Professor Julia Buxton. Souce: http://spp.ceu.hu/
Friday, 28th February, 2014
Amid a storm of angry objections by Venezuelan students at her talk in London, and a torrent of violent twitter abuse, renowned Venezuelan expert Julia Buxton maintained that the current anti-government protests are doing nothing to advance the opposition’s cause. Indeed, the protests have divided the opposition into moderate and radical factions. Buxton was speaking to an engaged audience in Glasgow, Scotland, elaborating on her recent influential article, “The Real Significance of the Student Protests.”
The reaction to the demonstrations has been remarkable. Sensationalist reports of gangs of state-sponsored paramilitaries on motorbikes shooting up middle-class neighborhoods and (faked) pictures of tortured civilians have flooded the internet. What is ironic, for Buxton, is that the violence needed no exaggeration. Fourteen people on both sides have been killed already and much of Caracas is ablaze. The Mesa De la Unidad Democrática (MUD) had recently been making positive inroads into the Chavista majority. However, Buxton contends that the protests have increased public disillusionment with the opposition, and has, ultimately, proved detrimental to their cause. Recent opinion polls show only 23 percent of Venezuelans support the protests.
Student movements tend to be progressive. However, these students are primarily from the elite, private universities. They are English-speaking and highly westernized. Buxton sees them as defending their privilege, neoliberalism and the ancien regime that they are too young to remember. The students have expertly used social media to focus international attention to their cause: Venezuela has the 4th highest twitter penetration in the world. Yet, in emphasizing the international, the students have overlooked domestic opinion. The poor majority do not use any social media and are, with good reason, mistrustful of the students. She alleged that the student leaders had been given copious media training and even flown to the US to meet with government officials. Student leader Yon Goicoechea received the $500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2008 for his role in previous anti-government uprisings. This is added to the “hundreds of millions of dollars” in support the opposition has received from Washington since Hugo Chávez's election. This may explain the coordinated, slick media campaign.
While the US was quick to condemn the government (John Kerry claimed their actions were “unacceptable”), Mercosur has stood firmly behind the government. President Fernandez de Kirchner reaffirmed her solidarity with President Maduro. Even the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs placed the blame on the State Department. It would not be in the interests of Brazil or Argentina to see a successful insurrection in Venezuela, as it may destabilize the entire region, (lest we forget the consequences of the 1973 coup in Chile). What is remarkable about the protests, Buxton claims, is the state’s refusal to repress the opposition. She commented on the lenient response from the government. This stands a far cry from the Caracazo in 1989, where the Carlos Andrés Pérez government mowed down thousands of protesters with machine guns.
What Maduro Must Do
It is ironic that the economic downturn and the rise in crime primarily affect the poor and affect the rich students the least, yet it is the opposition that are mobilizing around these issues. Buxton urged Maduro to begin to reconnect with the grassroots of his party and attack the causes of public discontent. Crime should be addressed with wide-ranging prison and judicial reforms, while recentralizing the police and instituting tougher gun control law would reduce violent crime. Meanwhile, she said, Maduro must improve the much-lauded social programs and attack the waste and corruption of the state.
Buxton dismissed the Western media’s apparent outrage over repression and censorship as “complete hypocrisy.” She noted that in her native United Kingdom, 136 students were arrested in 2010 during protests against rising tuition fees while two men were sentenced to four years in jail for posting Facebook messages and one man was sentenced to 16 months for stealing an ice cream during the London Riots. In contrast, Venezuelans are wanted for murders and incitement to violence. Far from the Western media’s depiction, she characterized Venezuela as having “one of the least regulated media sectors in the world”, having only recently brought in “modest reforms” to bar television stations from inciting murder or armed revolution. Nevertheless, opposition leaders such as Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado have had no trouble appearing on television. She characterized Venezuela as a “profoundly democratic society” being forced to split into two polar opposite camps because of the protests, despite the “great diversity of opinions” in the country.
Maduro convened a “peace dialogue” with the right, although Machado and Capriles did not attend. She postulated that it was Capriles’ credibility that was injured by this, not Maduro’s, as the moderate opposition wished to negotiate. Therefore, she predicted, the socialists’ popularity will remain unaffected but the MUD’s may fall, as the lower middle-class (some 20% of the population) may abstain from voting for Capriles, who has been outflanked and undermined from the right. As such, the protests have been a profoundly self-defeating venture, and the opposition has effectively shot itself in the foot.