percent of the country’s exports and nearly half of its fiscal revenue. Ironically, much of this oil is shipped directly to the United States. While Venezuela has enjoyed riding the wave of the high price of oil, the country has experienced major fiscal deficits along with a sharp increase in public debt (27% of GDP in 2012).

Even before the recent violence, Venezuela hardly has been a Utopia. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, where a person is murdered every 21 minutes, and there were roughly 24,700 violent deaths last year — quite high for country of just under 30 million. 

According to PolicyMic, since taking over from Chavez last year Maduro has led Venezuela to 56 percent inflation rate and a 50 percent increase in the budget deficit, prompting China to cut back on its $20 billion loan, and Moody’s and Standard & Poor to downgrade Venezuelan bonds to “junk” status. The once-strong dollar also has dropped from an 8 to 1 exchange rate relative to the U.S. dollar at Chávez’s death, to a horrifying 87 to 1.

In the election following Chavez’s death, Maduro narrowly defeated his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski. While Maduro portrayed himself as a bona fide extension of chavismo, Capriles represented a coalition of groups from across the political spectrum. Ultimately, this was not enough to defeat Chavez’s hand-picked heir (though it would come as little surprise if the elections had, in fact, been rigged).

When the current protests began in February, the focus was on soaring crime rates, but erupted into all-out anti-government rallies. Since then, some 40 people have been killed. To halt the bloodshed, foreign ministers from several South American nations recently brought together Maduro and Capriles — the de facto leader of the opposition.

At the meeting, Maduro was obstinate and claimed that any sort of formal deal with the opposition would make him a “traitor to chavismo”. Instead, he called on the opposition to renounce violence.

Capriles reassured Maduro that the opposition is not looking for a coup d’etat, or for further bloodshed. In response to Maduro’s claim that the opposition are “fascists”, Maduro said:

“How are you going to ask the country to accept you if you call half the country fascists or you threaten them?” he asked. “I think it is very difficult to govern a country where half the people are against you.”

Like the popular uprisings constituting the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East, social media platforms such as Twitter are empowering protesters to better organize and take collective action. It seems likely that Maduro’s days are numbered, but the real question is; could Capriles do better? Latin America has seen this story played out time and time again — popular figure overthrows current despot, only to become a despot himself.

For the sake of those struggling for a better life in Venezuela, let’s hope this time it’s different.

About Mike Hower

Mike Hower is a writer, thinker, and strategic communicator most interested in the intersection of sustainable business and policy. Currently based in Washington, D.C., he is a graduate research fellow at The George Washington University, where he is pursing a masters degree in Media & Public Affairs and researching the impact of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) on sustainable development. He is hopelessly addicted to travel and has a borderline unhealthy obsession with his golden retriever, Gerico.
Posted in: International, International, Politics
  • jnack

    Mike Hower, you obviously know nothing about Venezuela. You write that the country “has no free press”. This is a common lie, yet this lie dissolves the moment one steps off a plane and into the airport in Caracas. There you will find, as in most airports, a newsstand. At that newsstand you will find that the the majority of the newspapers are privately owned and have editorial lines in opposition to the government.

    Your article is an excellent example of the tissue thin lies told by supporters of the Venezuela’s opposition. Lies which are so easily disproved, it’s ridiculous. You should ask yourself Mike, where did I learn these lies, but then, that would require some critical thinking on your part.

  • John Hayes

    Ayer, collectivos quemaron diecinueve universidades en Venezuela. Maduro y su esfuerzo por la paz incansablemente invertir en el futuro de la nación!

  • John Hayes

    Mike, please tell Americans more of what you know about what the government is doing to the poor and middle class in Venezuela! jnack obviously either is one of the government’s paid “correspondants” or someone from cloudcuckooland. My suffering family thanks you so much!

  • John Hayes

    Yesterday, May 6th , 2014, collectivos burned nineteen universities in Venezuela. Maduro and his peace effort tirelessly investing in the future of the nation!

  • John Hayes

    Fact: Venezuela has four times the oil and approximately seven times the gas of Dubai. Lines for food in Venezuela last up to seven hours. Electricity is intermittent, as is water. In most clinics, 48% of the most important medicines and medical supplies can not be gotten, therefore, vital treatments for serious maladies can’t be given, such as those for cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, malaria, hepatitis, encephalitis, TB. There is only government controlled broadcast media (think Idiocracy TV). Over twenty four thousand citzens aremurdered THAT ARE REPORTED each year. Many are victims of the government’s collectivos, SEBIN, Cuban g2/DI.

    Fact: Venezuela now ranks #1 in the world misery rating.

    With so much oil and gas, not to include the gold, diamonds, uranium, andmore– why isthat national per capita income now less than $167 per month? Less even than Somalia and Cuba! Those earning minimum wage get less than $67 per month, THIS MONTH. After the next devaluation, who can say. The recent raise? How much is 30% of effective ZERO? Just asking, enough tobuy one guajojo!

    What is wrong in this picture? Why not a lifestyle at least comparable to Dubai? The answer is first government ineptitude and malice, not only the Venezuelan government, but all of thosewho parasitacally devour the precious national assets and steal them from the poor and all the people–Cuba, China, Russia, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Argentina, and more. Second, it is a deliberate plan based on deprivation, militarization, mobiliztion, and conquest inthe name of aperpetually failed revolution that benefits only its’ shills and leaders.