One year ago, three people were killed in unrest in Caracas, sparking international interest in a wave of violence that had gripped Venezuela. Across the country on February 12, 2014, anti-government groups took to the streets to roll out a carefully prepared campaign for “la salida” – “the exit” from the elected government of President Nicolas Maduro. While the international media relied heavily on opposition-aligned private Venezuelan media outlets and anti-government groups for information on the rapidly changing situation, we - Ryan and Tamara - were on the ground everyday watching the unrest evolve, speaking to ordinary Venezuelans and getting the real story from the streets. While the international media described a spontaneous, peaceful protest movement that was quashed by repressive security forces, we saw something completely different. We drew conclusions based on what we could see on the ground, and burned the midnight oil researching our way through the fog of war to get to the tangible truth. Looking back on the unrest a year later, this is what “la salida” really was, what the media doesn't want you to know.
1. Despite constant harassment and attacks, the national guard were peaceful
(Ryan) As the unrest heated up in February, international human rights groups decried what they claimed was mass repression against peaceful protesters. On social media, photographs were proffered as evidence of widespread abuses. Most of the photos later turned out to be lifted from protests elsewhere in the world, such as Egypt, Ukraine and Yemen. While the government has acknowledged numerous cases of misconduct by police and the national guard (GNB) and arrested those allegedly responsible, the majority of security forces that did their jobs well were largely ignored. The hundreds of GNB personnel that spent weeks guarding social missions and media outlets while enduring verbal abuse and physical attacks from guarimberos, or violent barricaders, went largely ignored. This wasn’t an accident, as activist Luigino Bracci explained in February 2014. In an article published online he said he regularly saw guarimberos in Caracas using a time tested tactic of goading GNB troops for hours on end, filming their targets in a “coordinated effort.”
“If the guard makes a mistake and represses someone who is insulting him, in just minutes the video is doing the rounds of Youtube, it will be seen by millions of people and will form part of multimedia material that arrives at international chains such as CNN, NTN24 Caracol and others,” he explained.
Yet these brief snippets aren't representative of the general conduct of the GNB. For example, in the second week of March 2014, El Nacional newspaper and opposition politicians spread a story of how the GNB supposedly repressed a peaceful protest in Lara state's National Poli-technical Experimental University. Luckily for the GNB involved, a local independent journalist filmed the entire confrontation. The video shows the GNB negotiating with guarimberos, before giving them a short workshop on human rights and releasing them.
Merida locals thanking national guard - Photo: Tatuy
2. There was amazing, unusual police restraint
(Ryan) The video above is representative of the conduct of the majority of Venezuela's security forces during the protests, and a far cry from the narrative espoused by the private media. The guarimberos complaints of repression in reality boiled down to the government's intolerance of armed groups roaming the streets attacking pedestrians, throwing stones at cars and stringing wire across the road to decapitate motorcyclists. Cities were brought to a standstill by opposition violence, and essentially the public was held hostage by groups demanding the resignation of Maduro. Amid the chaos, I tried to imagine what would happen in my home country of Australia if someone tried to do something similar. How generously would they be treated by authorities? Today, I don't need to imagine it. In December 2014, Man Haron Monis held members of the Australian public hostage in a Sydney cafe, and tried to use them as leverage to make demands of the government. Like the guarimberos, he wasn't afraid to execute some of those he held hostage. I'm yet to hear any human rights groups decry the Australian government for refusing to surrender at Monis' feet.
3. Beautiful cities were turned into rubbish dumps, and the Chavistas cleaned it up
(Tamara) Merida is giant green mountains standing right over the streets, old pastel colored houses, vibrant and often organized communities, and quiet plazas full of artisans, dogs, pigeons, old people mulling the shade, couples, skaters, and tall beard trees. During the guarimbas, the violent opposition blocked off communities and main roads, shutting down the city center, and turning Merida city into a harsh empty zone of scattered and burnt rubbish, ripped up and destroyed street fences, billboards, and burnt buses. The entrance to our dear barrio – a tiny bridge over a shallow river – was blocked with rubbish, stopping gas delivery trucks and food from getting to us:
Santa Anita - Photo: Tamara Pearson
The private media didn't tell the world about that, nor did they describe how many nights, while the barricaders slept, communities would go out and try to clean up the mess. Gisella Rubilar was shot and killed by men in balaclavas on a motorbike, while helping to clean up. The (at the time) Chavista city council and grassroots organizations also organized a number of mass clean-ups, with the national guard tanks clearing the big obstacles, and the council providing trucks for removal of debris. Hundreds of communal council members, PSUV and PCV activists and more would join in these 5am clean-ups, sometimes singing to Ali Primera as they did, while opposition supporters watched on and booed and yelled at them.
