Venezuela: Behind the media lies

Marcha chavista
PSUV supporters mobilise against vicious counter-revolutionary attacks

Opposition violence wreaks death and destruction in renewed coup attempt

Venezuela’s bourgeois opposition has once again taken to the streets in violent scenes of chaos and destruction with the aim of toppling President Maduro and the United Socialist Party (PSUV) government. Since 4 April several of its marches have ended with gangs of right-wing thugs setting up burning barricades and attacking public housing projects, hospitals, schools, health centres, transport systems and government offices. To date at least 31 people have been killed. The imperialist media and privately-owned Venezuelan press dishonestly portray these masked groups as ‘pro-democracy’ protesters facing down repression from the government; inevitably, they completely censor the mass mobilisations by working class supporters of the Bolivarian government. These lies, disseminated across the globe, are designed to provide the ideological framework for what is in reality a coordinated attempt at a right-wing coup.

The protests began after Venezuela’s Supreme Court temporarily assumed the functions of the country’s legislative body, the National Assembly, which is controlled by opposition forces. It had found the National Assembly in contempt of court for allowing three opposition politicians who have been suspended while they are investigated on charges of electoral fraud, to take their seats (see ‘The Venezuelan Supreme Court and the MUD Coalition’s persistent rejection of legality’). The move by the Supreme Court, although completely constitutional, was controversial and was rescinded within days at the request of President Maduro. However, the right-wing ‘Democratic Unity Movement’ (MUD) coalition seized its chance, accusing the court and the government of an attack on democracy. Just days before the Supreme Court decision, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a viciously reactionary two-time presidential candidate and current governor of Miranda state, was banned from holding political office for 15 years for breaking contracting laws and improperly managing fundraising donations. This was the ammunition needed for the opposition to instigate violent street protests, demanding foreign intervention to force a change of government.

A history of opposition sabotage, coups and violence

Since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 and the ensuing gains for the working class ushered in by the Bolivarian revolutionary movement, the reactionary bourgeois opposition has employed a variety of tactics to overthrow the socialist Chavista government and claw back political power. These have included a short-lived coup in 2002, oil lock-outs, a failed recall referendum and several episodes of street violence known as guarimbas. The current protests have many parallels with the opposition’s 2014 Salida campaign which was orchestrated to demand the forced exit of Chavez’s successor President Maduro. Street barricades and violent protests then led to 43 deaths, many at the hands of opposition protesters and Colombian paramilitaries.

Despite winning the majority of seats in the 2015 National Assembly elections, the MUD coalition has been unable to reverse any of the progressive policies of the PSUV government. Last year’s attempt to launch a referendum to recall President Maduro was stalled by delays and mass signature fraud on the part of the opposition. Street violence and destabilisation is the next tactic. The protests are demanding immediate presidential elections despite the fact they are not due until 2018. Sections of the opposition are pledging to remain in the streets until Maduro is forced out. The ‘big lie’ used to whip up support from the middle class and international community is that the government holds power illegally and is a dictatorship. In fact, there have been 20 elections and referendums during the 18 years of the Bolivarian government. While municipal and regional elections were postponed last year due to attacks on the electoral council (CNE) around the recall referendum process, Maduro himself has called for the CNE to set a date for them to be rescheduled as soon as possible.

Belying the media image of peaceful, popular, pro-democracy demonstrations, the opposition protests have wreaked over $140m (US dollars) worth of damage across the country. Targets have included state housing projects, the headquarters of the judiciary, metro and bus stations, ‘Mercal’ subsidised food distribution offices, ‘Barrio Adentro’ public medical clinics, high schools and SUNDEE consumer protection agency offices - all symbols of the Bolivarian revolution’s commitment to serving the working class. On 11 April opposition protestors in Lara state attacked the Ali Primera socialist city commune, shooting dead a 13-year-old boy who lived there. The massively Chavista city had been targeted by opposition protests earlier that day. Ali Primera residents say opposition governor Henri Falcon failed to send in local police to protect them when needed; in addition they accuse the local opposition mayor Alfredo Ramos of supplying rubbish from municipal bin-trucks to the protesters to build barricades.

