Any viable solution to the current crisis in Venezuela cannot pass over the origins of the political violence that has intensified over the recent past and now overshadows other national issues such as economic problems and delinquency. The opposition and much of the media in Venezuela and nearly all of the international media hold the government exclusively responsible for the nearly one hundred resultant deaths. According to this narrative, the sequence that results in violence is unmistakable: first peaceful marches followed by brutal government repression and then the reactive excesses by a few belligerent break-away demonstrators. Those civilians who engage in violent actions are sometimes labeled Chavistas or infiltrados, whose function is to discredit the protests. Opposition political leaders, according to this version, often attempt to reason with the few belligerent protestors to convince them to desist from engaging in violence.

Ample evidence places in doubt the veracity of this interpretation of what is happening on the ground. The facts point in a different direction, namely that there is an articulation of various types of protest:

  1. The lines between the peaceful legal protests, the peaceful illegal protests (such as the blocking of traffic), and the violent protests are not clearly drawn. Actually, few of the protests are legal since most involve blocking traffic, sometimes by means of fires that extend from one end of the street to the other. At what point does one type of protest end and the other begin? At what point on the continuum can the protesters be considered infiltrados?
  2. Some opposition strategists talk of the “Ukrainian manual” in which the combination of various types of protests succeeded in toppling a government.
  3. Most of the protests take place in municipalities governed by the opposition; the municipal police force does nothing to impede or attempt to control them.
  4. The opposition repeatedly calls “peaceful” marches that are bound to lead to violent confrontation. On numerous occasions they call marches to reach downtown Caracas, knowing full well that they will be forcefully blocked by the government out of fear of a repetition of April 11, 2002, when such a protest erupted in violence leading to the overthrow of Chávez. In recent days, they have called for demonstrations in front of Caracas’ Carlota air force base, even though it has been the target of numerous attacks by hooded protesters, resulting in a number of casualties. The predictability of violence in these cases would appear to shed light on the opposition’s dubious intentions.
  5. Some members of the opposition have manifested a degree of intolerance and fanaticism that equals that of fringe groups on the right in the United States and Europe. Their behavior and expressions of hatred for the Chavistas can be gleaned from countless social media posts as well as from everyday conversations. Their attitudes lend credibility to the claim that those protesters who engage in violence belong to the opposition.
  6. Another indication that violence is perpetrated by members of the opposition and is not of an isolated nature is that it dates back to the early years of Chávez’s rule and has been repeatedly employed. Incidents of this nature occurred prior to the April 2002 coup, following the failed general strike of 2002–2003 (including bomb explosions at the Colombian and Spanish embassies in Caracas), an abortive paramilitary incursion in Caracas in May 2005, following the announcement of the non-renewal of the television concession for Radio Caracas in 2007, immediately following Maduro’s election in 2013, and during the four months of “guarimba” in 2014. The notion that the violence carried out by demonstrators is a spontaneous response to repression overlooks the historical context.

By presenting the narrative that the opposition-perpetrated violence is a spontaneous response to repression, the media (as well as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church) is doing a disservice to the cause of national reconciliation and stability while encouraging the radical currents of the opposition.

For their part, President Maduro and other top Chavista leaders have failed to persuasively clarify the relationship between these different types of protest and instead they focus on the violence perpetrated by the opposition. Little is said of the illegal nature of non-violent protests that involve the blocking of traffic. Nor do Maduro and other Chavista leaders emphatically explain why the marches are not allowed to reach downtown Caracas. These shortcomings give credibility to the opposition’s narrative, specifically its claim that a small fringe (possible consisting of infiltrados) is alone responsible for the street violence.

National reconciliation requires concessions on both sides. Anti-government leaders, for their part, need to explicitly repudiate the violence by recognizing the culpability of protesters who are acting on behalf of the opposition. For this reason, they need to modify their slogan of “liberation of political prisoners” to make clear that they are not defending those who engage in violence. In addition, the opposition needs to cease calling street protests that are conducive to confrontations, disruptions and violence. Finally, the municipal governments controlled by the opposition need to promote the coordination of efforts that include the local police, the National Bolivarian Police, and the National Guard not only to counter violent protests, but peaceful illegal ones as well.

By Steve Ellner, Latin American Perspectives


  1. You don’t mention elections, Steve. At its root this situation is caused by a government that unconstitutionally postponed two elections and now is unconstitutionally calling a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the rules so that the 80% who don’t support them can’t thrown them of office. Wouldn’t a better way to stop the violence and promote national reconciliation be to simply fulfill constitutionally established elections and call off the unconstitutional Constituent Assembly?

