On the Recent Crisis in Venezuela: Confronting the US Media Narrative about the Crisis

Nicholas Partyka I Geopolitics I Analysis I July 2nd, 2014

Read part one of this analysis here.

Appearance and reality are often different things. This cannot be helped in some cases. In the case of how the US media portrays the recent events in Venezuela, the difference between appearance and reality is in many respects driven by willful neglect of important facts; facts which change the texture of the situation, and which disrupt with their complications the simplistic narrative all too often repeated, or more correctly regurgitated. Far too often, even the most respected news outlets engage in shallow reporting that glosses over important information - information that challenges the spin these outlets want to put on the story. This is not a small matter, not in a society that wants to be democratic.

I want to start off by saying that I am not an expert on Venezuela. This however does not mean I am uninformed about the political-economic situation in Venezuela. It simply means that I not a Latin-Americanist, nor a specialist in Venezuela by training. What I want to write about here is how Venezuela is portrayed in the US media, with which I am very familiar. What I want to show here is how different reality can be when one looks beyond the narrative promulgated by the dominant media. That is why the majority of the sources I use here are all readily available on the internet. This is, in part, an effort to show how much of a different story one can perceive when one goes looking for information rather than being served it.

I mentioned above that appearance and reality can be different, and that understanding that difference is critical to gaining a balanced and accurate insight into the social, cultural, political, and economic situation of a country. Having this kind of insight is crucial for citizens in a democracy, especially as regards the conduct of its foreign policy. We can see an instance of this with the recent bill passed by the US House of Representatives to impose economic sanctions on Venezuela.[1] These sanctions are in response to the so-called 'crackdown' that has been carried out against so-called 'student protestors' there over the last few months. The passage of such a bill imposing these kinds of sanctions is only possible because many, if not most of the representatives in the House, are grossly misinformed about the nature of the situation in Venezuela.

The Dominant Media Perspective on Venezuela

In general, the perspective of the dominant media in the US follows the opposition view of events in Venezuela. This is largely because the US establishment supports the Venezuelan elites who have lost substantial portions of power and influence under the Bolivarian government. On the one hand, many US elites actively support Venezuelan elites because they mutually despise Chavez and what the Bolivarian revolution stands for. On the other hand, for many in the US media, it is simply convenient and easy to parrot what the media in Venezuela says, at least what the largest capitalist media organizations say.

Active US support for the opposition in Venezuela can be seen in the millions of dollars that the NED, among other groups, has channeled to various opposition groups and political parties like Maria Corina Machado's Sumate! organization or Leopoldo Lopez's political party Popular Will, for example.[2] The former organization, in conjunction with others, was directly involved in collecting signatures, and later politicking for votes in favor of the 2004 recall referendum against Chavez. This is to mention only a couple of examples of money and resources being funneled by the US government to opposition organizations and political parties. Some of these parties and organizations are led by persons directly involved in the 2002 coup attempt, like both Ms. Machado and Mr. Lopez for example.

Media distortion is not harmless, especially willful distortion. The role of RCTV in the events leading up to and during the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez is a prime example of how harmful deliberate media distortion utilized for political purposes can be. [3] In America, the media's role in the Bush administration's case for going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq nicely illustrates the problems with media distortion. Having a clear picture of what is going on in other countries is thus critical to acting effectively in the world; even if one is pursuing only one's own narrowly defined national interests. Had not the people in Venezuela brought Hugo Chavez back to power by the force of will, the people here in the US would have begun to be conditioned by the media to see the coup as "restoring democracy" to Venezuela, and thus allow their government to legitimize it.[4]

Moreover, with so much of world attention at the moment focused on the on-going crisis in Ukraine, the events unfolding in Venezuela are often easy to overlook.[5] As they are easy to overlook so too is it easy to be lulled by a simplistic or convenient narrative about the events there. Especially in the wake of the recent Arab Spring movements, and the collection of assorted color-revolutions (Green, Rose, Orange, Cedar) over the last decade and a half the "student lead protest" trope has been used to death. More importantly, this script has been used by US intelligence agencies to engineer some of these color revolutions. Even more importantly, the script for these color-revolutions has been seen by many to be used by the US State Department and the CIA to instigate pro-western regime change.