4. While the media claimed government crack down on free speech, the violent opposition attacked journalists
(Tamara) On Feb. 11, the day before the violence broke out in Caracas, I walked home from work, passing one of the main blockades, on Avenue Las Americas. Opposition barricaders, with no placards, no chanting, no demands, were burning things in the intersection, pulling buses over at gunpoint and ordering people to get off and the buses turn around, and throwing rocks or pointing weapons at any motorcyclists who dared to try to get through. I stopped to take photos:
Photo: Tamara Pearson
Then three of them came over and put their guns to my face and demanded my camera. “Give us your camera, or we'll kill you,” they said, over and over, pushing me onto the ground, shoving me, ripping my bag. That was just one case of many. Already, a VTV office had been attacked, a Radio Mundial journalist in Merida was attacked and a photographer was shot in the leg. Later, they attacked journalists form the Merida TV collective, Tatuy, and threw their one video camera on the ground. A VTV office in San Cristobal was attacked with molotovs and shot at, a community TV in Tachira was set on fire, as was a community radio station in Arapuey, Merida state. Journalists – public, community, and private- were attacked repeatedly in Plaza Altamira, Caracas, and the VTV head offices in Caracas were basically under siege throughout February, March, and April.
5. The psychological effects of constant fear and destruction
(Tamara) Chavistas, non-political people, and even the peaceful opposition suffered the psychological effects of the constant violence, insecurity, and fear, but the media were more interested in the far-right, whiter, upper-class sectors, and didn't cover this. It didn't suit their message. I remember walking in the street, being scared, when people on motorbikes holding long things drove past, or there were groups of young men talking in the street – because they resembled barricaders. We were scared to take photos, to meet or march too, since snipers had killed people at a march in Bolivar – of course, we did anyway. A doctor friend would walk three hours through barricades to get to the hospital, and be scared every time she crossed one, because they would yell out sexual abuse, beat up people, or demand large bribes to be able to cross. Once we tried to leave our barrio late at night to work, and because we weren't participating in the caceroles – weren't banging pots, neighbors we didn't know yelled at us, “Go to hell, Chavistas, die!”. Chavista effigies were hung off bridges. Another friend had a heart attack because his son had been stuck at home for weeks due to death threats. It became an act of courage to wear a red t-shirt in the street. A lot of public institutions were attacked, burnt, had windows smashed. An explosive was thrown at a Mercal food store in San Cristobal, the governors' residencies in San Cristobal and Merida were attacked, Chavista ULA students were attacked, ambulances trying to take people injured at the barricades were attacked, a man was half striped and tied to a tree and humiliated, a gas truck was burnt, as were many buses and private vehicles including food delivery trucks, various of Merida's new free tram stops were destroyed, some of the Bolivarian universities were ransacked, burnt, or wrecked, the housing ministry in Caracas was burnt, Merida's water was poisoned, a national park was set on fire, 5,000 trees were chopped down for the barricades, metro bus stations were wrecked. In Lara, they tried to burn Cuban doctors alive, and all up, there were 162 attacks registered on Cuban doctors.
In early April, before the guarimbas were over, Maduro calculated total damages at US$15 billion. But how do you calculate the long term damage on human beings caused by constant fear and loss?
Hung Chavista effigies - Photo: teleSUR
Destroying a Metro Bus station - Photo: Alba Ciudad
6. Who was responsible for the death toll
(Ryan) Yet the opposition's violence rarely seeps into international media coverage, despite the death toll from the 2014 unrest undermining claims the guarimberos were peaceful.
In an op-ed for the New York Times in March 2014, opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez claimed, “More than 1,500 protesters have been detained, more than 30 have been killed.” To its credit, the NYT issued a correction admitting the figure of 30 deaths “includes security forces and civilians, not only protesters,” but didn't go into details. So what does the actual death toll look like?
Throughout the disturbances of early 2014, independent news collective Venezuelanalysis.com (VA) kept a detailed, running tally of who died, where and how. Of the 40 deaths listed by VA, deaths of those against and for the government are almost equal, though the news organization conceded a number of killings took place in unclear circumstances. Around 20 deaths were deemed to have been directly caused by opposition violence or barricades. As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting put it, “The presence of the protest barricades appears to be the most common cause of deaths: individuals shot while attempting to clear the opposition street blockades, automobile accidents caused by the presence of the barricades, and several incidents attributed to the opposition stringing razor wire across streets near the barricades.”
7. What the origins of the violence were
“Peaceful” protests in Caracas on February 12 - Photo: Reuters
(Ryan and Tamara) The 2014 BBC article, 'What lies behind the protests in Venezuela?', nicely summed up the Western media's understanding of what sparked the unrest when it stated, “The protests began in early February in the western states of Tachira and Merida when students demanded increased security after a female student alleged she had been the victim of an attempted rape.”