    1. David Smile, you are repeating the opposition script. How can elections be a problem for the Bolivarian Socialism when there has been at least one elction per year in the last 18 years. The government did not postpone any elections. The only election that was postponed by the Supreme Electoral Council was the governors elections. The reson being that the opposition was too busy messing up with signatures for a referendum that was called by them too late and did not fulfil the requirements. It is enough of repeating simple statements we need proper politics not only for Venezuela but for everything and everyone. The Constituent Assembly cannot be unconstitutional when it is written in the constitution in three articles explaining exactly how to go about it. What is unconstitutional is the plesbicite the opposition is calling…The problem is not lack of elections, the problem is that the opposition cannot win any because they do not have a project suitable for the country.

    2. Those elections are on schedule, municipalities on December 2017, governorships and presidential on 2018, but still the opposition persist in violence.
      Far more the reasons for a Constitutional Assembly is a democratic way to solve the issues that has been pressing Venezuela. Never violence but votos. Sit down on the table and agree on the substance.

  2. The article leaves the impression that some type of national agreement might be facilitated if the opposition were to transform its protest strategy toward a more civil version. But it takes two to tango. No mention is made of what the government needs to do to produce national reconciliation, whether in the face of violent or non-violent protests.

    1. There is a logic behind the idea that a national agreement can be facilitated if the opposition were to transform its protest strategy. The logic is that they could do proper politics instead of comploting about how to get rid of Chavism through violent tactics. They had the chance in the national assembly but instead of doing any work for the country and become politically strong to win the presidential elections next year they wasted everything by beating on chaos and death. It is not up to the government it is up to the Venezuelans that can vote for them. But if you repeat the script of the opposition you would blame the president for everything.

  3. Both comments (David’s and Ralph’s) are well taken. My piece was not intended to analyze the errors and shortcomings of both sides. It was exclusively focused on opposition protests. In previous statements for Venezuela Dialogue and elsewhere I have made reference to hard-line positions taken by the government that impede national dialogue. One (which Miguel also mentioned in his most recent post) was the decision to strip Henrique Capriles (“inhabilitar”) of his right to participate in upcoming elections on grounds of alleged corruption in his state of Miranda. Regardless of whether the accusations are accurate, the decision was obviously made for political reasons.

    The discussion of the National Assembly (ANC) is a separate issue. Regardless of the cogency of the arguments against it, the ANC proposal does not justify the political violence.

    1. Steve

      “The discussion of the National Assembly (ANC) is a separate issue. Regardless of the cogency of the arguments against it, the ANC proposal does not justify the political violence”

      on contraire – subversion of constitution by Executive branch is one of the top reasons for protests (violent or not) – how else are the people of Venezuela are supposed to restore their constitutional rights? Protests is the only tool left for people whose government stripped them of all other political means of influence (meaning corrupted courts and invalidated national assembly)

      Do you understand that through basic economic mismanagement (strict price and exchange controls) the gov is starving it’s own population (19% avg weight loss in 70% of population) – do you have any soul left standing up for that government?!

      Kids are starving and dying from lack of basic care …. and that will forever be a stain on consciousness of anyone who defends this government.

  4. Venezuela can not be considered a dictatorship in spite of the violation of democratic norms and procedures. One has to be careful as to where you draw the line between democracy and dictatorship. If you’re not careful, the U.S. may be thrown in the latter category. After all, where in the world does the candidate who gets nearly 3 million less votes than his rival get to be elected president? The Chavista governments have committed their fair share of errors. I’m the first to recognize that. But those errors have to be placed in a context, even while you don’t justify them. Since 2001 the opposition has declared war on the government and has done everything possible to overthrow it. Few times in history has an elected government faced such aggression on so many fronts (church, foreign powers, the national and international media, the business sector and the entire political opposition) over such an extended period of time. War and democracy are not compatible. This is not to justify the government’s errors but to provide a context to understand why the errors were committed. For example, the Chavista slogan “Unity, Unity and more Unity” is a recipe for sectarianism and clientelism, but is the result of facing a ruthless enemy with enormous resources. CONCLUSION: both sides share a degree of responsibility for the mess. In order to avoid another Syria (which is a definite possibility) leaders on both sides have to have the maturity to sit down and talk (without pre-existing demands). And foreign actors, rather than exacerbate the polarization which is what the White House, Almagro, and so many others are doing should insist on negotiations.That’s the only solution.

  5. Steve, negotiations have been tried several times as i am sure you are aware. However at this point you dont seem to understand that in order to negotiate both parties must have some kind of lever of power behind them. Oposition was stripped from any political power, so they have no choice but to rely on popular power (protests) – otherwise there is no ground for negotiations. In this light consider your advice to oposition of stopping protests as a prerequisite to negotiations – that’s akin to advizing one party to give up their entire leverage before comming to negotiating table.

    The reason why it appears as if you are defending the gov is because you falesly claim that oposition has any role in causing current humanitarian crisis (in fact you seem to be implying they have equal if not greater role). Every single economist already layed blame for econimic mismenagement on price and fx controls – which are solely enforced and exasurbated by executive branch. Who was in charge for the past 18 years, the oposition?