Without debating all the merits and demerits of an interventionist foreign policy, these kinds of considerations about how, when, and why one country should get involved in the internal affairs of another is exactly why having a full grasp of the facts is essential. This will be no less the case when trying to understand a situation like the current crisis in Venezuela. The main problem with the US media's portrayal of events in Venezuela, as mentioned before, is that they omit many important facts. A democratic polity cannot begin to exercise oversight over its nation's foreign policy unless it has a well-informed and nuanced view of the realities on the ground. Do we intervene, when, on whose behalf, for what end, et cetera? These are questions that a democratic society must answer in order to conduct its relations with other nations. Given the nature of the stakes when undertaking international interventions, even for humanitarian reasons, it is imperative that citizens have as clear a picture as possible of what is going on in other countries.

If one takes a quick perusal of the mainstream news sources in America and their coverage of the events in Venezuela, the dominant narrative one is likely to find is something like the following: Students fed up with poor and worsening economic conditions and high crime took to the streets to protest. [6] These protests widened in scope spreading beyond their initial flashpoints as other sectors of society joined in the protests. The government then responded to the protests with a heavy handed crackdown complete with all the trappings of third-world dictators, namely killing of protestors by security services as well as pro-government militias, and mass arrests. [7] Government repression spurred further protests and further violence, which in turn fueled further cracking down. This cycle continued until eventually the government gave in an agreed to negotiate in peace talks with the opposition. This is basically where things stand today. The government and opposition are still negotiating with seemingly little to show. The government has continued to clear away the protestors' barricades and restore order.

I think perhaps the best way to confront the misinformation in the US media about Venezuela is to adopt a question and answer format. I can pose questions that astute readers would ask and then present some facts that give nuance to the perception of the issue. I certainly have my own views about is going on in Venezuela, but here my goal is simply to present additional facts to the discussion so that readers can make informed judgments for themselves. If some of these new facts seem to favor the Bolivarian government's view of matters, this is only testament to the overly negative view of the government typical in the dominant Venezuelan and US media.

What is the current period of unrest about?

What one must say, first of all, is that Venezuela is not a perfect nation; just like the rest of the nations on the planet. Venezuela does indeed have political, economic, and social problems. These are not to be ignored, but neither should the magnitude or causes of these problems be exaggerated and distorted for political purposes. And this is exactly what characterizes much of the dominant media's coverage of Venezuela. For this reason, one must also say, even if one is sympathetic to the Bolivarian revolution, that the feelings of frustration that brought many people out to the streets in the initial wave of protests in early February are legitimate; that is they are representative of legitimate concerns. However, what began as a sincere expression of frustration by a large portion of the Venezuelan people was soon hijacked by a small right-wing subset of this group; as was the plan of some in this group all along.[8]

High Crime

One of the biggest issues facing Venezuela at present is the issue of the high level of violent crime in the country. This is of course a worrying development, and one whose effects can cross class lines, and thus unite Venezuelans. In fact, as a few US media outlets discussed, this year's outburst of protest and violence was initially sparked by the attempted sexual assault of a freshman student on the Tachira campus of ULA in San Cristobol.[9] And this was after the January murder of a well-known actress and her husband. [10] It was the government's response to the San Cristobol protests that sparked a national day of protest on February 12th during which there was violence, and a couple deaths. The events of this day and the government's response to it have continued to fuel the on-going protests. What is true is that many Venezuelans, and especially those not well-off enough to afford to live in more secure or well policed neighborhoods, are upset at the rise over the last couple years in violent crime in their country. It does make life difficult for regular people, and it does not make life more enjoyable.

What then accounts for this high level of crime? Well, as would be the case in asking this question of any country, the best or most accurate answer is going to be a complicated one. We can point to a few things that contribute to high levels of violent crime. In doing this we can see how complex and serious is the challenge that the Bolivarian government is facing. What we can see is that violence has many causes. In trying to understand them we can get outside of the dominant narrative that sees the problem of violence as entirely the result of government economic policies, and pro-government militias.

