Citizen Security in Post-Chávez Venezuela, Part II: Looking at Capriles’ Rhetoric

By Rebecca Hanson

Capriles—as he did when campaigning against Chávez—has made crime and violence a main criticism of Maduro and the government in his speeches for the past month. Last year, Capriles swore to deal with crime within the span of a year, and this year he has again promised to bring security to a country that has seen violent crime skyrocket since the 1980s (according to government statistics in 1986 there were 8 homicides per 100,000 residents; 2012 closed out with 54/100,000). In this post, I take a quick look at his campaign’s rhetoric on citizen security and violence and some of the ways in which Maduro and other government officials have responded.

Capriles’ rhetoric has largely revolved around a new hot button word for the Chávez/Maduro government—“los enchufados” (the nepotists, or those “plugged into” the state.) Suggesting that state officials are more concerned with “milking the state” than protecting citizens, Capriles has portrayed violence—buoyed by state corruption— as barring people’s access to the government’s popular social missions and programs. Appealing to Venezuelan mothers on a campaign stop in Vargas, Capriles asked, “How many mothers are knocking on doors asking not for help in paying for their child’s studies but to pay for their child’s burial, to help them bury their little one who died at 14, 15 years old due to violence?”

 A quick comparison between his speeches leading up to the elections last year and those of the past month suggests that Capriles has focused less on specific criticisms and more on repeating that the government is too incompetent and corrupt to effectively deal with crime. At his campaign closure on Sunday in the center of Cacaras Capriles told voters that the city is ranked as “the third most violent city in the world,” and said that while “15 Venezuelans were killed each day last year…los enchufados take money from the people…this little group of enchufados have not done anything” about violence in the city.

In another recent speech Capriles said, “leadership is not inherited…[Maduro] hides behind the image of the President…without proposals!  Ask him how he is going to deal with problems of inflation, with insecurity, with the prison crisis.  The political will does not exist.  He is an enchufado…The problem with violence got out of hand and what interests them is continued access (to the state).”

If Maduro has focused on other countries to explain the problem of crime, Capriles has held the government up as the guilty party. In the same speech in Vargas mentioned above Capriles asked, “Is violence not a problem here? Is no one killed here?  Is no one robbed here?  Nothing? The problem with violence is distributed throughout the entire country and the government is the responsible one.”

And, in a recent march against insecurity in Caracas, Capriles addressed a crowd in Chacao and said, “We want to construct a country were we can all walk without fear…[right now] no on dares to walk around at night…How does Maduro dare to say that he is going to solve the problem when his mentor, Hugo Chavez, was responsible [for it]?”

Though he seems to have spent less time focusing on particular issues, Capriles’ government plan—available on his website—has not changed much, if at all, since 2012.  The citizen security portion of this plan continues to cite the country’s high rates of impunity, poor police pay, and underfunding of the penitentiary system as main factors in explaining the annual increase in crime.

Capriles has also accused the government of politicizing the issue of crime, saying that he will differentiate his approach to security by moving away from partisan politics and providing security to all Venezuelans. Emphasizing that his platform is for all of Venezuela he has said, “Every time a person falls due to violence no one asks them what party they belong to.  Violence is destroying us all.”

Support for decentralized police forces also differentiates his plan from that of the government’s, which has championed a national police reform and a national police force in a country that currently has around 147 different police bodies. From the perspective of a citizen security coordinator for the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (the coalition party backing Capriles) that I conducted an interview with last year, since the “centralization” of the police, state and municipal police forces have been extremely neglected and underfunded. 

The coordinator emphasized that Capriles’ security policy is based on the assumption that governors and mayors are better equipped to assess crime in their territories and that decentralized police forces can better respond to territorial particularities than a national police force. However, on Sunday Capriles made a call to municipal and state police and the armed forces as well as the National Police force when he asked for a chance to “be your boss, to rescue these institutions….to address the problems” that affect them as government bodies.

The government’s response to Capriles’ criticisms has largely been to focus on crime in his state of Miranda, the second most violent territory in the country, following only the District of Caracas. Recently Maduro sarcastically responded to Capriles’ claim that he could do a better job in dealing with crime by saying, “Tremendous mayor this young man (señorito), coming along criticizing the people (el pueblo) when he has spent four years as a governor of a state that has double the homicide rate of any other state, and it is because [the opposition] is not interested in the life of the people, they prefer that popular barrios become filled with drugs, with crime.”  Elias Jaua, commenting on Caprile’s march against insecurity, said the event was an “act of effrontery, raising the flags of security, when in four years he has not led any sort of politics of security.”  

Soraya El Achkar, the head of the National Security University, when speaking on the issue last year, criticized the politics of decentralization that Capriles’ security plan has supported, citing the decentralization of the police in the early 1990s as a “national disaster.” According to El Achkar, “Each mayor, each governor made their own decisions regarding security. The number of police officers grew at the same rate as that of crime” in the country.”

In my next post I will look at how some residents in popular sectors of the city understand crime, the government’s efforts to combat it, and how these perceptions might play a role the April 14 elections.