A Closer Look at Venezuela’s Anti-Government Protesters, a.k.a., The Opposition

From the Series: Protests and Polarization in Venezuela After Chávez

Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters.

Photo by Robert Samet.

In Venezuela, a superficial gloss of the term The Opposition conjures images of right-wing elites who are pulling the strings behind the recent round of anti-government protests. Literally, the term refers to a coalition of political parties that oppose the policies enacted by the ruling United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV), created by late President Hugo Chávez and now led by Nicolas Maduro. Figuratively, it connotes a group of wealthy, light-skinned Venezuelans who live in the affluent areas of Caracas where most of the face-offs with police and the National Guard have occurred. Hence, The Opposition is easily depicted as a group of neoliberal champions who, for greedy and selfish reasons, wish to bring Bolivarian Socialism to an end.

Characterizing the opposition in this way ignores not only who these people actually are but also elides important details of their everyday lives—details which, for many, constitute the frustrating substrate that motivate the protests.

I came to Caracas to conduct ethnographic research on the child-adoption system but circumstance brought me close to several young adults who characterize themselves as members of the opposition and who regularly attend protest marches and street sit-ins. These folks are far from wealthy (or even middle class) and they do not hold strong political allegiances to any party. They are also deeply sympathetic with the goals of Bolivarian Socialism.

What these young people strongly disagree with—indeed, what they despise—is that most of the country’s infrastructure and bureaucracy appear broken, ineffectual, and corrupt. Whether accurate or not, they attribute such failures to a basic lack of competence and accountability on the part of the government, in particular, to Nicolas Maduro and his party, the PSUV.

Under these conditions, certain turns of phrase have begun trending in everyday speech and social media that point to the breakdown of governance. They often invoke the phrases like “Solo en Venezuela” (Only in Venezuela) and “Pero tenemos patria” (roughly, But we have pride in our homeland) in response to things gone wrong. These quips satirize the state’s rhetoric of national solidarity, supposedly forged under socialism, while simultaneously indexing its failures: for example, if there’s no milk or toilet paper on store shelves, don’t stress because tenemos patria. I’ve heard these phrases uttered in response to all manner of events, from the mundane to the hair-raising. Considering some of these phrases gives a better sense of why so many people have taken to the streets.

#Solo en Venezuela,” “#Pero tenemos Patria

I was standing outside of the National Bank of Venezuela waiting to pay a traffic fine when a woman walked by and told my friend that the bank teller had shorted her 300 Bolivares fuertes. She handed the teller 1000 BsF; the teller said that she’d only given him 700; she asked him to recount; he refused; she asked to see the manager; he refused and said she could deposit the 700 BsF or leave. “Solo en Venezuela,” she said to my friend, shaking her head in resignation.

A few weeks ago, a man was shot and killed in his car at 8 a.m. while stuck in traffic on a main boulevard. A motorcyclist attempted to steal his cell phone. The man tried to drive away but was shot through the neck. I read the story while having morning coffee and told my roommate that I was struck by the brazenness of the crime. She responded, “Ay no, es que esas cosas son normal acá. Pero tenemos Patria” (Those things are normal here; but [at least] we have pride in our homeland).

There has been a fire raging on the hillside across the street for the past several hours. The fire is gigantic and is sending up thick spirals of black smoke. It is creeping toward a staircase that leads up the hill to a cable car. It was burning for thirty minutes before the sounds of sirens became audible. A fire truck is now in view down the street but it can’t get here because it is stuck in traffic; cars cannot get out of the way because there is nowhere for them to go. My roommate grabs her cell phone to take pictures. She says she is going to post them to her Twitter account with the hashtag Solo en Venezuela.

Oppositional Thinking

These anecdotes suggest that many protestors who take to the streets are fed up with what they perceive as a broken state. Being shorted a few dollars by a bank teller may not seem like a big deal, but when the refrain “solo en Venezuela” is attached to it, a symbolic link is created between a minor occurrence and other, more spectacular forms of failure. It is as though the same forces that make possible brazen shootings and slow first-responders are likewise responsible for the minor annoyances that individuals experience. When ATM machines don’t work; when you have to pay off yet another police officer; or when you read that another fifty-two bodies turned up in the morgue last night and then say “pero tenemos patria” or “solo en Venezuela,” you have framed these events as equivalents and have attributed to all of them a singular cause—the government. You have also made yourself, and your personal grievance, equal to anyone else’s grievance who might utter the same—and linkages across events and people are made, all flowing in one direction.

Instead of categorizing all protestors as neoliberal elites, it is more accurate to say that they are people frustrated with the current state of affairs, which they attribute to the ruling party. While it is certainly fair to argue about why things in Venezuela have played out such as they have and hence to argue whether or not protestors are correct. But it is not especially productive to presuppose, without empirical data, that the protestors are nothing more than a group of greedy, neoliberal imperialists.