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Debate: Do Venezuelan Protests Reflect Popular Discontent or the Old Qualms of a Divided Elite?

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The ongoing protests in Venezuela have left at least 20 people dead since breaking out last month. Both sides have staged massive rallies, with opponents accusing President Nicolás Maduro of authoritarianism and mishandling the economy and supporters backing his continuation of Hugo Chávez’s legacy of social welfare. Maduro has bristled at outside attempts to intervene. We host a debate on who is protesting in Venezuela, and why, with two guests: Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian and political analyst with the Center for Development Studies at the Central University of Venezuela, and Roberto Lovato, a writer with New American Media who recently returned from reporting in Caracas.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Venezuela, which has this week marked the one-year anniversary of the death of longtime president Hugo Chávez. This comes as his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, has faced a month of violent demonstrations. The protests began in the city of San Cristóbal in western Táchira state, near the Colombia border, and then spread to the capital, Caracas, where thousands of opposition protesters have held regular marches, often clashing with police. At least 20 people have been killed since the protests began. Overnight, a Venezuelan soldier and a motorcyclist dies in a melee sparked by the opposition’s barricading of a Caracas street. This is the commander of the Venezuelan National Guard.

MAJ. GEN. JUSTO NOGUERA PIETRI: [translated] We here continue to follow orders from the commander-in-chief. We are here to keep internal order and guard public order, give the citizens the security they need. And if it is necessary to lay down our lives here, we will do so, because order needs to be restored here. Enough already with these fascist groups. Enough already with the violence that is unjustly hurting the people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A group of U.N.-appointed human rights experts has asked Venezuela about allegations of abuse against the opposition. They’ve cited reports that some detainees had been beaten and tortured. President Maduro has bristled at outside attempts to intervene in the unrest. He announced Thursday he was breaking off diplomatic and commercial ties with Panama after it called for the Organization of American States to convene and discuss the protests.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] I say to Insulza, “Be quiet, sir, and don’t meddle with someone who didn’t call you.” Venezuela has not solicited a debate within the Organization of American States about its internal situation. We haven’t solicited their intervention into Venezuela. We would be crazy to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that expressed support for democracy in Venezuela. The measure passed by a vote of 393 to one. It was proposed by a Republican congresswoman from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: In the face of a determined autocrat who disregards expectations of right conduct and who is willing to use violence to impose his will on free citizens, well, Mr. Speaker, words are just not nearly enough. We must act, and we must act now. We must support those who are pleading for respect for democratic principles, for human rights in Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: We host a debate right now on the situation in Venezuela. Joining us from Caracas, Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian and political analyst, professor with the Center for Development Studies at the Central University of Venezuela, and in Berkeley, California, Roberto Lovato, writer with the New American Media who recently returned from reporting in Caracas. His latest piece for Al Jazeera is “Venezuela’s Opposition is United Against Maduro, But Internally Divided.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Roberto, what you found, just coming back from Venezuela.

ROBERTO LOVATO: What I found, Amy, was a people’s movement in Venezuela that’s pretty much completely absent—people like Carlos Borola and the people in the mercado in an area called Chacao. You don’t hear these voices, you don’t see these voices, you don’t feel these voices, because your media isn’t telling you about what’s happening to the poor. OK, I went and I interviewed people in all the—in different protest areas, like Altamira and Chacao, which is one of the wealthiest areas in all of Latin America. And in all my years reporting and engaging with oppositional and revolutionary movements, I’ve never seen a protest movement, an “opposition movement,” quote-unquote, with so many Nike tennis shoes, high-end Nikes, fashion jeans and dogs whose collars cost more than a week’s salary in the minimum wage.

So, you have a Venezuelan right that’s deeply divided right now, that’s lost 18 out of the 19 elections in the last—since 1995. They lost in the most recent municipal elections; 70 percent of all municipalities went to the PSUV, the Chavistas, basically. And, you know, it’s a movement in search of—not money, because the USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, have given them hundreds of millions of dollars, including the student groups like the JVAS, the Juventud de Acción en Venezuela Activa, and so—Unida.