The first contributor to high crime we must look to is the drug trade. Venezuela shares its western border with Colombia, perhaps the country most identified with the cocaine industry at least in the psyche of many Americans. Venezuela, like several other Latin American nations, has seen an increase in violence associated with the processing and trans-shipment operations of large drug cartels. One of the side effects of the "success" of the US's anti-drug policies in Colombia is that many aspects of the drug business have been relocated to other nations. Being right next door Venezuela is a natural choice, and only the more so as it is also a logical trans-shipment point for the cartels as they move their product to their largest market, the US. In this regard the trend in violent crime in Venezuela matches that in several other countries along the drug route from south America to the US, e.g. Honduras and El Salvador. Yet somehow this rarely comes up in the US media when discussing the violence in Venezuela.

One important issue to bring up when discussing the issue of violence in Venezuela is of course the police. The issue with the police in Venezuela is that, just like the rest of population, they have political views. And unfortunately, when these people occupy positions of power they can selectively exercise their authority in ways that can help further their political goals. Moreover, police officers, their commanders included, are workers like everyone else, and so employees can be subject to employer pressure to perform their jobs in various ways they may or may not agree with. One must also mention in this connection that ideologically motivated police and politicians do and have actively colluded with each other in schemes to destabilize and hopefully overthrow the Bolivarian government.

And one must also not neglect to mention that it can often be in the financial interest of police to be less than vigorous in enforcing the law, e.g. by taking kickbacks and bribes from the for-profit kidnapping operations of organized crime organizations. One might do the same out of fear after violent intimidation by such gangs. We should not finish here without noting that some violence also comes from the large amount of black market activity occurring in Venezuela. Where one has black markets one often has violence, at least some. With an estimated 40% of Venezuela's food being smuggled out of the country for sale in Colombia and Brazil some violence can reasonably be expected to be attached to such a large black market trade.


It is true that for some time now Venezuela has been experiencing shortages of basic goods like milk, flour, butter, eggs, coffee, chicken, cooking oil, and toilet paper to name a few. These shortages began, perhaps totally coincidentally, right around the time of the death of Hugo Chavez, and the transfer of power to Nicolas Maduro.[11] Yes it is the case that these shortages exist, and that they are a large inconvenience to the people of Venezuela. No serious person one would deny this. That the government has begun issuing ration cards to deal with the problem shows that they take it very seriously.[12] But there is much more to this issue than is typically reported. First, the issue is portrayed by some to be a situation in which some items are not available. Some other more reasonable news sources acknowledge that the reality is that these products are available but one must go to several stores to find everything one needs. And moreover, one must increasingly wait in line in order to buy these goods. This does upset many people, and well it should.

The biggest concern with the presentation of the issue of shortages in Venezuela by the dominant US media is the way the causes of the problem are typically depicted. There is much misunderstanding on the reason for the shortages, and this leads many to misunderstand the Venezuelan situation. For a great many commentators in the dominant media it is undeniable that the government's price control system is the cause the shortages afflicting the country.[13] In their view shortages are just a logical result of an obviously bad, i.e. anti-neo-liberal, policy. They treat the existence of shortages as the result of a simple stimulus-response reaction by market actors. The reality of the situation is much more complicated.

The price control system is designed to make sure that basic goods are and remain affordable for the poorest in Venezuela. This is the goal of programs like Venezuela's Mision Mercal. This is a system of retail outlets and distributional networks that aims to deliver basic food and other staple goods at affordable prices. What the economists have right is that the artificially low price of goods available to Venezuelan consumers offers up a natural arbitrage opportunity. Venezuela's government spends money on, in a way paying part of the cost of, importing important staple goods and charges consumers a price below what it cost the government on the free market. Consumers in Venezuela, one who choose to do this anyway, can buy cheap Venezuelan products, smuggle them over the border to Colombia or Brazil and sell them there at their market rates. Clearly the size of the difference between the price in Venezuela and in its neighbors determines the strength of the incentive to engage in this type of operation. And what holds true of individual consumers also holds true of firms. Many businesses, wholesalers, distributors, and importers mostly can engage in the same operations. Thus, they can divert their stocks, or large portion of it, to the black market abroad instead of the domestic market, thus creating shortages.

