CU Hotspots Blog: Protests and Polarization in Venezuela After Chávez

Rebecca Hanson

A new collection of essays on Cultural Anthropology‘s Hot Spots blog looks at how Venezuelans have experienced, coped with, and reacted to recent challenges—a dramatic economic downturn, food shortages, inflation, spikes in violent crime, and protests demanding “the exit” (La Salida) of President Nicolás Maduro—and what these challenges mean for the country’s future.  

In his essay, David Smilde argues for a multi-causal approach to Venezuela’s current conjuncture. According to Smilde, analyses that restrict their analytic views to issues of political liberty or or economic equality inevitably provide partial views of the Venezuela conflict. Both of these sources of social power must be analyzed at the same time along with ideological and military power if analysts hope to provide a full view of the conflict. By paying attention to multiple sources of power, we can appreciate the contradictory movements within the state that have led to robust efforts to promote social change and equality as well as the concentration of power within the executive office. (The full paper this essay was taken from can be accessed here.)

My essay looks at the unanticipated backlash against the human rights oriented police reform implemented by the Chávez government in 2009. The reform’s principle goal was to curb police violence and use of force in order to reduce fear of and mistrust in the police.  However, it has unintentionally spawned a narrative that portrays National Police officers as weak and impotent, unable to use any physical force.  This perception has convinced many Venezuelans that those groups exempt from the reform’s restrictions, like the National Guard and armed community groups, are best equipped to police the streets and protests.

Essays by Veronica Zubillaga and Alejandro Velasco ask why a cross-class mass movement has yet to develop, despite severe corruption, inflation, shortages, and crime.  Though conditions would seem to be ripe, the protests that took off last year have largely failed to connect with poor sectors.  

Zubillaga explains that while episodes of violence, which primarily affect the poor, originally sparked protests, many barrio residents don’t believe that it is the Bolivarian government’s responsibility to “fix” crime. Furthermore, though intense media coverage of the murder of a previous Miss Venezuela in 2014 produced outrage among the middle and upper classes, it did not produce such a reaction in the poor barrios, where violence is an everyday occurrence.

Alejandro Velasco argues that the absence of the poor in the protests is due to their respect for electoral democracy.  Since 1958, when Venezuela’s last dictatorship fell, opposition movements seeking to oust legitimately elected governments in an extra-institutional manner have failed to capture popular support. And the 2014 protests were no different. Insofar as poor sectors perceive the protests as an insurrectional movement attempting to circumvent elections, they remained absent from the streets.

The collection, edited by Amy Cooper, Robert Samet, and Naomi Schiller, include contributions on press freedom, art and protest, inflation, and several other issues.