In recent days, angry anti-government protests have erupted in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. If we are to believe some influential Venezuelan bloggers, the government is sending teams of motorbike-riding death-squads roaming around rich neighbourhoods looking for people to kill. Social media is awash with pictures of children, apparently having been beaten to within an inch of their life by government thugs. This, the New York Times eagerly reports, is making Secretary of State John Kerry “increasingly concerned.” Surely this must be the beginning of a democratic uprising against an authoritarian dictator?
All this does not sit easily with the reaction elsewhere, however. President Morales of Bolivia alleged that, far from being a spontaneous democratic uprising, this was a US-financed coup d'etat which was trying to destroy Hugo Chavez's humanist legacy. Morales went on to say that “on behalf of the Bolivian people, we send our energy and support to the courageous Venezuelan people and president Nicolás Maduro.” President Fernandez de Kirchner sent her solidarity to the President and people of Venezuela in the face of violent attacks on its sovereignty. Similar statements have been made by the Presidents of Ecuador and Nicaragua and even from political parties in Europe. Indeed, Unasur, the Union of South American Nations, has stood firmly behind President Maduro, while even the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs praised the government for its moderation in dealing with violent protesters and castigated the White House for its “misguided policy toward South America.”
But what on Earth has the White House got to do with all this? And why are so many respected international bodies talking about imperialism? You would be forgiven for not knowing, as no New York Times or Washington Post article has revealed the fact that Washington has been funding and training the heads of these protests for at least 12 years. Indeed, the US government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to overthrow the Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorean governments. Those leading the protests, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, are not students, but two of the wealthiest people in South America; Machado is a personal friend of George W. Bush. She was also involved in the last three opposition attempts to overthrow the government: in 2002, 2002-2003 and 2004. In 2002, with the financial, technical and political help of the US government, she and her co-conspirators kidnapped President Hugo Chavez and installed Pedro Carmona as President. He immediately suspended the constitution, sacked all politicians, sacked all judges in the country, suspended human rights, gave himself power to rule by decree, and even changed the name of the country. They were only stopped by a massive revolt, some 25-50 times the size of the current protests, of ordinary, poor Venezuelan citizens.
Prominent among the current protesters are students from Caracas' elite, fee-paying universities, who wish for change in the country. And yet Venezuela has changed enormously since Hugo Chavez's election in 1998. Poverty was reduced by 50%, extreme poverty by 72%. The bottom 40% of Venezuela's population have seen their slice of the economic pie expand by nearly half and those in the economic percentile 40-70 have also seen their incomes rise. How did the government manage this? By destroying the middle class? In fact, those in percentiles between 70-90 have seen their comparative income stay virtually the same. It is only the top 10% of Venezuelan society, and in particular, the top 1% who have seen their incomes fall. It is from these groups that these young Venezuelans disproportionately come from. In 1998, Venezuela was the most unequal country in the most unequal region in the world, with some of the highest proportions of private jet ownership and child malnutrition in the world. Thanks to massive social programs, a national health service was created and UNESCO hailed Venezuela's achievements in reducing illiteracy. Very little of this has ever been reported by the media.
But the government was far from winning universal support. Chief among their adversaries were the Venezuelan middle and upper classes, who use their power in business, finance and the media to put pressure on the government. Venezuela still faces a host of pressing social and economic problems, some of which have been highlighted by protesters as key issues. But to characterize these protests as democratic movements against an illegitimate government is altogether misleading. Let us not forget that Maduro's party has won 18 elections since 1998, elections which have drawn near-universal praise for their fairness, with Jimmy Carter stating that Venezuelan elections are “the best in the world.”This latest attempt at revolution can only be seen as an attempt by the upper-classes to regain their power lost under the Chavez government.
It turns out those death squads and the pictures of tortured children were manipulated, as were our emotions. But triflings such as this matter little to the media, who will continue to bang the drum for regime change. They are unlikely to get their wish. For all its faults, and there are many, the majority are standing behind the government, with only 23% of Venezuelans supporting the protests (not that one would guess this given the media coverage) .Tread carefully through the minefield of Venezuelan politics.