Another major cause of the shortages of goods on store shelves is the issue of hoarding. By holding back stock, that is intentionally not putting it out for sale to the consuming public, owners can artificially raise prices and thus make more money when they do eventually sell. Once shortages begin the incentive to hoard goods and hopefully profit from selling at a later time when the price is higher only grows. Venezuela has seen massive amounts of hoarding of all kinds of basic goods. The large caches of many kinds of goods from toilet paper to food stuffs have been uncovered by the government. But one would not know this based on the reporting of much of the dominant US media.

What we see here is private individuals choosing to engage in activities that benefit only themselves at the expense of their fellow Venezuelans, especially the poorest Venezuelans who depend on the subsidized prices at Mision Mercal to obtain adequate amounts of the most basic food stuffs. [14] That these shortages began around the time of transfer of power in the Bolivarian government, along with the evidence of history, and the admission of the individuals involved should lead an un-biased observer to conclude that the largest cause of the shortages in Venezuela is deliberate economic sabotage by the Venezuelan opposition. The opposition in Venezuela is composed mainly of the wealthier portion of the population in Venezuela. Those who own property, business, and other assets tend to be with the opposition. Thus, ideologically motivated businessmen, in collusion with politicians, can help create shortages. Shortages help fuel discontent, which stirs protest, which creates opening for the opposition to hijack them and attempt to depose the government. This is what they did in 2002, and have been planning to do again. [15]


One of the most often cited of Venezuela's economic problems is its high inflation rate.[16] The perils of high inflation are too well known to be worth discussing in detail here. Needless to say inflation effects all social classes, but to different degrees and in different ways. Yet, it is also an issue that unites Venezuelans since it hurts everyone. The causes of this higher-than-normal inflation rate in Venezuela have much to do with the economic shocks that have been buffeting the country over the same period. Some of these we talked about above, e.g. smuggling, and hoarding. Both of these drive prices up, and in fact, in many instances, this is exactly the point. To cause price increases, that causes distress, that prompts protests and unrest, which the opposition can then use to try to get rid of the Bolivarian government is the end goal of this economic sabotage. Other causes of inflation include criminal extortion of businesses as well as rampant currency speculation, that is, the intentional abuse by businesses of funds designed for imports.

Inflation, shortages, and crime are the most commonly cited reasons for the recent bout of unrest in Venezuela. This is on the one hand not entirely wrong. These are serious issues that the Venezuelan government has to contend with, and they do seriously impact the everyday lives of all Venezuelans. It goes without saying that if these issues could be addressed that life would improve for many in Venezuela. The same can be said about the economic and social problems of all nations. In the dominant Venezuelan media, and the dominant US media that largely follows it, these issues are routinely portrayed as direct results of the government's chosen economic policy. The reality is, on the other hand, that in many instances the government's chosen economic policies are chosen precisely in response to the economic sabotage and provocations of the opposition.

Depending on how one chooses to tell the story, one could make Nicolas Maduro and his government out to be authoritarians, or egalitarians. This is, of course, very much the point of most of the dominant US media. One can paint Maduro as a tyrant for forcing store owners to sell their good at prices determined by the government. To right-wingers and other economic elites, this looks like a dangerous infringement of economic liberty and basic civil rights. To the poor and working class (the majority) in Venezuela, this looks like exactly the kind of help they need in order to obtain necessary goods, and improve their standard of living. Maduro's government does things like this only in response to the price gouging of store owners. In response to the shortages and inflation, privately owned stores were raising their prices, and these soon outstripped the purchasing power of the poorer segments of Venezuelan society. Store owners do not care much about whether the poor can afford basic goods; they care about whether the poor can pay for these goods. At the root of much of the economic conflict and turmoil in Venezuela is a conflict of vision about who should benefit from Venezuela's natural wealth and how much.

