February 2014—less than a year after the death of President Hugo Chávez—marked the beginning of a series of protests that raised important questions about the future of Venezuela. It is estimated that at least forty people died and more than eight hundred suffered injuries related to these protests. The essays in this Hot Spots series were written in the Spring of 2014, in the immediate aftermath of the protests. They attempt to make sense of these protests in Venezuela, which earned worldwide attention thanks to media images of violent clashes between white-clad protestors and police. According to conventional reporting, these were anti-government protests fueled by food shortages, inflation, violent crime, and frustration with the administration of Nicolas Maduro (who succeeded the late Hugo Chávez as president). However, these seemingly compelling explanations obscured a more complicated reality. For example, they failed to explain why people were protesting mostly in middle-class neighborhoods, and why popular sectors, who might also have had reason to protest, largely held back. In editing this series, our goal was to provide ethnographically grounded analyses that are rich in social and historical context in order to clarify the complexities of these protests, and to provide insight into Venezuelan politics and society more broadly. At the time of publication, the stakes are high: in December 2014, President Obama signed a bill to levy sanctions on Venezuela, which could inflame already heightened tensions and disproportionately impact already vulnerable populations. How these protests are framed and understood directly shapes decisions about things like sanctions.
The visceral polarization of Venezuelan society along class and political lines has long shaped both the scholarship and media coverage of Venezuela. It is a constant challenge to carve out analytical spaces that avoid contributing to this polarization, which is often glossed in terms of “chavistas,” or Chávez supporters, against “the opposition.” We sought to present essays that ground claims in systematic assessments of observable realities and in the lived experiences of Venezuelans affected by ongoing social, economic, and political contestations. The series editors first provide an editorial that considers the emergent political terrain after the shift in leadership from Chávez to Maduro. Next, David Smilde discusses the importance of empirically grounded research on protests and political action in Venezuela. The next four essays—by Miguel Tinker Salas, Julie Skurski, Mariya Ivancheva, and Richard McGrail—focus on the protests themselves, exploring the role of social class and fear, the polyvalent meaning of el pueblo or “the people,” students as protestors, and how mundane crises inform oppositional politics. Essays by Rebecca Hanson and Veronica Zubillaga complicate conventional thinking about police corruption and the experience of violence in Venezuela by offering correctives to depictions of crime and violence that dominate popular thinking on current protests. The following three essays—by Alejandro Velasco, Matt Wilde, and Angela Marino—offer perspectives from popular movements aligned with chavismo, examining alternative forms of activism, alternative imaginaries of sociality, and a history of barrio-based protests that force us to rethink assumptions about what democracy and democratic engagement with state institutions looks like. The final set of essays—by Luis Duno Gottberg, Naomi Schiller and Robert Samet, and Mark Weisbrot—expand the scope of analysis of recent protests by forcing us to rethink conventional assumptions about Venezuela’s economy, news media, and popular masses.