The other day, anti-government protesters in Venezuela set a man on fire, severely burning nearly 80 percent of his body. The man had brown skin, and government supporters say he was a Chavista, to highlight the racist savagery of their adversaries. The opposition says he was a thief.
The video of the incident—which shows an anti-government protester throwing accelerant on the man, who then bursts into flames and runs down the street as other protesters, rather than help douse the fire, let him burn—is horrific. It obviously doesn’t fit the narrative of brave, virtuous, democratic activists facing down a tyrannical government. News wires have a curious framing: They decided that the point of the story isn’t “opposition protesters on Sunday set a man on fire” but rather “Maduro excoriated opposition protesters on Sunday for setting a man on fire.” Choose the correct lede, and you too can become a foreign correspondent: Man sets off bomb outside arena; or: Theresa May excoriates man for setting bomb off outside arena? US is blamed after bombs hit Afghan hospital, or: US is blamed after bombs hit Afghan hospital?
The crisis that has overtaken Venezuela is of profound proportion, with overlapping calamities, including critical shortages of food and medicine, soaring criminal violence, corruption, degeneration of oil capacity, and escalating anti-government protests. The crisis is as much existential as it is economic and political, cutting to the core of national identity. Rank-and-file activists are worried that their country teeters on the brink of becoming another Syria. (I noticed, after the last piece I posted on Venezuela—a “roundtable” of opinions from various sources—a new phenomenon, in which the post was denounced by some with the same righteousness usually reserved for arguments about Syria, in which “Chavist” was used with the same vehemence as “Assadist.” That can’t bode well.)
There are plenty of people, in and out of Venezuela, sympathetic to Chavismo who are highly critical of Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. Yet, at the end of the day, where one places the blame for this disaster depends on one’s politics. Either the opposition’s efforts to oust the government are a response to, and are justified by, the regime’s authoritarianism, or the regime’s authoritarianism is a response to, and is justified by, its opponents’ efforts to oust it. On the one hand, the Chavista state has governed as if it were running one long election campaign, constantly in danger of being overthrown, if not by domestic elites, then domestic elites patronized by a Washington-Bogotá axis. On the other, the opposition has run an equally long campaign not to check and balance Chavismo, but to oust it.