Who is really doing the protesting?

According to the dominant media, the wave of protests that has been occurring in Venezuela this year are lead by and largely composed of students. According to the dominant media, the protests are supported by the majority of Venezuelans. Both of these are largely falsehoods. While some students are certainly protesting, it is a small portion of Venezuela's students, and students are not even a majority among the protestors. If one counts "students" in the same liberal way US officials count "enemy combatants" killed in drone strikes, then one could say what we're seeing in Venezuela now is a student protest movement. But in both cases this would be far from the truth. The truth is that these protests are rather small by Venezuelan standards. If even 20% of Venezuela's 2.6 million college students were actually protesting, there would be at least tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in the streets. Those numbers have not been seen since the initial protests in Caracas in early February. In fact only a third of those arrested thus far in connection with the protests have been actual students.[17]

The reality on the ground in Venezuela is that the protests are largely confined to the affluent and elite neighborhoods of eastern Caracas. Guarimba barricades are nowhere to be found in the poorer districts of the capital. The location of the barricades and protests firmly evidences the composition of the protestors. The fact is that the protestors are mainly from the middle and upper classes. More moderate factions of the Venezuelan opposition, e.g. that led by Henrique Capriles Radonski, openly acknowledge this fact. What this shows is not a cross class alliance that is determined to enact social change for the good of the country. Rather what it demonstrates is the petulance of a segment of society all too unaccustomed to not getting its way. Those who have no experience of deprivation have finally a small taste of it, and do not like it. Moreover, they say they see no future for themselves. And what exactly is meant by this? Do they no longer see the possibility of highly salaried, jet-setting jobs that ensure the continuance of their elite positions? If this is what these well privileged protestors do mean, then one might be less inclined to view them and their protest movement sympathetically.

One prominent part of the coverage of the protests in Venezuela is the anointing of Leopoldo Lopez as the new leader of the opposition. [18] Part and parcel of this in the dominant US media has been portraying Mr. Lopez as the leader of a democratic opposition protest movement. Widely cited in reports about him are the fact that he is Harvard educated, and a former mayor of Chacao. Some reports mention him as descendent of Simon Bolivar. This of course overlooks many important facts about Mr. Lopez. One of the most important things overlooked by the dominant media in the US is that Mr. Lopez represents the far-right wing of the Venezuelan opposition. Mr. Lopez represents the wealthy elite of Venezuela. His cousin owns Venezuela's largest food company, and his mother is the vice president of corporate affairs for the Cisneros Group, the largest media firm in Latin America. The founder of the Cisneros Group is fiercely opposed to the Bolivarian government and its social and political project. What the US media also often ignores is the fact that Mr. Lopez, like many in Venezuela's opposition, was an active participant in the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez. Mr. Lopez even participated in the illegal arrest of the Minister of the Interior.

In the minds of some observers what these recent protests represent is a power struggle within the ranks of the opposition. The more moderate faction lead recently by Henrique Capriles, their candidate in the last presidential election, is being challenged by the more hardline conservative faction, which Leopoldo Lopez wishes to assert leadership over. Mr.Lopez would like to lead the far-right wing of the opposition, and would like the far-right wing to be the leading voice in the opposition movement. The difference between the two is that the far-right wants to dismantle the institutional apparatus of Chavismo completely, likely even the 1999 Bolivarian constitution. The more moderate faction would be a kind of Chavez-lite. They would keep some of the social misiones established by the Bolivarian government. But they would not expand them at all, and would get rid of some that currently exist. In either case, the traditional elites would be re-ensconced in their positions of social, political, and economic dominance. The project of empowering those traditionally excluded from political participation and economically disenfranchised would be halted.

Is the Government repressing protestors?

