In Venezuela, at least six people have died in recent days during a series of anti-government protests. The latest casualty was a local beauty queen who died of a gunshot wound. The protests come less than a year after the death of Hugo Chávez and present the biggest challenge to Venezuela’s new president, Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this week, right-wing opposition leader Leopoldo López turned himself in to the National Guard after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest last week, accusing him of inciting deadly clashes. On Monday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three U.S. consular officials while claiming the United States has sided with the opposition. Our guest, George Ciccariello-Maher, looks at the recent history of the U.S. role in Venezuela opposing both the Chávez and Maduro governments. He is author of “We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution” and teaches political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Venezuela, where at least six people have died in recent days during a series of anti-government protests. On Wednesday, a local beauty queen died of a gunshot wound. The protests come less than a year after the death of Hugo Chávez and present the biggest challenge to Venezuela’s new president, Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this week, right-wing opposition leader Leopoldo López turned himself in to the National Guard after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of inciting deadly clashes. On Monday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three U.S. consular officials while claiming the United States has sided with the opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to find out more, we go to Philadelphia to speak with George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. He teaches political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, previously taught at the Venezuelan School of Planning in Caracas.
What is happening in Venezuela today?
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: Well, there’s a great deal happening, and I think you’ve got your finger on the fact that this is a crucial test for the Maduro government. And I think it’s our obligation to put it in its broad historical context to understand who’s acting. And I think there’s a tendency—there’s an unfortunate tendency, if you follow Twitter or if you’re on the Internet, that, you know, in this sort of post-Occupy moment and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, every time we see—every time we see protesters in the streets, we start retweeting it, and we start to sort of, you know, feel sympathetic, without necessarily knowing what the back story is. And I think we’re obligated to do that here. And once we look into this back story, what we see is yet another attempt in a long string of attempts of the Venezuelan opposition to oust a democratically elected government, this time taking advantage of student mobilizations against—you know, ostensibly against insecurity and against economic difficulties to do that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, George Ciccariello, who is Leopoldo López? The Washington Post describes him as a 42-year-old, Harvard-educated, left-leaning moderate. What do you know about his history?
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: Left-leaning moderate would be quite a stretch. Leopoldo López represents the far right of the Venezuelan political spectrum. In terms of his personal and political history, here’s someone who was educated in the United States from prep school through graduate school at the Harvard Kennedy School. He’s descended from the first president of Venezuela, purportedly even from Simón Bolívar. In other words, he’s a representative of this traditional political class that was displaced when the Bolivarian revolution came to power.
In terms of his very specific political history, his first party that he came to power as a representative of, Primero Justicia, was formed through the—at the intersection of corruption and U.S. intervention—corruption by his mother purportedly funneling funds, you know, from Venezuela’s oil company into this new party and, on the other hand, funding from the NED, from USAID, from U.S. government institutions, to so-called civil society organizations. Now, after—as Chávez came to power, the traditional parties of Venezuela collapsed, and both the domestic opposition and the U.S. government needed to create some other vehicle through which to oppose the Chávez government, and this party that Leopoldo López came to power through is one of those—is one of those vehicles. So this is really where he’s coming from.
In this moment, though, even his former compatriot from that party, Henrique Capriles, who was the unified presidential candidate for the opposition in April, has realized that the line of taking street action in an attempt to oust a democratic government is simply not going to work. And Leopoldo López, as well as other far-right leaders like María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma have really gone all-in with this attempt to oust the government.
AMY GOODMAN: So, shortly after Leopoldo López’s arrest, his opposition Popular Will party released a video of him speaking that was apparently filmed before he surrendered to Venezuelan government troops. This is part of what López said.
LEOPOLDO LÓPEZ: [translated] I would like to tell all Venezuelans that I do not regret what we have done thus far, like the call we put out for the protests, which is what we’ve been doing for some time. But on the 12th of February, on the Day of Youth, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Venezuela, not only in Caracas like in the past, but in all of Venezuela, in the cities and in the towns. There were 10 or 50 or a thousand or 10,000 or even 70,000, but the people came out. The people woke up. Venezuela today, more than ever, needs you, who are watching this, and that each one of us takes on the commitment to want change. But that commitment cannot be passive. That commitment has to be active.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Leopoldo López. Also, President Maduro has thrown out three consular officials, U.S. consular officials, saying they’re involved with supporting the opposition. Can you talk about this, George Ciccariello-Maher?
