Activists in Unsuccessful 2002 Coup d'état Now Leading Venezuela's Protests

Posted Feb. 26, 2014

MP3 Interview with Steve Ellner, lecturer at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, conducted by Scott Harris

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After anti-government protests took to the streets in western Venezuela early in February, they spread to other parts of this oil-rich nation, where violence has broken out between many middle-class students and police. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has been in office just 10 months after his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez lost his battle with cancer last March, has vowed to quell the violence while also calling for peace talks with opposition groups. More than a dozen people on both sides have been killed, with an estimated 150 injured and 500 arrests.

Protesters have demanded Maduro’s resignation over a rising crime rate, high inflation and a shortage of food and other basic goods. But Maduro, elected by a small margin in April following Chavez’s death, has accused the United States of fomenting the unrest, and expelled three American Embassy staff who he says have encouraged opposition protests. The U.S. in turn recently expelled three Venezuelan diplomats from Washington.

Protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, arrested after a demonstration he led devolved into rock throwing and arson, is associated with the unsuccessful U.S.-supported coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in April 2002. Despite U.S. government and media sympathy for the protesters, Maduro retains substantial support from Venezuela’s poor majority who have benefited from his United Socialist Party’s social programs. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Steve Ellner, professor of economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz in Venezuela, who discusses the anti-government protests and violence in Venezuela, with a focus on opposition group's objectives and their relationship with Washington.

STEVE ELLNER: The protests were actually surprising. I think they took the whole country by surprise because elections had just taken place in December, and the Chavistas did quite well. They received a vote of ten percentage points above the united opposition. So it looked like at that point that the government of Nicolas Maduro was firmly in control. But there is a problem of ongoing shortages, and it had intensified in the last several months, so that outbreaks of violence took place in the border state of Táchira, bordering on Colombia two weeks ago, and they spread throughout the country, especially the western part of Venezuela, a little bit in the eastern part as well, and certainly the capital city Caracas.

One aspect of these protests that I may emphasize is that they are almost exclusively taking place in middle class and upper middle class areas; you know, the barrios where the poor people live and the "popular" sectors are concentrated are almost 100 percent exempt from the violence that is taking place. For instance, in Caracas, Caracas is neatly divided: the eastern part of Caracas is mostly middle and upper middle class, and the western part of Caracas is exclusively "popular" sector, as well as the downtown area. And the violence in Caracas, the protests and disruptions have taken place pretty much exclusively in the eastern part of Caracas. The same thing in the industrial city of Ciudad Guayana; it’s divided, the Caroní River divides it between San Felix, which is popular and has not had any violence or protests at all, and Puerto Ordaz which is middle class and upper middle class, where considerable violence has taken place.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Now the protesters in the streets are talking about their dissatisfaction with government policies and rising violent crime, corruption, and the shortage of food and other basic goods, as you mentioned Steve. But what are the stated objectives of these protests?

STEVE: The slogan of the protests is, in Spanish, Salida. Salida means exit. And the protesters are calling on the government — the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, to resign.

Now you may say, well, that means that he would resign, and there would be a constitutional process in which the second in command according to the constitution would take over. But the person who would become president if Maduro were to resign, is the second in command of the Chavista movement, Diosdado Cabello. And the opposition certainly is not calling for that. So that it is generally recognized, by everybody, both the opposition people and Chavistas, and observers as well, that really what’s at stake here is regime change — that’s what the opposition is calling for. The protests are not really centering on specific demands; there are specific issues — you mentioned three of them, especially the lack of security, as well as the inflation and shortages. Those are issues, but the protesters are not putting forth specific demands.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Venezuelan government officials have discussed cables, leaked by WikiLeaks, some of them several years old. And U.S. government officials have responded saying, these are old and outdated; they don’t really relate to the current situation in Venezuela. Do we have evidence that the United States government is involved in any way in supporting these opposition groups and the sometimes violent street protests?

STEVE: Yes. These WikiLeaks documents do demonstrate U.S. — not necessarily direct involvement — but certainly communication, and being much aware of what is happening, and taking very definite positions in favor of the opposition, favoring those who are out to destabilize Venezuela.

The other point is that on several occasions, the Chavista government has expelled diplomats from Venezuela. Over the last year this has happened twice; it just happened a few weeks ago, and it happened prior to that about six months ago. And one of the diplomats who was expelled from Venezuela had traveled throughout Venezuela, met with an NGO that is very much involved in the anti-Chavez movement, whose former vice-president is Maria Corina Machado, who is one of the radical anti-Chavistas. And then the diplomat went to the state of Amazonas, which is one of the few states in which the governor belongs to the opposition. So obviously, there is activity on the part of the U.S. Embassy that I think would indicate goes beyond just collecting data. There is more of an activist role. Exactly what that role is, I can’t really say.

Steve Ellner is the author of the forthcoming book, “Latin America’s Radical Left.” Find more analysis of the situation in Venezuela by visiting venezuelanalysis.com.

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