BOGOTA — Most of the commentary about ongoing anti-government protests in Venezuela cast socialist President Nicolás Maduro as the villain and the opposition leaders as heroes.
To be clear, I do not sympathize with Maduro or share most of his positions. But the fervor with which he is being attacked necessarily means an absence of more objective analysis about the nature of the opposition and what’s happening with our neighbor Venezuela.
Twenty-five years ago, Venezuela witnessed a rebellious outbreak that had been simmering for some time among a vast and heterogeneous social movement that included peasants, workers, and Venezuelans of African and native descent. They protested against the neo-liberal policies of then-President Carlos Ándres Pérez. Feb. 27, 1989 was a day of turmoil recalled in history as the Caracazo.
Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chávez used that social movement, which long preceded his own, as a platform to launch his presidency in 1998.
The recent demonstrations began in early February with students protesting in the city of San Cristóbal against crime on their university campus and Venezuela’s inability to provide security. The government’s response was repressive, prompting protests to expand from that western city to the rest of the country. Frustrated with the failure of their moderate candidate Henrique Capriles to win the presidency in April 2013 and with another defeat in December’s municipal polls, the opposition increased its protests.
Beyond their vigor, the protests indicate both internal opposition divisions and radicalization, as academic George Ciccariello-Maher notes. Besides jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, other opponents have risen to prominence. Among them are legislator María Corina Machado, who backed a short-live coup against Chávez in 2002, and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma Díaz, who oversaw suppression of student protests in the early 1990s.
The opposition in Venezuela today is not so much about new policies as it is about the past’s bid to recover power. It represents the revenge of a traditional elite that has seen itself stripped of wealth by Chávez. The Venezuelan protests are less like those of the indignant crowds in Brazil, Chile or Spain, and more like those in Kiev, where extreme nationalist groups like Svoboda infiltrated protests by supporters of the European Union.
Venezuela finds itself at a delicate moment in history. And fomenting sectarian divisions and polarization, denigrating some as villains and elevating others as martyrs, will do nothing to bring a democratic or peaceful solution to the crisis. The history of sectarian politics in our own country — think of the Bogotazo and its consequences — should serve as a lesson. What Venezuela needs are conditions for a political convergence so the country can face its challenges.