Venezuela Charges Low-Ranking Guardsmen in High-Level Drug Deal

Venezuelan authorities charged four National Guard members with plotting to traffic a load of cocaine to Mexico, but the low ranks of the officers point to the government’s reluctance to tackle corruption higher up the chain of command…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Whither the Venezuelan Opposition?

It’s been a year to the day since Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro took office. The anti-government protests that began in early February and left dozens dead and hundreds injured over the past few weeks appear to be on the wane. The split between the moderate and hardcore opposition has deepened. Negotiations between the moderate faction, led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, and the Maduro government look to be proceeding apace.

The evolution of Capriles’ attitude toward the protests has been interesting to observe. In the early stages, Capriles rejected an offer to participate in a dialogue, saying “I am not going to make Nicolas Maduro look good.” He derided the Maduro government’s “brutality” and “repression” and called the president “a serious mistake in the history of our Venezuela.” However, he remained wary of the more radical elements of the opposition. According to an unnamed source cited by the Venezuelan Interior Minister, Capriles attended a meeting with opposition politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado in February. “Capriles left and said he was going because he was not going to support that crazy man, referring to Leopoldo Lopez, who was proposing setting the cities on fire,” the minister claimed.

At first, Capriles tread carefully. He did not embrace the protesters’ more violent tactics, but he generally avoided condemning them, preferring to portray the government as the main source of violence. Then, something changed. Maybe it was the rising death toll. Maybe it was the increasingly visible and apparent radicalism of the anti-government protesters. Whatever the cause for his change of heart, Capriles seems to have publicly embraced his break with those calling for “La Salida” (“The Exit”) of President Maduro. “We don’t want a coup d’etat or a social explosion,” he said recently.

Though Maduro and his government remain unpopular, the majority of Venezuelans disagree with the way the protests have unfolded. According to one poll, 85% of Venezuelans condemned the violent demonstrations and 67% disagreed with the opposition’s initial refusal to join in a dialogue with the government to resolve the situation.

Lopez and Machado’s supporters still refuse to participate in the talks, insisting that Maduro step down and that amnesty be granted to those arrested during the protests. The intransigence of this hardcore wing may boost their bona fides as unflinching anti-Chavistas, but it doesn’t necessarily bode well for the opposition’s national electoral prospects. Capriles narrowly lost to Maduro in the presidential election held last year following the death of Hugo Chavez, and while he disputed the results of that race, he also condemned the violent opposition protests that followed. “To all my followers…this is a peaceful quarrel. Whoever is involved in violence is not part of this project, is not with me,” Capriles said at the time. “It is doing me harm.”

In municipal elections held in December, Capriles’s Democratic Unity coalition also performed well, but still finished behind Maduro’s United Socialist Party overall. The lesson seems to be that moderation works. There are many things Venezuelans of varying political persuasions can agree upon, and one of them is that “coups are always bad and democracy is good.” Venezuelans have a higher “support for democracy” than any other country in Latin America. Calling for the ouster of a democratically-elected president just isn’t a good look.

It remains to be seen what will come of the peace negotiations, and there are real issues President Maduro has to address aside from the recent social unrest. However, with a deepening split between those who see Capriles as a sellout and those who view the hardcore wing as anti-democratic extremists, it will be difficult for the opposition to present itself as a coherent alternative to the well-established Chavista system. As the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

The Venezuelan Opposition Is Not Peaceful

The death toll has climbed to three dozen in Venezuela’s most violent protests in over a decade. The most recently-reported deaths were those of a 28-year-old woman named Adriana Urquiola, who was shot after getting off a bus that had stopped at a barricade set up by protesters, and a National Guard officer, who died after being shot in the neck.

Some commentators decry President Nicolas Maduro’s regime for its “brutal crackdown” on the protests. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles used the word “genocide” and referred to the government’s “brutality” and “repression.”

What purveyors of this narrative generally ignore are the actions of the opposition that have instigated much of the violence. Early on, the opposition protesters’ tactics included vandalizing government buildings and burning police cars.

Retired Army General Angel Vivas called on his Twitter followers in February to use wires to “neutralize criminal hordes on motorbikes,” referring to government supporters. Days later, a man was decapitated by a wire strung across a Caracas street. Maduro’s government subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Vivas, and the former general was photographed armed and wearing a flak jacket, walking around his home in Caracas.

The New York Times quoted anti-government leader Andryth Niño in San Cristobal saying outright, “We’re not peaceful here.” According to the article, protesters are making use of “a variety of homemade weapons — mortars to lob small, noisy explosives, miniature firebombs, slingshots, clubs and nasty-looking things called Miguelitos made from hoses festooned with nails.”

Despite the propoganda, what is happening in Venezuela is not a widespread effort by Maduro’s government to crush the protests by force. In fact, by some counts, more people have died at the hands of protesters than security forces. What we’re seeing is a violent, extremist, anti-democratic movement bent on ousting an elected government.

Maduro’s repeated calls for dialogue with opposition leaders have been rejected. As Niño told Buzzfeed, “This is going to continue until we achieve our aim” – namely, La Salida, the removal of Maduro from power.

Of course, not all the anti-government demonstrators are shooting cops and throwing Molotovs. However, the ones who are – and those who encourage them – should be condemned. Venezuelans have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with their government, but those don’t excuse the use of violence.

Maduro Flails as Venezuela Ails

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro looks to be losing his grip on power. It’s been a long, slow slide, but on Wednesday, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Two people were killed, 23 were injured, 25 arrested, and numerous buildings vandalized as radical anti-government protests continued in the capital city for a second week.

Maduro narrowly won an election last April after the death of former president Hugo Chavez, who publicly announced Maduro as his chosen successor before his death. After the election, Maduro’s main challenger, Henrique Capriles, accused Maduro of “stealing” the election and violent protests broke out, which Maduro accused the US of helping to foment.

Capriles has been a prominent leader of the opposition all along, but has condemned the current violence saying that “the solution has to be built properly… given what Venezuela is experiencing, and the chaos we are living in, we can’t be promoting more chaos.”

Chaos is a good description of the situation. The demonstrators claim that they are protesting “insecurity,” yet they are the ones burning police cars and vandalizing property. Maduro accuses his opponents of waging an “economic war,” but it was his administration that arrested 100 “capitalist parasites” and sent in the army to enforce price controls he ordered in November.

Maduro has never had the charisma or political acumen of his predecessor – and the little Chavez birds and faces in the subway apparently haven’t imparted any good advice. Maduro seems like a bad imitation of Chavez, much closer to the caricature the media created of the late leader than the reality.

Still, Venezuela’s problems are real. The country continues to suffer from food and electricity shortages as well as hyperinflation. Maduro blames collusion between the United States and right-wingers like Capriles attempting to sabotage the socialist movement. In actual fact, he should point out that the shortages are more likely explained by the dramatic decline in poverty and concomitant rise in consumption Chavez’s policies brought on. The inflation, too, can be explained by the high costs of government social programs, funded largely by oil revenues.

While the goals of Chavez and Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are laudable – reducing poverty, shifting power away from traditional elites – the party has struggled with formulating a response to the adverse side-effects of their policies. The PSUV remains broadly popular, largely holding on to power in recent municipal elections, but the opposition made some important gains.

Whether or not Venezuela’s problems are the result of a capitalist conspiracy supported by nefarious elements within the US government is pretty much irrelevant. If he cares about his own political future and that of his party, Maduro needs to find a way to calm the protesters and get the economy on a better track.