    By obfuscating the real couse of the problem you are prolonging the suffering of Venezuelan citizens – and hence you carry responsibility for their suffering

    1. Larry, I don’t think your argument of having a balance of power between the opposition and the government is applicable to the problems in the country due to lack of political dialogue. As you said there have been several attempts to dialogue called by the government and attended by some members of the opposition. In the last attempt some agreements were reached with people like Ramon Muchacho, the mayor of Chacao. These agreements were scorned by the extreme faction of the opposition even accusing Muchacho of treason forcing him and others to back off and kick the table to follow the radical route proposed by them, to put pressure on the government to resign or call for general elections as soon as possible. Also opposition was not stripped from political power they did that to themselves. Since the first moment they took possession of the National Assembly with their majority of seats they took on an attitude of confrontation towards the other ruling bodies of the country. The first thing they did to strip themselves of power was to swear in deputies that were found guilty of buying votes and not only that but they refuse stubbornly until now to dismiss them through the correct procedures. Instead they wrote a letter saying they were not more part of the assembly. The first proclaim they did in the National Assembly was to get rid of the president in 6 months. They tried to pass few laws that were seen as taking the progress of the people backwards something that is not allow in the Bolivarian National Constitution and also did not make them popular with the humble people that benefit from the Housing Mission and other achievements of the socialist government. Another bold law they passed was the “Amnesty” that was about liberating any of their people accused and condemned of any crime from the beginning of the Bolivarian government and until years to come in the future over passing any judgements and decisions taken by the judiciary system. In another one they tried to privatise the housing mission arguing that they wanted to give the property title to the people to make them home owners but the housing mission is about securing homes for families and the home are not seen as an asset of capital value.
      “that’s akin to advizing one party to give up their entire leverage before coming to negotiating table”
      are you saying that paralyzing the whole country, stopping the food to be delivered, burning public resources and burning people alive is a weight the opposition needs to be heard?
      If that is the case, you should know about the economic war another leverage of the opposition to put pressure on the government. Have you not seen Julio Borges travelling to countries specially to ask financial institutions not to invest in Venezuela?

      1. Teresa

        “The first thing they did to strip themselves of power was to swear in deputies that were found guilty of buying votes and not only that but they refuse stubbornly until now to dismiss them through the correct procedures”

        I wasn’t aware that “deputies … were found guilty” – could you please point me to a source. I was under impression that there were allegations nothing more. There were no investigation, no trial, no one went to jail – something you would expect to happen if there were any merit to those allegations, don’t you think?

        Now if election of a deputy are proven fraudulent, then at the very least a repeat election in region in question would be held – none of that happened.

        think about it… and get back to me with a link pointing to a trial and conviction of those deputies of fraud.

        1. Larry
          There were videos where the campaign chiefs for the region of those deputies were talking about how they get their voters to vote. I can find them for you. The leaders of the opposition were warned about it and they totally ignored it. They were asked to disown the deputies in the same way they have been sworn in. That is the procedure for their fault. For new elections to happen the opposition needed to follow the first step that is to disown the deputies.

      2. Teresa

        one more point:

        “Have you not seen Julio Borges travelling to countries specially to ask financial institutions not to invest in Venezuela”

        Have you not seen Moduro refuse food and medical humanitarian aid – for a starving population.

        I can defend Borges – money that Gov gets from Investors is proven not to reach population – they go to paying bondholders, buying tear gas and other equipment for the national guard, keeps army generals happy – i.e. investors’ money only prolongs that Gov in power. Considering that starvation is getting worse you would have to be a pretty horrible human being to wish for that Gov to stay in power a second longer. (if you need proof that money given to Gov doesn’t improve people’s plight – just look at how much money Gov has borrowed over that last few years from China/Russia, and with Oil prices being steady since 2014 – how come starvation increasing?)

        Maduro could’ve alleviated humanitarian crisis in a second by accepting humanitarian aid or diverting money from bond holders and renegotiating debt (something he will have to do anyway very soon).

        Think for a second that you, a progressive, defending Gov that prioritizes paying capitalist bond holders over feeding it’s own starving children…. how do you sleep at night?

        1. Larry
          I don’t know where you are coming from but your position is very bias. First Venezuelans are not starving. There is an economic war where staple diet products that are produced by people who want to impose the capitalist system in Venezuela withdraw their products to sell them at higher prices. There is plenty of vegetables and fruits produced in the country. The government of Maduro this year dedicated 72% of the net income to Venezuela for social investment. I don’t know where you get your information from but you need more research.
          The humanitarian aid that you are talking about is one of the leverage the opposition uses to get power. They want to impose it on Venezuela as a return to the US for the investment they do to their campaigns. It is a way for the US to intervene in Venezuela in the same way they did in Haiti. So if you know anything about Haiti and you have a heart you wouldn’t like that to happen to any country in the world.

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