The government has only intervened in protests after elements within the protests instigated violence; mostly against property. This was true both of the San Cristobol protests, and the February 12 Caracas protests. In both cases largely peaceful protests were used by extremist on the right to engage in violence. And protestors have indeed engaged in much violence, mostly against property. They have conducted repeated arson attacks against public busses, police vehicles, bus and subway stations, universities, nurseries, medical centers, food distribution centers, and government buildings. They have also certainly engaged in violence against persons. The recent assassinations of two Venezuelan intelligence officers, as well as a spate of attacks that has seen over one hundred fifty Cuban doctors assaulted are only a couple examples of the opposition sponsored violence; violence the dominant US media has ignored. Moreover, of the 2200 or so people that have been arrested, only about 190 remain in detention.

In fact, the majority of the deaths associated with the protests have been caused by the opposition supporters. More people have been killed by protestors at the barricades than have been killed by government security forces.[19] According to one report about thirty people have been killed indirectly as a result of obstruction caused by opposition barricades.[20] According to another report eight police officers had been killed as of April, while only four opposition supporters had been killed by police. [21] And it should be noted, since it isn't in the dominant US media, that several police officers have been arrested for their roles in the deaths of civilian protestors.

The government did indeed clear away the barricades and protest camps that the protestors set up. They did not commit mass violence in doing so. In fact, one police officer was killed and a couple others were wounded by sniper fire as they cleared away a barricade in an opposition neighborhood. In the barricades cleared away by the police thus far weapons, explosive and drugs have been uncovered. How exactly can the US condemn the Venezuelan government for doing this without total hypocrisy? How can one reasonably call the actions of the Venezuelan government a crackdown, when the municipal governments across the US cleared away the protest camps of the Occupy Wall-Street movement in a similar manner? If what the Venezuelan government is doing is repressing its citizens, then what happened to the Occupy Wall-Street movement here was government repression.

Where is the violence coming from?

If you believe the reports of the dominant media in the US the violence in Venezuela comes from two sources, the government's security forces, and pro-government militias known as colectivos.[22] The reality is that the colectivos, while real, are largely a boogey man and scare tactic used by the elite to justify their fear of and dislike for the Bolivarian government and its social mission.[23] The fear of colectivos matches the same hysteria that the opposition tried to foment in the early 2000s about the Bolivarian Circles Hugo Chavez had proposed people form. These were basically study groups for coming to a better understanding of the ideas of Simon Bolivar, whose ideology Chavez was using to guide his administration, and was informing his vision of the transformation of Venezuelan society. Yet, in both cases the right-wing elites makes these groups out to government organized paramilitary militias to be used for the sole purpose of terrorizing the wealthy and committing violent acts against them.

We looked at some figures above about the deaths in the recent wave of unrest. What we saw was far from a heavy handed police "crackdown", but instead a much more nuanced situation. What we can say for sure is that both pro- and anti- government supporters have been killed. Several police officers and security forces have been killed. People have been killed indirectly as a result of the erection of opposition barricades. Are there violent factions in the Chavista movement? Yes. Are there violent factions in the opposition? Yes. The picture that emerges from an unbiased look at the situation suggests that the majority of the violence, certainly against property, is coming from the ranks of the opposition, from the protestors themselves. As for the violence against persons, there have been attacks on both sides, but again the majority of the violence seems to be coming from the opposition side. This reality is reflected in the geographic locations of the protest centers and barricades, which are concentrated entirely within the affluent neighborhoods of the Caracas. There are no, that is not even one, protest barricade that has been erected in the barrios, which tend to be more pro-Chavista. This dominant trend as to where protests are concentrated holds true for the protest centers outside the capital as well.

The media in Venezuela plays a large role in fomenting violence. The opposition owned media has a 90% audience share in the country, and they use this position to pump out anti-regime content. Anyone who doesn't think there is freedom of speech in Venezuela should watch Venezuelan TV for just a little while to get a taste of the kinds of things that are said about the government, and government officials on TV. The largest and most dominant media outlets in Venezuela use their position to broadcast the calls of opposition politicians for citizens to take to the streets, and to use violence there. This is exactly what so-called "opposition leader" Leopoldo Lopez did between the February 12th protests and his February 18th arrest. Moreover, the media in Venezuela is so partisan and anti-regime that it has and continues to use manipulated videos and photos to create a false perception of the level of violence in the country, and a false perception of who is committing that violence and for what reasons; just as was done in 2002 with the now infamously edited video footage allegedly proving government supporters intentionally fired on a peaceful opposition protest march. [24]

