The streets appeared normal at the 24th Street BART Plaza just before 5 p.m. that Friday evening, when a group of people began setting up the big yellow and blue banners with the phrases: “Stop U.S. coup plots against Venezuela” and “We support Venezuela & President Maduro!”
It was Jan. 25, and the ANSWER Coalition—which in the words of organizer Gloria La Riva is “anti-imperialist and one hundred percent opposed to U.S. aggression, blockade and war”—was marshaling a protest against what it has called a coup d’etat organized by the U.S. government against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
After organizers and speakers addressed the crowd through the microphone, the protest—promoted with the hashtag #HandsOffVenezuela—walked through the streets of the Mission, with chants of “Venezuela si, Yankee no!” and “What do we want? U.S. out! When do we want it? now!”
Although the marchers were enthusiastic, there were people in the surrounding crowd that disagreed with what was being protested. As the #HandsOffVenezuela protest was setting up, there was already a group of Nicaraguans with a big blue banner that read “SOS Nicaragua,” who opposed the #HandsOffVenezuela crowd. SOS Nicaragua is a movement that began in April of 2018 when Nicaraguans (mainly students and young people) took to the streets to protest President Daniel Ortega’s Social Security reforms. SOS Nicaragua views its struggle as one in solidarity with the people of Venezuela who are also anti-Maduro.
As the march made its way through the Mission, there were moments when people screamed at the protestors, expressing their disagreement with the demonstration (Maduro’s government is highly controversial and Venezuelans everywhere are polarized in support and opposition to it).
The march, which was dubbed an “emergency,” is a reaction to events last week, where Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly (Venezuela’s legislative branch), proclaimed himself interim president of Venezuela. Guaidó, a member of the centrist political party Popular Will, cited the articles 233, 333, and 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution to justify his claim to the presidency.
This came after the United States, the Organization of American States, and the 14 countries of the Lima Group proclaimed that Venezuela’s elections on May 20, 2018, which saw Maduro re-elected to another term as president, were in fact unconstitutional.
The Jan. 25 march was centered specifically on the topic of American imperialism, with protesters arguing that the election of Maduro was democratic, and calling the actions of Guaidó a coup d’etat, secretly orchestrated by the United States.
“I am here supporting so there is a democratic process,” said Carolina Morales, a Venezuelan who has been residing in the U.S. for 18 years who attended the protest. “If the people want to complain, they have to wait until the next election.”
There were others who opposed Maduro and expressed their discontent with the elections. Edgar Mota, who left Venezuela in 2007 after protesting the oil industry under the government of Hugo Chávez, said that many of those who oppose Maduro didn’t vote so as to not legitimize the elections, which they saw as fraudulent, and also because various opposition leaders were jailed, barred or exiled, according to Reuters.
It is true that the American government has expressed interest in Maduro being deposed, as the Trump administration has said, but opinions in America are as divided as those in Venezuela.
People like La Riva, who was born in New Mexico and is an avid follower of Hugo Chavez, feel that the opposition in Venezuela is being manipulated by the U.S. government.
“They are being used, they are puppets,” she said. “The U.S. doesn’t really care about them. But they [the opposition leaders] are willing because they are rich and they identify with imperialism.”
This contrasts with how some Venezuelans feel.
“The intervention that Venezuela has right now is Cuban,” Mota said. “And if there is some kind of intervention by the United States and South American countries, it will only be to give legitimate power to those who should have it.”
Another reason for the demonstration on Mission Street is the belief that the media is not truly informing the public. Morales said that “much of news that gets here is just exaggerated,” but clarified that “it is true that there is an economic crisis. The people have it hard, really hard.”
Carlos Garcia, a political asylee originally from the city of San Cristobal in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, explained the difficulty Venezuelans face. “It’s very hard because the local currency is worthless and you can buy practically nothing, however even if the people had it [money], there would be nothing to buy.”
La Riva said she doesn’t consider Maduro to be a dictator, that “Venezuela has had great progress since 2001,” that the opposition “has to step aside,” and that the government has helped the people by constructing two and a half million houses and providing food.
Garcia however, argues that Maduro is illegitimate. “Since Jan. 23, there is a new president, they don’t want to accept it,” Garcia said. “He [Maduro] is a dictator.”
“There are no public services, either there is no water or it comes dirty and the electricity goes every moment.”
The protesters who favor Maduro are against what they call “yankee imperialism,” and the opposition protested against the current intervention of Cuba in Venezuela. Cuba provides Venezuela with medical, military and intelligence aid in exchange for cheap oil.
The marchers argue that the American press is not reporting the truth and is upholding capitalism, while Venezuelans condemn Maduro’s government for suppressing the media and incarcerating the opposition. But if there’s common ground between both sides, it’s that the Venezuelan people are going through hardship, that there is desperation that has grown for years, and that there is a need for action from both the government and military to lift up Venezuela.