This isn't true. The “protests” began in the first week of January 2014, when a few dozen masked individuals began barricading the main road outside the University of the Andes (ULA), and burning tires. For the first week, the masked individuals drew no police attention, and were left to block the street and harass passerbys. Buses carrying residents of the working class barrios uphill from the ULA were forced back. Without the buses, it became difficult to reach the city center from the barrios, and it was a common sight to see poor retirees slowly walking up the hill past the ULA, carrying their shopping in the tropical heat – while the “peaceful protesters” looked on. The protesters carried small arms, and weren't afraid to draw them on anyone who complained. When the police began trying to clear the barricades, the guarimbas would hide in the university and throw rocks. Once the officers left, they would quickly rebuild. This was the prototype of the kind of urban fighting that would be employed across Venezuela a month later.
The media failed to explain this, and did not explain any of the context behind the guarimbas: upperclass and business discontent with a revolution and national government that favored (and favors) the poor, the failed opposition coup in 2002 and many opposition electoral loses, including one just months before - seeing them desperately seeking other means to gain power.
8. How dodgy the private media's sources were
Chavista rallies such as this one on February 12 in Merida rarely made it to international media – Photo: Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
(Ryan) A major part of the reason why the international perception of Venezuela's opposition is so skewed is because of the voices presented in the Western media. While ordinary, working class Venezuelan voices rarely appear in the international media, right-wing fanatics are often presented as experts. Take Caracas Chronicles co-founder Francisco Toro, whose work was described by Associated Press in 2014 as “a must-read for foreign journalists, academics and political junkies.” One of Toro's last regular articles for the blog he founded was penned on January 20, when he broke news of a “tropical pogrom” where protesters in middle class neighborhoods were supposedly massacred by pro-government “paramilitaries” the night earlier. The article went viral on social media, despite the fact that still today there is no evidence of any mass killings on February 19. The “tropical pogrom” never happened, but Caracas Chronicles continues to be taken as a credible source of information by the mainstream media. For example, in a January 2015 edition of Al Jazeera's The Stream, Caracas Chronicles blogger Emiliana Duarte Otero joined a panel of academics and a student activist to discuss Venezuela's economy. She used the opportunity to warn that Venezuelans could start going hungry within months, labeled one of the other guests (George Ciccariello-Maher, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University) an “agent of communism” and claimed “every single supermarket” in Venezuela has military personnel monitoring “ration” distribution – of course, completely false.
9. Human rights were denied
(Tamara) The opposition barricades meant that for months, people couldn't get to schools or hospitals. One friend couldn't get medicine to her sick, elderly mother. Other people couldn't get to the social security center for vital medicine, such as insulin shots. Schools – primary, high schools, and universities – near the main guarimbas were closed for months, denying children their human right to education. A few schools held classes in alternative venues, when they could, including a meeting room in the workers' hall. The media ignored all this.
10. Scarcity was exacerbated
(Ryan) One of the main complaints from Venezuela's opposition was regarding scarcity of consumer products, yet their main “protest” strategy was to block roads. By blocking roads, the opposition inevitably impeded the transportation of consumer products. Unsurprisingly, the height of opposition unrest was accompanied by a spike in scarcity. For me personally, the logic of this was rammed home one March morning, when I passed a shuttered supermarket with a torched out semi-trailer out front. The burned truck was graffitied with anti-government slogans and had an opposition electoral poster slapped on the side. A few minutes further down the road, there was more anti-government graffiti complaining of scarcity. Again, the media ignored this.
Photo: Tamara Pearson
11. People still organized, despite it all, and continue to do so.
(Tamara) Most importantly, what the media doesn't want anyone to know is that the guarimbas failed. There were weekly marches around the country demanding an end to the violence, and the Chavista's main form of resistance to it was to keep on working on their media, education, health, and community projects – projects they are still working on one year later. The alternative school I taught at still held classes, though I couldn't go because the two main entrances to the barrio were blocked by armed barricaders. Despite no public transport and all the fear, hundreds of us met in the main cultural hall to discuss a collective response to the violence.
Protesting against the violencing during last year's guarimbas - Photo: Tamara Pearson
While the media demonized the “collectives,” portraying government supporters and grassroots organizations as violent, and the opposition as peaceful, the pro-government youth organized regular cultural events in the main plaza to counter the violence. The collective patience in the face of abuse was, and continues to be extraordinary.
Elias Sanchez, PSUV youth activist told teleSUR, "We're in a permanent struggle, advancing more every day."