In one particularly gruesome incident opposition leaders on television called for protestors to string wire across the streets at the sites of their barricades. When some protestors did in fact do this at least one person on a motorcycle was nearly decapitated. [25] This is just one, though striking, example of the opposition's desire to create chaos in an effort to destabilize the Bolivarian government regardless of whether or not innocent people are hurt or killed. More people have been killed as result of the opposition protests than opposition supporters have been killed by security forces. To portray the situation in Venezuela as one where peaceful student protestors are being violently cracked-down upon is to distort the reality of the current situation significantly. Venezuela's opposition, and their US allies want public opinion to see the situation there as like Egypt, or like Iran's so-called Green Revolution. This way they can justify intervention to restore "democracy", i.e. the traditional elites.

What are the political and economic causes of the current unrest?

This most recent round of unrest in Venezuela is clearly a result of a very deep seated conflict between classes in Venezuela, that is between the traditional elite and the majority who have been largely excluded from Venezuela's "democracy" in the Punto Fijo period. Looking to the historical record we see that the hostility of the traditional Venezuelan elites was only more deeply aroused as the Bolivarian government under Hugo Chavez moved to take a bigger role in the economy through land reform and increasing control of the national petroleum company, PDVSA. Land reform and nationalization of domestic assets are classic triggers for class conflict in Latin America. Mostly this is because throughout Latin America the economic and political elites tend to be the owners and beneficiaries of an often widely disproportionate amount of that land and those assets. In Venezuela, just like many other Latin American nations, a small minority of owners control the majority of the commodity in question. In Venezuela before the land reform 1-2% of the land owners controlled around 60% of all arable land.[26] Land reform and nationalization have also been classic triggers for US intervention either overt of clandestine.

In Venezuela PDVSA has been, and will likely continue to be the proverbial golden goose. That is to say that whoever controls it, and its enormous revenues, controls the future of Venezuelan society. Under the old regime PDVSA was a source of cushy patronage jobs, and a way for Venezuela's elite to siphon off large portions of the revenue from the sales of Venezuela's natural resources. Anyone the least bit acquainted with the political-economic situation in Venezuela knows that the oil industry dominates the Venezuelan economy.[27] The revenue generated from the sale of petroleum accounts for 90% of Venezuela's export earnings, and provides 50% of the government's budget. This gives come context to the importance of the oil industry to the Venezuelan economy, and thus to Venezuelan society. With the importance of petroleum to the world wide industrial economy, and its current price per barrel it is clear that whoever controls PDVSA will control very large revenue streams. Given the size of these revenue streams and their relative importance in determining the health or sickness of Venezuela's fiscal situation, whoever controls these revenue streams controls the wealth necessary to shape the future of Venezuelan society. This is why having the Bolivarian government taking control of PDVSA and its revenues was so important to Hugo Chavez.

The reality of the situation is that the events of the early part of 2014 resemble in an uncanny way those of the early part of 2002. [28] It was in one of the forty nine decrees passed just as a set of enabling laws were set to expire that Chavez began his attempt to wrest control of PDVSA from the entrenched elites who dominated its management. It was in response to this set of decrees that protests began in the spring of 2002. This is part of the reason why people were on the streets protesting that day in April when the alleged anti-opposition violence occurred, which in turn instigated the series of events leading to the attempted coup. Chavez's decision to enact land reform and take increased control of PDVSA ignited a backlash from the conservative elites who always had controlled PDVSA and used its revenues to enhance their own standard of living.

