Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
For the last two weeks, Venezuela has been on my mind as its citizens have taken to the streets calling on the government to cease repression and violence. You may have heard members of their diaspora giving echo to relevant news that are not being reported inside the country. But, in case you haven’t…
On February 12, university students in the Western city of San Cristóbal, tired of violence, high inflation and lack of basic necessities, marched demanding change from the Government. Seven of them were arrested. Days later, opposition leader Leopoldo López called for a big rally in Caracas. Thousands occupied the streets, dressed in white and raised their tricolor flags, full of optimism that their voices would be heard and that those students would be freed. Some used the opportunity to express their frustrations with the current government. They complained about corruption, scarcity and inflation, and many marched because their friends asked them. The messages from the opposition’s side read: “Free the students”; “Stop the violence”; “The only way is out” (“#lasalida”) and “he who gives up loses” (“#elquesecansaPierde”). The Government too, called State employees for a rally to show their support for the President. They wore red shirts with the emblem of the Venezuelan Oil Company (PDVSA) and a tagline from Ché Guevara’s speech in Havana in 1969: “(…)Being apolitical is to give your back to all the movements of the world(…)”.
As people were wrapping up for the day, three armed thugs from paramilitary groups (“Colectivos”) shot at the opposition supporters, injuring dozens and killing two people. This created unrest and since, more people have taken to the streets around the country demanding change. More restrictive measures were put in place: security forces diffuse protesters using excessive force with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, and armed thugs are shooting at unarmed civilians. Scared of all this, they have improvised barricades with debris (“guarimbas”). To add more to the picture, the government is in control of all communications and has revoked the credentials of various foreign journalists. They have also taken off the air one TV station for being too supportive of the opposition. Freedom of speech is not being respected and to date more than a dozen deaths have resulted from this chaos. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to support peaceful and sustained protests and the messages have shifted to #sosVenezuela, #PrayforVenezuela, #IamYourVoice and “Say No to Repression and Violence”. In spite of other violent events happening in Syria, Central African Republic, Ukraine and Thailand, foreign media has started to pay attention.
Twenty-five years ago, on February 27, Caracas was immersed in riots, looting, shootings and nonsense violence between security forces and protesters in what was called the “Caracazo”, a bloody stain in the country’s history. I still have a vivid image of what I saw on Spanish television at the time: a warzone with looters carrying refrigerators and police shooting at civilians. Today, I’m scared to see violence escalate again for very similar reasons: citizens protesting against the government, tired of its corruption with security forces using force against them. Not until 1999, the country was taken to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and was found guilty of all the charges surrounding the arbitrary suspension of various freedoms; the deaths of 276 people and the disappearance of many. To date, no national court has heard these cases.
Has there been reconciliation from these events of a quarter century ago? Did the investigations reveal the perpetrators of these crimes and are they still part of the security forces? How do the Venezuelan people feel about this dark past? There are too many questions that remain unanswered, and too many perpetrators that remain unpunished. So, I wonder if the country really healed those wounds. If not, if this is the underlying reason for so much discontent between factions in Venezuelan society.
Today, president Nicolás Maduro calls the opposition fascists and accuses them of being the cause of the country’s problems. At the same time, he likes to talk about peace and has convened a National Peace Conference, creating two national commissions: one on economic truth and another one on reconciliation. Both will include representatives of different sectors of Venezuela’s society. Is President Maduro and his government open to reconciliation with the other, and is he willing to take a step back from his aggressive tactics? Will all the voices be heard? I fear that this effort will fail and that it’s too early for this type of transitional justice mechanisms to be put in place. Unfortunately, this calling for peace is no more than a rhetoric campaign in an attempt to rebrand his international image and that of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV.
In spite of what many of my socialist friends think, I don’t think that taking a stand on the situation is about being with the left or the right. The context is very different: it’s about respecting human rights while living in democracy. In a real democracy, people, the citizens should be listened to (regardless of the color of their skin, their political opinion or their social status). The government has the mandate to protect these rights and create spaces for dialogue when there’s so much structural violence. I don’t think these last governments (Maduro’s and Chávez’) have provided enough opportunities for reconciliation. Instead, there’s yet more division between “us” and “them”.
Today, there’s a call for unity, but I wonder how that will happen after so many years of this blaming game. Venezuela needs to heal its past and a dialogue process can’t be imposed. For there to be reconciliation, relationships have to be rebuilt and political consensus is needed. But this cannot happen in an authoritarian state that attacks its citizens and does not guarantee their human rights. Only by combining truth, justice and accountability will the country transition into a peaceful future.
Carolina Sheinfeld, Spain / Venezuela
Rotary Peace Fellow