Venezuela: Class Narratives and the Politics of Fear

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Photo by Meredith Kohut, New York Times.

At the end of January 2014, Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado, leaders of the radical Venezuelan right wing organized under the banner of La Salida (the exit), proposed the departure of the democratically elected president, Nicolás Maduro, by any means. As part of this campaign, on February 12, traditional conservative opposition groups and some university students took to the streets in Venezuela. In Caracas, masked students and others attacked a government building, burned vehicles, and damaged the entrance to a metro station. It quickly became obvious that the principal purpose of the protests was to create conditions of instability that would produce the ouster of the democratically elected president of Venezuela.

Venezuela lacks a traditional political opposition willing to challenge the government while at the same time respecting the outcome of democratic elections. The absence of a democratic opposition creates serious problems for the country, generating a confrontational political culture that affects the discourse and policy choices of both the right and the left. The willingness of the right to rely on extra-parliamentary tactics is evident in an attempted 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez, and the forced lockout in 2002–2003 of the national oil company, which paralyzed the nation.

Class and the National Narrative

The absence of a traditional opposition is evident in the fact that right-wing political parties operated as if Chávez’s and now Maduro’s elections were aberrations, and choosing instead to engage in street actions to undermine the government. These actions betray a belief that the majority of the population is incapable of making informed decisions and leads the opposition to repeatedly reject the outcome of national elections, insisting that the elections must be rigged even though the opposition won in the National Assembly and in several important mayoral campaigns.

The absence of a traditional opposition is evident in the fact that right-wing political parties operated as if Chávez’s and now Maduro’s elections were aberrations, and choosing instead to engage in street actions to undermine the government. These actions betray a belief that the majority of the population is incapable of making informed decisions and leads the opposition to repeatedly reject the outcome of national elections, insisting that the elections must be rigged even though the opposition won in the National Assembly and in several important mayoral campaigns.

Fear as a Unifying Factor

An important element of the opposition discourse centers on fear. This fear is reinforced by the fact that most people tend to operate in a self-imposed echo chamber, receiving news from sources that affirm their views and socializing with a social circle of like-minded people. Fear is evident over the loss of status, the empowerment of the poor, people of color, and more recently, fear of Cubans purportedly operating in Venezuela.

Residents in neighborhoods that have been barricaded are told that the barriers are needed to protect the community from marauding bands of government supporters, mostly motorizados (people on motorbikes), the riot police, the National Guard, or the Avispas Negra, (Cuban commandos) allegedly operating in Venezuela. Motorizados have been demonized and even racialized by the opposition since most individuals who purchase cheap Asian motorcycles are from lower socioeconomic sectors and tend to be people of color.

Fear of Cuba

The opposition has made fear of Cuba a centerpiece of recent protests, actually holding a march in Caracas against Cuba’s purported interference in governmental decision-making in Venezuela. Maduro is represented as a puppet of Fidel and Raul Castro. The opposition insists that Cuban soldiers dress as Venezuelan guardsmen in order to confront protestors and remove barricades. Opposition social media goes so far as to report that Cuban sharpshooters are behind the killings of students and National Guards. The Cuban presence has also been racialized: opposition members have told journalists that they can spot a Cuban becasue they are “darker” than the average Venezuelan soldiers.

Since the Chávez election, Venezuela has developed multilateral relations with Cuba and the island participates in Petro Caribe, where oil is provided at international prices but on long-term credit terms. Cuban doctors and health professionals deliver services to previously excluded sectors in Venezuela. Long accustomed to functioning within the U.S. sphere of influence, the opposition objects to relations with Cuba. The use of Cuba harkens back to Cold War rhetoric and promotes internal cohesion within the opposition. The opposition maintains that without Cuba, Chávez and Maduro would not have been capable of winning elections.

Conclusion

By seeking Maduro’s ouster through undemocratic means, the opposition has once again found itself at a political dead end. There is no evidence that broad sectors of society, especially the urban poor who provide the most support to the government, have joined the protests initiated by middle- and upper-class sectors. The opposition’s claims that armed groups patrol barrios to prevent the poor from protesting betray their inability to see beyond their own set of class interests. This position highlights their refusal to consider the possibility that Venezuela has changed and that people from other social sectors are capable of making informed decisions. After this round of violent protests, it will be difficult for the right wing opposition to reaffirm its support for democratic principles or promote their ability to unite all of Venezuela.

Miguel Tinker Salas is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at Pomona College.