The parallels between the situation in 2002 and 2014 are striking. The basic explanation is that the opposition, discontent with the results of democratic elections, utilized street protest tactics in order to attempt to provoke the government into a violent reaction which would serve as a pretext for a coup. The role of the media in both cases is very similar in that they continue to provide a platform to opposition politicians and their often incendiary rhetoric, as well deliberate manipulations of images and videos to fit into the opposition's favored narrative of events. And just like in 2002 the dominant US media parrots what the Venezuelan media reports. In 2002 the US media distortion would have led the US to embrace another anti-democratic coup in Latin America. Now in 2014 US media distortion of events in Venezuela is leading some in the US political establishment to seek to impose economic sanctions on the country. These sanctions do not serve the interests of the American people in any way, shape, or form. Moreover, the reasoning behind imposing sanctions on Venezuela, as we have just seen, is full of lies, inconsistencies, and misinformation. These sanctions would only serve to aid the cause of the traditional light skinned elites who wish to retard the development of, or abolish entirely the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

It is sad to say that only foreign media outlets, and some small radical US outlets, can or will present the issue for that it is, a straightforward attempt at regime change.[29] The distortion of the reality of events in Venezuela contributes to the ability of the elites in Venezuela and their US partners to advance their political agenda. Based on a false narrative they can, as we are seeing now, attempt to get the weight of US power behind their project to destabilize and overthrow the elected government. Economic sanctions on Venezuela would be one more plank in this platform, and another instance of direct US support for the attempted ouster of a legitimately elected democratic government of a sovereign and independent nation.

Related articles:

Venezuela's Present and Future: A Common Sense Analysis

From Radical Resistance to Propagating Imperialism: Latino/a Student Organizations and Venezuela


[1] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/house-oks-venezuela-sanctions-23903278

[2] http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/10641

[3] For a good account of this see Bart Jones' book Hugo!. Steerforth: 2007.

[4] That the US was indeed prepared to endorse the coup can be seen in the meeting over breakfast on the very first morning after the coup took place between the US ambassador Charles Shapiro and the new President Pedro Carmona.

[5] http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/02/25/tragedy-of-venezuela/h1r9?reloadFlag=1

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/28/opinion/venezuelas-angry-students.html?_r=1

[7] http://www.newsweek.com/venezuelas-maduro-looks-hardline-chavez-tactics-protests-spread-230739

[8] http://roarmag.org/2014/02/venezuela-protests-opposition-coup/

[9] http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116703/venezuela-protests-started-sexual-assault-san-cristobal

[10] http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-01-30/venezuelas-high-crime-rate-hobbles-economy

[11] http://business.financialpost.com/2013/05/16/venezuela-toilet-paper/

[12] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/04/venezuela-queues-food-ration-cards

[13] http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2014/04/28/venezuelas-problem-isnt-with-the-aim-of-helping-the-poor-its-with-the-methods-theyre-using/

[14] According to several reports and studies a reasonable estimate for the percentage of the population that shops for at least some things at Mision Mercal stores is around 50%.

[15] See note 7

[16] http://www.cnbc.com/id/101496042

[17] http://creativetimereports.org/2014/04/28/venezuela-where-the-wealthy-stir-violence-while-the-poor-build-a-new-society-dario-azzellini-protests-in-venezuela/

[18] http://www.businessinsider.com/how-venezuela-got-so-very-violent-2014-3

[19] https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/56008

[20] See note 17

[21] http://www.4thmedia.org/2014/04/venezuela-us-fomenting-unrest-with-the-aim-of-provoking-a-ukraine-style-slow-motion-coup/

[22] http://www.newsweek.com/venezuelas-maduro-looks-hardline-chavez-tactics-protests-spread-230739

[23] http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/02/venezuela-protests-war-zone-explained

[24] http://www.globalresearch.ca/constructing-the-anti-government-protests-in-venezuela-through-deceiption-a-photo-gallery/5369165

[25] http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/venezuela-deaths-rise-to-8-as-unrest-claims-student-and-biker-1.1701860

[26] See ­Venezuela's Bolivarian Democracy. Eds. David Smilde & Daniel Hellinger. Duke University Press: 2011.

[27] For a great book see Miguel Tinker Salas' The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. Duke University Press: 2009.

[28] http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/the-americas-blog/violent-protests-in-venezuela-fit-a-pattern

[29] http://rt.com/op-edge/protests-in-venezuela-violence-085/ & http://www.presstv.com/detail/2014/03/15/354758/us-engineers-venezuela-overthrow/