The February Protests and the Unequal Experience of Violence

During the days I am writing this paper, some middle-class neighborhoods in Caracas, like the one where I live, have been taken and blocked by vecinos (neighbors). The practice of blocking the streets in one’s own neighborhood as a way of protesting against the government is very unpopular among most Venezuelans (León 2014); these demonstrations have followed the burst of massive student protests that became highly visible on February 12.

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Barricades in Urbanización Caurimare, April 3, 2014. Photo by my sister, Marianela Zubillaga.

Just over a month before the protests began, an important precedent had aroused rage, grief, and fear among the middle classes. On January 6, the murder of ex-Miss Venezuela and young actress Monica Spear during an armed robbery shocked the country. Spear’s husband Henry Berry was also killed. Both were executed in front of their five-year-old daughter. who was injured but not killed, as they drove home from their family Christmas vacation. Spears represented all that is precious to many Venezuelans who saw this as a case of the Good annihilated by the merciless Venezuelan Evil: el hampa (the underworld). The Berry-Spear murders were especially shocking for the middle classes because, as Boris Muñoz (2013) points out, it could have been any family. It showed the helplessness that characterizes the lives of Venezuelans in these times of revolution. Violence, crime, and the overwhelming sense of helplessness are some of the repeated motives of the protests that began in February. 

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“We would like to see the GNB (Bolivarian National Guard) attacking el hampa (the underworld) with the same hatred that they attack the students.” Photo by Yana Stainova in Los Palos Grandes, Caracas, April 2014.

However, if the Berry-Spear murders aroused such indignation, a simple analysis of crime statistics shows that most victims of urban violence are young men from the barrios. Recent victimization studies show that ninety-five percent of homicide victims are men (Codesarme 2012), and the majority (eighty-four percent) come from disadvantaged barrios (INE 2010). This victimization has been sustained over a long period of time in Caracas (Sanjuán 1999), although that is not to say that the middle classes are unaffected. Nevertheless, it remains an important fact that the majority of victims of homicide come from the barrios: they have long been victimized, and still are. Though violence affects everyone, it does not affect us all in the same way; it varies according to class and geographic location. This variation perhaps tells us something about why those most affected by violence have not joined protests that have called for a solution to it.

The quotidian character of barrio residents’ victimization became clear to my colleagues and me as we conducted ethnographic research on a ceasefire pact negotiated by women assembled in “peace commissions” in Catuche, a barrio in Caracas (Zubillaga et al. 2013). Every one of the thirteen women we interviewed suffered a direct loss: one woman’s son and nephew were shot to death; another had lost two of her young sons to gun violence; yet another had lost not only her son, but also five cousins, two uncles, and two brothers. The losses and mourning go back at least two-and-a-half decades. This chronic lack of justice is intertwined with resignation, the pain of mourning, a rage that permanently seeks private revenge, and—in the extraordinary case of these women—the will to stop the killings through negotiation and dialogue. 

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A working session in Catuche. Photo by John Souto.

In January, during the commotion linked to the Berry-Spear murders, María, one of the women who had lost her son to murder in 1999 and who was still waiting for justice, told me: “All this muddle for this actress, and here every week a youngster dies and nobody says a word.” I could hear the bitterness associated with the historical lack of recognition of their grief. These common experiences of social neglect provide a clue in explaining why people from the barrios have not joined the protests in large numbers.

This kind of violence has a long history and many barrio residents don’t believe that the Bolivarian government is necessarily responsible for it, nor do they think the government can fix it. When speaking with these women about the causes of violence, they attributed it to the lack of values and deficits in family raising and education (Hanson and Smilde 2013). In this common-sense narrative about violence, families are held responsible for violence rather than the state—families, not the chronic lack of justice; not the evident police corruption; not the lack of opportunities for youth; not the massive availability of handguns; and certainly not the militarization of public security that has created new social problems, such as the prison crisis due to overcrowded prisons (Zubillaga and Antillano 2013). If the state is not viewed as responsible, there is little reason to demand that state actors do something about it.

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A view from Catuche nowadays. Photo by Manuel Llorens.
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“There is no milk, [but] there are bullets.” The graffiti is an ironic statement that contrasts food shortages in Venezuela with the overabundance of gun violence. Photo by Yana Stainova in Los Palos Grandes, Caracas, April 20.

The Berry-Spear case helped catalyze the current protests because it allowed elite sectors to take demands for citizen security to the streets. If it is true that the steady expansion of violence has created social unrest, it is also true that poor and working-class people from the barrios have long suffered disproportionately from such violence, and that the state and the sectors now protesting violence have long turned a blind eye. The spectacular media coverage of the Berry-Spear murders, in contrast to the historical neglect of the daily murders in the barrios, prevents lower-class residents from identifying with the protests. However, most victims of violence live in barrios and the thousands of deaths that take place there each year do not receive the same attention. Citizen security is one of the most basic and deepest obligation that the Bolivarian state owes to its people. Anyone can die from a gunshot while coming home from the holidays, but more often, these gunshots fall in the barrios, killing the young men that inhabit these spaces.

[I am grateful to Rebecca Hanson for comments and proofreading, and to Yana Stainova for the beautiful pictures she took for this text.]

Verónica Zubillaga is Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela.

References

Codesarme. 2012. “Sentido e Impacto del Uso de Armas de Fuego en Venezuela.” Universidad Nacional Experimental de la Seguridad.

Hanson, Rebecca, and David Smilde. 2013. “Who Gets the Blame for Crime in Venezuela? Citizen Security and Public Perceptions, part I.” Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, October 9. 

Instituto National de Estadística (INE). 2009. “Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción de Seguridad Ciudadana 2009.” Instituto Nacional de Estadística, República Bolivariana de Venezuela.

León, Luis Vicente. 2014. “¿Dialogar o no Dialogar?” Prodavinci, April 9.

Muñoz, Boris. 2014. “El País del Sálvese Quien Pueda. Sobre el Asesinato de Mónica Spear y Henry Berry.” Prodavinci, January 7.

Sanjuán, Ana María. 1999. “Estudio Sobre los Indicadores de la Criminalidad y la Delincuencia en Venezuela.” Mimeografiado. Programa de Seguridad y Convivencia Ciudadana/BID. Caracas.

Zubillaga, Verónica, and Andrés Antillano. 2013. “Plan Patria Segura: a Predictable Failure.” Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, June 21.

Zubillaga, Verónica, Manuel Llorens, Gilda Núñez, and John Souto. 2013. Acuerdos Comunitarios de Convivencia ante la Violencia Armada. Amnesty International.