In reacting to the protests in Venezuela, the biggest Western media outlets have drafted a charmingly simple narrative of the situation there. According to this story, peaceful protesters have risen up against a government because of shortages, high inflation, and crime. They have taken to the streets and been met with brutal repression from a government that also controls the media.
It doesn't take much digging to take down this narrative. First, while there have been some peaceful opposition marches, the daily protests are anything but peaceful. In fact, about half of the daily death toll from Venezuela that we see in the media - now at 41 -- are actually civilians and security forces apparently killed by protesters. A much smaller fraction are protesters alleged to have been killed by security forces. As for the media, state TV in Venezuela has only about 10 percent of the TV audience; the New York Times recently had to run a correction for falsely reporting that opposition voices are not regularly heard on Venezuelan TV. They are on TV, even calling for the overthrow of the government - which has been the announced goal of the protest leaders from the beginning. These are not like the protests last year in Brazil, or the student protests from 2011-13 in Chile, which were organized around specific demands.
Of course, the increased shortages and rising inflation over the past year have had a political impact on Venezuela, but it is striking that the people who are most hurt by shortages are decidedly not joining the protests. Instead, the protests are joined and led by the upper classes, who are least affected.
In fact, the protests really got going largely as a result of a split within the Venezuelan opposition. Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez and then Maduro in the last two presidential elections, was considered too conciliatory by the more extreme right, led by Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado. They decided that the time was ripe to topple the government through street protests. Both were involved in the 2002 military coup against then President Chávez; María Corina Machado even signed the decree of the coup government that abolished the elected National Assembly (AN), the Constitution, and the Supreme Court.
Don't get me wrong: I am not defending the jailing of López or the Venezuelan AN decision to expel Machado, just as I would not defend the French government's prosecution of far-right politicians for Holocaust denial, or the proposed banning of the fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece. But we should be honest about who these Venezuelan opposition leaders are and what they are trying to do.
The strategy of Venezuela's extreme right is to make the country ungovernable, so as to gain by force what they have been unable to win in 18 elections over the past 15 years. It is clear from the statements of Brazil's former president Lula da Silva and current president Dilma Rousseff that they have no illusions about what is going on in Venezuela. It is now 50 years since Brazil's coup brought in the military dictatorship that put them in prison, but they can remember what a coup looks like. So, too, can the other governments of South America, who have made similar statements. But they have also offered to mediate between the government and any opposition leaders who are willing to participate in a dialogue. This process looks encouraging so far. Let's hope so; that is the only way forward in Venezuela.
This was published in Folha de São Paulo (Brazil) on April 13, 2014.