Venezuelans are no strangers to social conflict. In the fifteen years since Hugo Chávez first took office in 1999, coups, counter-coups, devastating strikes, media wars, massive demonstrations, and violent street clashes have marked the deep divide between supporters and opponents of the late president. Even against this backdrop, the protests that began in early February 2014, claiming at least forty lives in the process, are remarkable.
On the surface, conditions seem ripe for a cross-class mass movement to challenge a government fifteen years in power and showing major signs of weakness. Corruption, inflation, shortages, devaluation, crime, blackouts—all are severe. Yet protests have largely failed to connect with popular sectors, with residents of the sprawling city barrios of Latin America’s most urban country, as even opposition leaders admit. Instead, the protests have remained largely confined to middle-class sectors identified with the opposition. Why, if social and economic conditions have continued to worsen, have barrio residents not significantly taken to the streets to join in these protests?
This is an especially curious dynamic: just before the current cycle of protests began in early February, Venezuela’s streets were teeming with demonstrators in and from barrios. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (2013), which compiles data on protests nationwide, reported over 4400 demonstrations in 2013—twelve per day on average. Of these, only six percent demanded political rights such as freedom of the press, transparency, and due process. Most of the protests were concerned with social and economic rights such as labor issues, insecurity, prison conditions, housing shortages, and education. The question, therefore, is not why popular sectors have failed to take to the streets, but why they left them when this round of protests began?
Responses vary. Government officials argue that barrio residents have no reason to protest because they are loyal to chavismo. For the opposition, fear is what keeps popular sectors from joining the protests en masse—fear of losing increasingly precarious government benefits, or falling victim to pro-government gangs in their midst (Corrales 2014). Analysts meanwhile note that the opposition has failed to forward a credible alternative that would justify the risks of mobilizing against a government that has delivered in the past and may again in the future.
Each explanation has some grounding in fact, but the longer view, which looks beyond the Chávez era and instead toward the origins and development of democracy in Venezuela, suggests another reason for why barrios have largely refrained from partaking in these protests. Since 1958, when Venezuela’s last dictatorship fell in a civilian-military coup that ushered in electoral democracy, oppositional movements seeking to oust legitimately elected governments extra-institutionally have historically failed to capture popular support. This was true in the uncertain days of the transition to democracy, when several attempted coups aimed at reinstating military rule were met by street barricades and demonstrations by popular sectors. This was true in the 1960s when, despite generalized violence by the state against leftist guerrillas seeking power through armed struggle, popular sectors flaunted guerrilla calls to abstain from voting and instead flocked en masse to the polls. And this was true in 1992, when Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez failed to garner popular support in a coup seeking to oust an elected government that just three years earlier had responded to massive street protests over structural adjustment policies—the so called 1989 Caracazo—in a massacre that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead.
Popular rejection of (real or perceived) insurrectional movements did not automatically equate to support for particular governments. But by participating in the electoral process, the popular sectors registered their support for the democratic system that granted elected governments legitimacy on the one hand and on the other, once in power, responsibility to respond to popular demands, whether made institutionally or otherwise.
The historical record is replete with contentious, often illegal street protests seeking not the ouster of, but engagement with, the government. In 1969, just months after the first peaceful handover of power to an elected opposition party in Venezuelan history, and following the formal defeat of leftist guerrillas, residents of the 23 de enero neighborhood in downtown Caracas—a massive complex of public-housing high rises and squatter settlements—set up barricades in protest over severe water shortages, eventually securing compliance from authorities. In the 1980s, after years of neglect, residents hijacked and held over a dozen public-service vehicles for a month until the government agreed to a complete overhaul of the neighborhood (Velasco 2010). And in 1989, when barrio residents massively took to the streets during the Caracazo, it was not to seek the overthrow of the government but to register deep opposition to neoliberal reforms.
All of which suggests that, since 1958, what popular sectors in Venezuela have defended is not governments but the right to elect governments, and once in power, the right to hold them accountable, institutionally or extra-institutionally, to their responsibilities to the electorate. Movements and protests that undermine the vote by challenging not the performance but the legitimacy of elected authorities have historically fared poorly. Why have barrio residents left the streets during this cycle? Because they perceive these protests as insurrectional, a qualitatively different motive of protest despite similarities in the modalities of protest—contentious street actions—that have long formed part of their standard repertoire of democratic engagement. For popular sectors, the vote confers powerful legitimacy to elected governments but it also imposes heavy responsibilities to respond to popular demands when made toward rather than against the state. Insofar as they perceive this as an insurrectional movement that dismisses the vote as a primary locus of popular expression in a democracy, they are likely to continue to remain absent from the streets.
Alejandro Velasco is an historian and Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Corrales, Javier. 2014. “Venezuela’s Middle Ground.” Foreign Policy, April 22, accessed January 29, 2015.
Velasco, Alejandro. 2010. “‘A Weapon as Powerful as the Vote’: Urban Protest and Electoral Politics in Venezuela, 1978–1983.” Hispanic American Historical Review 90, no. 4: 661–95.
Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social). 2013. “Tendencias de la Conflictividad Social en Venezuela en Julio 2013,” accessed January 29, 2015.