Protests escalated on 19 and 20 April, as Venezuela celebrated the anniversary of its 1810 declaration of independence from Spain. Tens of thousands of pro-government Chavistas mobilised in four separate marches in Caracas, converging in what is thought to be the biggest anti-imperialist rally in Venezuelan history: it was entirely ignored by the western press. Meanwhile the MUD coalition mobilised its supporters to take over the Francisco Fajardo highway in order to reach working-class, pro-government districts in the west of the capital. National police blocked the demonstrators to prevent the inevitable clashes that would have ensued. In response, opposition protesters set up burning barricades and launched attacks on government buildings, an airbase and food centres. The next day, the Hugo Chavez Maternity and Children’s Hospital in Caracas was attacked. Opposition gangs hurled rocks and other projectiles at the building before setting piles of rubbish ablaze, filling the hospital corridors with smoke. 28 newborn babies had to be evacuated, six needing urgent medical attention. News of this vicious attack was deliberately censored by large sections of the mainstream press; the media that did cover it – only the Telegraph and Daily Mail in Britain – denied the hospital had been targeted, attributing the smoke to tear gas fired by government forces.

The imperialist media have been faithful allies of the opposition. We see little of groups breaking away from opposition marches to attack buildings and set up road blocks, firing explosives and weapons at the police. It is only when the security forces respond with tear gas and arrests that the cameras begin to roll. These photos and videos are re-tweeted and disseminated across global media in an orchestrated campaign, reproduced ad infinitum in the mainstream news without context or challenge - and become the basis for calls for international intervention. The US State Department was quick to issue a statement warning of a response from the ‘international community’ against the ‘criminal repression of peaceful democratic activity’. It was followed by its close ally Colombia, which released a declaration signed by 11 Latin American countries demanding the Venezuelan government ‘ensure the right to peaceful protest’. The statement was backed by Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico – countries where violent repression and extra-judicial killings of journalists, students, campesino peasants and left-wing protesters are rife.

This is war on many fronts. The head of the National Assembly, Julio Borges, has written to major institutions, such as Deutsche Bank, demanding they cease transactions with Venezuela to block the government’s access to international finance. Opposition politicians have tried to portray the tear gas and smoke screens used by the national Bolivarian police as ‘chemical weapons’, maliciously drawing parallels with Syria. Coming just days after the US tomahawk missile launch on Syria, the chemical weapons charge against the Venezuelan security forces is calculated and chilling.

Those behind the opposition protests are concerned with neither democracy nor peace. A number of youth activists arrested during the demonstrations have admitted as much. Guido Rodrieguez, part of the youth section of the Primero Justicia opposition party, confessed to being paid 300,000 bolivars ($70) to commit acts of violence. In a video confession he refers to the opposition march on 8 April, explaining: ‘They proposed that I go to today’s march and burn and vandalise, and that they were going to pay me 300,000 bolivars. And I accepted.’ In other videos, two brothers, Jose and Alejandro Sanchez, accused Primero Justicia secretary, Carmelo Zambrano, of organising the attacks, while naming National Assembly deputies Marialbert Barrios, Jose Guerra, Jorge Millan and Tomas Guanipa as key supporters of the violence. In an attempt to cover its tracks, the opposition claimed that the confessions were extracted under torture and said they had lodged the accusation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. However the ICC denies any such formal complaint.

Primero Justicia has played a leading role in the recent round of protests. Founded by Henrique Capriles and Julio Borges, the party has a history mired in corruption. Between 2009 and 2011 it received more than $114m in undeclared funding from private sources, much of it likely to have come from US agencies well-known for investing in anti-socialist organisations. Between 2002 and 2012, the US Agency for International Development and the US National Endowment for Democracy invested over $100m in opposition groups and organisations in Venezuela.

Coup plans revealed

At the beginning of April, PSUV politician Diosdado Cabello broadcast recordings of conversations incriminating a Venezuelan ex-intelligence service official, Eduardo Vetancourt, in opposition plans to orchestrate a coup. Vetancourt advocated the provocation of violent acts – ‘neighbour against neighbour’ – and reported he was organising a shock force of 98 men who would be paid 2m bolivars each ($500) to create violent disturbances. These would include the ransacking of shops – ‘We want to give the impression to the national and international public that the people are hungry’. Meanwhile a high-ranking army officer, Colonel Zomacal, was to coordinate military participation and provide explosives to create chaos in the streets. Zomacal admitted that violent groups would infiltrate government supporters, whilst military dressed in civilian clothing would join opposition demonstrations, inciting violence on both sides. As he cynically remarked, ‘Some would be able to leave and others will have to die’.

