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The Venezuelan Protests Are Playing Right Into the Regime's Hands


It’s now been five weeks since the protest in San Cristóbal that set off Venezuela’s latest revolt. Time to take stock.

Outside the Andean states, protests remain largely confined to the better-off areas of the larger cities. Are there exceptions here and there? Certainly. But they’re just that: exceptions. The sites of ongoing unrest remain solidly concentrated in the middle class enclaves of the bigger cities, i.e., precisely where the government wants them.

Large, peaceful daytime demonstrations are followed every night by running battles around makeshift barricades, or guarimbas. This night-time ritual of improvised road-blocks, burning garbage, plastic pellets, tear gas and armed bikers in plain clothes involves many fewer people than the daytime protests. And yet, inevitably, the guarimba has come to define the current protest movement, giving it its flavor, its distinctiveness, its identity.

The peaceful daytime marches have broad public support, but only when they’re seen as demanding redress for misgovernment rather than agitating for regime change. In the country at large, support for a coup is practically non-existent. 

For the communicational hegemon, it’s easy to disappear the large, day-time protests and paint the entire movement as the outcome of a tiny, violent guarimbero clique.

The cabin fever of the guarimba has given the protest movement a blinkered, inward looking, tribal flavor that guarantees its failure. The radical fringe that runs it is entirely indifferent to the need to reach out to the politically unaffiliated people the opposition needs to win over to really challenge the government. To this minuscule but determined hardcore, Robert Alonso is a master tactician, and Reinaldo Dos Santos is illuminated.

With its image increasingly defined by its least appealing members, it’s little surprise that the protest movement has failed to build meaningful alliances outside the opposition base. People in working class neighborhoods, whether urbanizaciones populares or barrios, see the protest movement as something alien, different, not about them, not by people like them and certainly not for people like them. (Yes, there are exceptions, but again, they’re only that: exceptions.) People in the towns and villages see nothing at all, because a concerted blackout has disappeared the peaceful side of the protests from the TV and the radio. (Yes, there are exceptions, but again, they’re only that: exceptions.)

The guarimbification of the protest movement fits neatly into long-established government propaganda lines. For years, the government sought to brand all dissidents as power-mad fascists willing to burn down the country to turn the clock back on the revolution. Over five weeks, a minuscule radical fringe has systematically gone about confirming every aspect of that attack. And the mainline political opposition has proven totally unable to rein in its wingnuts.

To be clear, this is a godsend for godgiven: the ruling clique grasps that it can’t fix the underlying sources of social discontent. Its hopes are centered instead on manipulating how people apportion responsibility for the mess. That’s been their plan all along. And they can’t believe their luck.

What the guarimbero mindset fails to grasp is that so long as there’s no contagion to working class areas, the ruling clique has every reason to be relaxed about the protests. Chavismo’s guiding principle is simple: “a barrio in flames threatens us; an urbanización in flames strengthens us.”

A steady stream of images of better-off people burning down their own neighborhoods is all SIBCI needs to apportion blame for every problem in the country on the fascist bourgeois onslaught. It’s ludicrous, of course, but the drip-drip-drip of repetition across the state’s sprawling propaganda empire, over years, will do the trick.

Don’t believe me? Ask the next 10 Venezuelans under the age of 30 you meet in what year the oil industry was nationalized.

By 2017, all chavistas and a good many politically unaffiliated people will “remember” what the propaganda state will have spent years telling them every single day: that things were fine in Venezuela until February 2014, and that that’s when the shortages started, when the inflation started, when everything went to hell. SIBCI will not rest until things you and I know are untrue seep into our collective “common sense.” They’ve done it before. They’ve already started doing it again.

The governing clique knows what it has to do to leverage the mindless radicalism of the guarimbero fringe into a key buttress of its power. That’s why it feeds that radicalism every single day. The governing clique knows the mainline opposition can’t reach disaffected chavistas with an attractive pitch so long as this madness is ongoing. The guarimba is like a guaya strung across two posts on the path of the mainline opposition’s longer term hearts-and-minds strategy.

So the protest movement has set in motion a real political crisis…it’s just that that crisis isn’t in the government, it’s in the opposition, where a toxic wedge now separates factions that had managed a grudging cooperation for the last six years.

So, for all the ink spilled about how Nicolás Maduro doesn’t have Chávez’s political chops, he’s done remarkably well out of this crisis. In some ways, he’s done better: he’s has suffered no high-profile defections, at home or abroad, of the kind that made the political crises of 2002-2003 so combustible.

Internationally, his stint as foreign minister has served him well: he’s had no trouble neutering the old timey Inter-American system and deftly moved discussion to fora he comfortably controls. And domestically he’s pulled off the remarkable feat of semi-convincingly portraying the opposition as more dangerous to domestic peace and stability than the government.

The last time this happened, it took the opposition years to pull itself back together into a coherent political force. It’s time chavismo was not about to waste. While we were off in the wilderness, a new, far more hostile media and institutional environment was put in place.

With every guarimba that goes up, we renew our determination to tread that miserable path anew. Only the starting point is different. The last crisis brought us from hobbled-democracy to hybrid regime. This is the crisis that eases the passage from hybrid regime to Cuban-style dictatorship.

This piece originally appeared on Caracas Chronicles. Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan journalist and co-author of Blogging the Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era.