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: Sure. Well, the Obama government continues to fund this opposition even more openly than did the Bush—than did the Bush regime. If you look at the budget there, you know, Obama specifically requested funding for these Venezuelan opposition groups despite—you know, despite anti-democratic activity in the past, despite the fact that López and others were involved in signatories of the coup in 2002 and engaged in violent actions that they were brought up on charges for in 2002. And so, for López to come now and to claim that he’s an actor for democracy in the streets is really quite—you know, quite laughable. But what he is trying to do is to really seize control of this opposition away from the more moderate elements.
And there’s an interesting question here, namely the fact that the Venezuelan government, if we listen to the words of Leopoldo López’s wife, her recent statements—the Venezuelan government acted to protect the life of López, who was under certain threats, you know, threats to his life. And the Venezuelan government, if we look at the way that López was arrested, was very generous, and indeed much more generous than López has been in the past, during the coup, for example, when he led these sort of witch hunts for Chavista ministers who were brought out and beaten publicly on the way to being arrested. And you may wonder—López was allowed to speak the other day when he was arrested for several minutes on a megaphone by those—by the troops who were arresting him. And you may ask why—you know, why is the Maduro government being, in many ways, so gentle with this leader? And the reality is, they may prefer him as the leader of the opposition because he’s someone that simply can’t be elected president in Venezuela, because he really does represent that upper, upper crust of Venezuelan elites.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the pictures that we’re getting in the commercial media here in the United States is of a Venezuela that is spiraling out of control with rising crime, with scarcities of food, with high inflation. What is your assessment of the actual situation in the country right now?
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: To be perfectly clear, food scarcity has been a problem, and insecurity is a massive problem in Venezuela. And both of these are really deep and intractable problems that have—you know, that have some relationship to government, government failures to confront them in certain ways, but also to the action of various other actors. In the case of crime, the infiltration of mafias has been a powerful force in recent years. And in the case of scarcity, the role of private capitalists in withholding and hoarding goods, as well as currency speculation, has been a massively destructive force that really echoes the kind of Chile scenario of helping to destroy an economy as a preparation for the government being overthrown.
But the reality is, these do not—these two factors, which the students are claiming are driving these protests, are really—they don’t explain why these protests are emerging now. Why? Because crime is actually going down, as we speak, and because food scarcity is not nearly as bad as it was earlier in the year. Rather, what explains what’s going on now is that this is the moment in which—after December elections, in which the opposition fared very poorly, this is the moment in which the right wing of that opposition has said, “Enough. You know, once again, enough. We’re done with elections. We’re going to go to the streets, and we’re going to try to topple this government.”
But, you know, in the meantime, the Venezuelan revolutionary movements, the popular organizations, that are, after all, the foundation of this government, this is never—this was never about Chávez, the individual. It is not about Maduro, the individual today. But it’s instead about millions and millions of Venezuelans who are building a better democracy, a deeper and more direct democracy, who are building social movements and organizations and workers’ councils and student councils and peasant councils, and as well as local communes. These people are continuing to struggle and are continuing to build. And while they’re certainly coming out to defend the Maduro government, they’re sort of focused on a much broader horizon. And this distraction, that’s largely confined to the wealthiest areas of Caracas, the sort of Beverly Hills of Caracas, is not going to sort of push them away from that task.
AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. role?
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: The U.S. continues to fund this opposition. I think we’ll probably find out afterward, as we usually do, to what degree the U.S.'s hand has been actually involved in these processes. But the reality is this is a—this is a miscalculation by the opposition. I think it's doubtful that the United States has told the opposition to take this tack, because it’s not a very strategic tack. But, you know, we know that this is an opposition that’s been in direct contact with the embassy, that it receives funding from the United States government. And so, this is—against the broad backdrop of U.S. intervention and the funding of the Venezuelan opposition, this is the action of an autonomous Venezuelan opposition that is going to, once again, it looks like, tear itself apart.
AMY GOODMAN: George Ciccariello-Maher, we want to thank you for being with us, author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, teaches political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute, going to the border, Tucson, to talk about the latest killing of a person on the border by border control agents. Stay with us.