And so, you know, you have an opposition that’s in search of a new way, and so has gone the violent route, has gone the kind of radical route, that has included killing people, like somebody you haven’t heard about in your media, who is Elvis [de la Rosa], a 29-year-old motorcyclist who was beheaded by barbed wire that these “peaceful” students that everybody’s telling you about put up on the advice of a general who tweeted a message to basically hurt and kill and maim people on motorcycles, and they succeeded in that in more than one case. And there was a woman, there was a mother, who died like that. And so, try to find these stories in your mainstream media. You won’t. The media, just finally yesterday, reported that two people—by the way, what you mentioned, Juan, was—they weren’t protesters. Those were innocent people that were killed by the “peaceful” protesters again last night in Los Ruices, another pretty upwardly mobile area. So, what’s happening is a right wing that’s divided because the oligarchs are—many of them are actually in a peace process with Maduro and the PSUV, so—and the government. So, that’s what I found.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Margarita López Maya, I would like to bring you into the conversation. Talk to us about these issues that Roberto Lovato is raising and your perspective on who the protesters are and whether the opposition is as divided as Roberto is claiming.

MARGARITA LÓPEZ MAYA: Yes, well, hello. Hello. How are you? I’m here in Caracas. The protests had a full month now, and it did start in the city of San Cristóbal in the state of Táchira. And why it started there, the state of Táchira, which is the border with Colombia, is because in Táchira the hardships are like—kind of add to all the hardships of the Venezuelan people today. We have been going through a very heavy economic crisis, but in the state of Táchira, that is worse, because Táchira, being a border with Colombia, has suffered from militarization, paramilitaries, [inaudible], insecurity, smuggling, drug trafficking—you name it, they’ve got it.

And so, in the beginning of February, there was a protest, a student protest, because one of the girls was robbed and about to be raped. They started a protest. They were very severely repressed. Two boys went to jail. They were thrown into jail that night. They were beaten. They were kicked. They were harassed. And the response? They kept on protesting. And the response of the government was that this was some kind of a complot, a plotting from the CIA, the youth of right, etc., etc. So this sparkled the whole protest that has been going on in Venezuela since then. It began on February the 4th. Today we are in March already, and it doesn’t stop. It has taken most of the big cities of the country, not only San Cristóbal, Caracas, Barquisimeto, Valencia, Maracaibo, Maracay, Cumaná—you name them, all big and middle cities have been having these protests.

The protests—the leader of the protests has been the student movement. There was—they called for a big concentration on February the 12th. This concentration was joined by civil society, was joined by some groups of the opposition, namely by a party that’s called Voluntad Popular. And the response was—of the government, was severe repression. The two first deaths in Venezuela were coming from what we call the political police—that is, the intelligence service, the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service, the SEBIN. The videos, the photos are there. National Guard has been accused. They had been thrown—they have been gone—arrested—two deaths, two or three deaths. And then we have the other phenomenon which is very severe, very concerning. That is those armed paramilitary groups that join in with the National Guard and with the intelligence service in order to repress civil protests in the streets.

The protests happen—it is true, it happens mainly in the municipalities of the middle and upper classes. Why is this so? Among other reasons, because, for example, in Caracas—and this happens in most other cities of the country—this is a very, very stark, polarized society. In the municipalities where the lower classes live, it is mainly in control of the government. And they do not give permits for protests in those municipalities. They do not allow it. They bring in not only the National Guard. This is a country that has been very militarized and has been getting starker, this militarization, during the President Maduro’s government, but also because there are territories in the cities that are controlled by these armed groups, these groups that have been armed by the government and that control territory in the poor sectors.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato, we have very little time left. I just want to—

MARGARITA LÓPEZ MAYA: So being—if you are—if you’re in the opposition—

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to ask Roberto Lovato where you see these protests going. We only have a minute left.

ROBERTO LOVATO: I see them going the way of desperation and failure, at the end of the day. You don’t have the popular support. You didn’t hear anything except really great excuses of why poor people, the poor majority, the black majority, the Afro-descended majority, the poor areas, are participating. So, history shows you can’t really overthrow governments in Venezuela or anywhere else in Latin America unless you, you know, have the poor. And these protests have gone the way of opposite of most of Latin America, which is against U.S. policy. These protests get money, hundreds of millions of dollars, from U.S. policy. So, you’re just going to have more U.S. and its allies and the oligarchs trying to destabilize a legitimately elected government and failing, probably, again.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato and Margarita López Maya, we want to thank you both for being with us—Margarita López Maya, professor with the Center for Development Studies; Roberto Lovato, with New American Media.

That does it for our broadcast. We’re on the road on Tuesday. We’ll be in Amherst, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, March 11th at 7:00 p.m. On Thursday the 13th in Flagstaff at Northern Arizona University at the Cline Library at 7:00. Friday, March 14th, at Santa Fe at the Lensic. And on Saturday, March 15th, in Denver, Colorado. Then to St. Louis on March 29th. You can go to our website for details at democracynow.org.

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