Over the last two weeks, the international community has been bombarded with striking images from Venezuela. Those ubiquitous figures embodying our era—young protesters confronting the iron clad repression of an unpopular government—seem to have sprung up in Venezuela.
But, what we are witnessing in Venezuela is not the new Arab Spring, as some would have it. Indeed, Venezuela’s closest comparable event to the Arab Spring began 25 years ago on February 27th, 1989. This historical turning point, popularly known as the Caracazo, began after the signing of an economic program of austerity and privatization recommended by the US-dominated International Monetary Fund.
In response, thousands engulfed the country in riots before being brutally repressed by the government, at that time led by President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Many estimate that this crackdown resulted in the death of over 2,000, mostly poor, Venezuelans.
It was from the ashes of the Caracazo that the Bolivarian Revolution, the movement that would bring former President Hugo Chavez to power, would emerge. The disillusionment with the two-party system that had ruled the country for over half a century was channeled into aspirations for new leadership and a new vision for society.
Chavez delivered on these desires after being elected president by convoking the creation of a new constitution with the mass participation of Venezuelans. His government swung open the doors for the historically oppressed by establishing social programs aimed at reducing poverty and creating new spaces for grassroots organization.
The results of his administration are evident in the statistics: the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that Venezuela’s poverty declined by nearly 50% and extreme poverty by 70% since 2004. From 2006 to 2011, Venezuela moved up seven spots to 73 out of 187 countries in the United Nation’s index of human development.
But how could this be if all we are hearing about is Venezuela’s economic crisis?
Venezuela is certainly not perfect, and it is experiencing economic problems, mainly in the form of an inflation rate that rose to 56% in 2013. However, as a petroleum-exporting country, high inflation is not a new issue.
The current wave of protests is not so much the result of an economic crisis, but rather to a crisis within Venezuela’s opposition movement, which has vigorously resisted the Bolivarian Revolution at every step—most notoriously with the 2002 US-funded coup attempt against Chavez.
Many in the opposition imagined that with Chavez’s death, a year ago on March 5th, the Bolivarian Revolution would fall apart. But they received a rude awakening after losing municipal elections in December by a significant margin.
In response, the opposition’s radical right wing, led by two leaders of the 2002 coup attempt— Leopoldo Lopez and María Corina Machado—decided to break ranks with their moderate counterparts and return to their old tactics of street violence.
Extremist right-wing groups have vandalized free preschools and clinics, burned food trucks, and hung barbed wire in the street with the goal of decapitating Chavista motorcyclists.
While international and social media have done their best to portray these groups as freedom fighters, defending them is becoming increasingly untenable—especially for more moderate sectors of the opposition.
Venezuela’s real freedom-fighters are embodied by the country’s grassroots social movements, such as the Afro-Venezuelan, labor, and women’s movements, who have been the foundation of the country’s advances.
The opposition’s violence, largely centered around Venezuela’s wealthier districts, is yet another attempt to dismiss the aspirations of the country’s majority. We should be thankful that extremist opposition leaders, who draw their lineage from the country’s pre-Chavez ruling parties, no longer control the armed forces, as they did during the Caracazo.
Carlos Martinez is co-author of the book “Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots” and member of The Center for Political Education.
Story by: Carlos Martinez