Ours is an age of riots and rebellions, of radical self-creation in the heady streets: Spain’s indignados, the Occupy movement and, of course, the Arab Spring. We are understandably excited by crowds in the streets, and our pulse may even rise at the sight of broken glass and flames, because for so long such images have represented the shards of the old world through which we can catch the perceptible glint of the new. The protests in Venezuela might therefore seem to be simply the latest act in an upsurge of world-historic proportions.
Not so fast.
Despite hashtags like #SOSVenezuela and Jared Leto’s remarks at the Oscars, these protests have more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.
Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” leapt forth from the collision of radical social movements against a repressive neoliberal state. Fifteen years ago, Hugo Chávez was elected amid the collapsing rubble of the old two-party system, but the “revolution” over which he would preside has far deeper roots. For decades, guerrillas, peasants and workers, women, students and the urban poor struggled against a system that, while formally democratic, was far from it in practice. These revolutionary grassroots movements, which I document in We Created Chávez, blew a hole in what Walter Benjamin called the continuum of history in a massive anti-neoliberal riot that began on February 27, 1989.
This event—henceforth known as the Caracazo— irreversibly divided Venezuelan history into a before and an after. Numbers often fail us in their false equivalence, but there is much that they make clear: some 3,000 were killed in 1989, many deposited unceremoniously in unmarked mass graves. It was into this gaping wound in history that Chávez stepped with a failed coup in February 1992. The revolution predated Chávez, and it was always about more than the individual; so too for Nicolás Maduro today, as these movements continue to struggle alongside and occasionally in tension with the government.
The recent wave of protests in Venezuela—whose hashtag, #LaSalida, calls for Maduro’s “exit” from power—has nothing to do with the arduous struggles of these movements to build a new society. While the protests are ostensibly about economic scarcity and insecurity—very real concerns—behind the scenes they reflect the weakness of the Venezuelan opposition, not its strength. The opposition’s fleeting unity splintered after defeat in December’s local elections, and, impatient with the electoral game, more-hard-line voices—notably Leopoldo López—outflanked Henrique Capriles to the right.
Rather than a breath of fresh air, López is all too familiar, not only for his political intransigence but also because, like Capriles (who lost last year’s presidential race to Maduro), he represents the very thinnest sliver of Venezuela’s upper crust, a sector that has rarely attempted to connect with the poor majority. The very picture of privilege—in a country where Chávez was unacceptably dark-skinned for some—López was trained in the United States from prep school to Harvard’s Kennedy School, an elite scion if ever there was one.
The political party in which both López and Capriles cut their teeth, Primero Justicia, emerged at the intersection of corruption and foreign intervention: López was later barred from public office for allegedly receiving state oil funds from his mother, and FOIA documents reveal that the party received significant funding from US government ancillaries like the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and the International Republican Institute. López does not flinch at taking the extra-institutional route: during the 2002 coup—of which he has said he is “proud”—he led violent witch hunts to arrest Chavista ministers.