Just as in 2002 and 2014, the opposition is looking to blame deaths during the weeks of protests on government repression. The truth is very different. Of the 31 people known to have been killed by the end of April, five people died at the hands of state security forces. Far from killing with impunity, three police officers and National Guard have been indicted, another charged and arrest warrants for a further 15 have been issued. This is crucial: the Bolivarian government is acting quickly to bring the security personnel responsible for using excessive force to justice.

But it is opposition violence that has been responsible for the majority of the deaths, and they have not been held to account. In addition to the child killed in the assault on the Ali Primera socialist city, eight other people have been killed by opposition protesters directly. In addition, an elderly woman died after falling ill in her apartment in Caracas because opposition road blocks prevented ambulances from reaching her. A police officer was hit and killed by a vehicle driven by opposition protesters, and a National Guard sergeant was shot during protests in Miranda state. A gruesome attack on a bakery at El Valle in Caracas resulted in the shooting of two bakery workers by protesters, eight of whom were subsequently electrocuted on an electrified gate as they tried to break in. The bakery had been supporting the government’s subsidised food distribution initiatives, providing bread to working class areas. Two people died after pro-government marches came under fire from opposition supporters, and official investigations are ongoing into eight deaths in unclear circumstances. Meanwhile assassinations of PSUV activists and politicians have continued: grassroots activist Jacqueline Ortega was shot dead at her home and trade unionist Esmin Ramierez kidnapped and killed in April.

Crisis intensifies

Primero Justicia has called for more demonstrations around the country. Regional co-ordinator Richard Mardo turned reality on its head, accusing the government of ‘looting and burning’, of ‘stealing’ and ‘sowing terror’. Hypocritically, after three weeks of deadly street violence, the MUD staged a march to ‘honour the dead’. White-clad opposition supporters were addressed by a leading opposition figure, Maria Corina Machado, who has repeatedly demanded the removal of President Maduro by force. In 2013 she was exposed as having signed a notorious scheme, the ‘Strategic plan Venezuela’, drawn up by right-wing former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, key leaders of the MUD coalition and the director of USAID for Latin America, Mark Feierstein. The plan’s objectives were to:

  • 'maintain and increase the sabotages that affect public services’;
  • ‘emphasise social problems, provoking social discontent‘;
  • ‘increase problems with supply of basic consumer products’;
  • create ‘situations of crisis in the streets that will facilitate US intervention, as well as NATO forces, with the support of the Colombian government. Whenever possible, the violence should result in deaths or injuries’.

It is clear that the current seemingly spontaneous protests have been carefully orchestrated as part of this ongoing plan.

Despite a crippling economic crisis and the daily battles of trying to construct socialism in an oil dependent, capitalist country still dominated by ruling class interests, Venezuelan revolutionaries continue to rally to the defence of the Bolivarian movement. Just days before the independence day demonstration, National Assembly president Borges incited the Bolivarian armed forces (FANB) to mutiny against the government, releasing a video of four soldiers publicly calling for a military rebellion. In response ‘Plan Zamora’ mobilised 100,000 volunteers of the civilian militia alongside the armed forces in civil-military exercises to guard against the threat of a coup, while Maduro announced the Bolivarian militias will be expanded to incorporate 500,000 volunteers.

The opposition is calling for private companies to cease production in a general strike. In response, workers’ organisations are organising to boycott the lockout, with collectives such as the Popular Movement of Lara vowing to take over and manage factories abandoned by pro-opposition bosses. The situation in Venezuela is critical. Whether the Bolivarian revolution is able to survive this latest destabilisation attempt depends on the continued determination and strength of socialist forces to organise the Venezuelan working class and its allies against a tide of reaction and economic crisis. The choice is stark: continue to defend the PSUV government and President Maduro, or return to the neoliberal brutality that characterised the 1980s and 1990s.

Our role in the imperialist countries must be to stand in solidarity with socialist forces in Venezuela and break the media blockade, exposing the deeply reactionary interests that are served by the current round of protests.

Venezuela Analysis is documenting the circumstances around each death related to the opposition protests and are providing regular updates

Hands off Venezuela!

Sam McGill and Alvaro Michaels

See also: The Guardian takes aim at Venezeula's democracy (Telesur)


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