While serving as president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez faced his fair share of challenges to his power, including a coup, oil lock-out and a recall vote. More than a year after his death, the socialist policies he implemented as part of his so-called “Bolivarian revolution” are still dividing the country’s citizens.
Many of Venezuela’s poor revere him, even in death, and steadfastly support Nicolás Maduro, who was elected after Chávez’s death and previously served as his vice president. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Chávez’s policies helped Venezuela’s poverty rate plummet from more than 50 percent in the late-1990s to 23.9 percent in 2013. Despite waiting in long lines to get basic staples at state-controlled markets, those in Venezuela’s barrios laud the affordability of the government subsidized oil, beans, and other items.
The dramatic drop in the poverty rate is tempered by the country’s rampant inflation rate, which spiked nearly 60 percent since last year. Because of inflation and government currency controls, the bolívar is significantly overvalued and, because the country imports many basic goods, the stocks at supermarkets in more affluent areas are constantly running low. These economic problems, as well as high crimes rates, have galvanized a very vocal and visible opposition protest movement that has taken root in middle and upper class areas of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Many blockades and protests have been led by students from throughout the country who say that the socialist government is ruining their futures.
Violence resulting from the protests have claimed more than 40 lives on both sides of the political divide over the past five months. Pro-government groups, like the Tupamaros, which grew out of leftist guerilla movements in the 1970s and 1980s blame the students for the terror in the streets. The opposition in turn accuse Venezuelan security forces of systematic violence—and of enlisting the help of so-called colectivos, or community groups, who they say operate as government-sanctioned gangs that attack protesters. (Fault Lines' investigation into what's going on in the streets of Venezuela, "Venezuela Divided," airs Saturday, June 28, at 7 pm Eastern time/4 pm Pacific time.)
Fault Lines sat down with José Pinto, the leader of the Tupamaros, to get the pro-Bolivarian revolution’s take on what is happening in Venezuela. Then we spoke with a student organizer named Gerardo “Resplandor” Carrero—who government security forces arrested in early May and is still being detained— to see how the opposition views the situation. What was clear is that the two sides have very different visions of Venezuela as it is now and for the future of the country.
Fault Lines: How much control does President Maduro have among the community organizations that were so loyal to Chávez?
Pinto: Total. All of the community organizations that work on social and political programs in the country are supporting the revolutionary process and they are supporting President Nicolás Maduro. And they are all well disciplined. If you notice, not one of the community organizations has participated in any of the protests that has hit the country. But the other community organizations who belong to the opposition, they are causing a lot of violence in our country.
If you walk through the streets of the eastern parts of the city, people will say that there are shortages, like toilet paper, and problems with the economy, including inflation. What do you see as the problems — not with the revolution, but with the situation right now — that the government needs to fix?
Well, in the first place, let’s talk about the accomplishments because it’s fundamental to talk about the positive things first. We have invested millions of dollars in housing. Our people were living in the hills, and their houses were always falling apart, so President Chávez began his administration with a very important housing policy. More than 500,000 homes have been constructed in this country; 500,000 homes were created for the poorest people, and that is a very important social investment.
There has also been an important social investment in our education system. In the past, our education system was privatized, and today the education system is public. And not just public, but it is widely accessible at the primary, secondary, and university levels. They have created many universities, and we have an immense academic curriculum in this country that has never ever existed in the past.
There has been an important investment in the healthcare system. We are thankful to the Cuban government and to President Fidel Castro for his immense assistance to Venezuela in the areas of healthcare because our healthcare system was privatized, and our own doctors wouldn’t freely help a Venezuelan. Today, we are developing a public healthcare system that is much more advanced. Today we have medical doctors that come to your home, which used to be impossible.
And what needs fixing?
We have to develop the rural areas of the city, that has been one of our primary missions for many years. We have known for many years the importance of industrializing. But today, we’re seeing that if we would have dealt with that process of industrialization in that moment then we could be talking about how Venezuela is self-sufficient because it has all of the riches to reach that level of self-sufficiency.
This concept of a colectivo force — what was the idea behind that?
It’s precisely rooted in that struggle for the liberation of our country. These are struggles that date back to the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. And we began this fight [when] we were students, and we organized ourselves, and we protested in our country so that we could better the quality of life. Not only for the students, but also the quality of life for the Venezuelan people, to construct a different society.
We were born from those struggles, and those struggles got us detained. They tortured us and they assassinated many students, my friends. And they didn’t only kill students, but also community leaders. And all of that history and experience that we have lived — we continue to remember it and pass it down today, to this political moment that we are living through, so that we can continue to bring about the big transformations that our country needs, just like the triumph of President Hugo Chávez Frías.
President Chávez embedded in our country a new social model, a social model that was already part of our literature, part of our discourse, and part of our jobs. So for us, it was our job to support this new vision of the world, this new vision for society. And since we defended that in the past, today we continue to defend it strongly because it has been a very important legacy of President Chávez.
Can violence be justified to protect that revolution?
You can’t prove that we have resorted to the use of violence to defend the revolutionary process. On the contrary, the violence is coming from the other side.
There are two models that are embedded in the Venezuelan society: the bourgeoisie capitalist model and the socialist revolutionary model. These two models confront each other. It has been the ultra right-wing groups of Venezuela and the right-wing groups of Venezuela in cooperation with the North American imperialists. They have been working together to end this dream, these achievements that the revolutionary government has accomplished. They have permanently applied sabotaging policies, destabilizing policies, economic warfare. They have acted in every way possible to defeat the legitimately established government, a government that has been democratically elected.
So, then, what is the point of having armed community organizations?
There are no armed community organizations here. We do have community organizations here, but what they do is social work, political work, cultural work. If there are three or four people who get together to debate or discuss whichever topic, then they are considered a community organization.
What [the opposition has] been trying to do is criminalize these community organizations. They’re trying to associate the community organizations, just like they’ve tried to associate the Tupamaros, with violence.
What do you think about the students in these protests exercising their democratic rights to demonstrate? You aren’t claiming that the students who are protesting for democracy and human rights are somehow agents of the United States, are you?
The ones who are protesting in the streets are militants of right-wing political groups — they are not students. They are part of the political leadership of groups or organizations who are involved in destabilizing our country and they follow those orders. Many of them were and are still receiving support from the governments of the United States and Europe. Additionally, many of them are in Miami being trained. You can’t classify them as students.
What is happening is that these students were being used. These large groups of students from the middle class were being utilized to generate these acts of violence, and if you’ve noticed, these student movements have slowed down. The students aren’t being manipulated anymore, and they are beginning to open their eyes and understand what is happening.
So I had to define what that so-called “student protest” was because it doesn’t exist. It’s not real. Today we are seeing that there are small groups who still conduct these acts of violence, and they are groups that are being paid to do that.
Gerardo “Resplandor” Carrero
Fault Lines: How did you get involved with the student movement?
Carrero: I come from Puerto La Cruz, Anzoátegui State in eastern Venezuela. When I started university is when [Chávez] closed Radio Caracas television. Our first days of study were marches, protests, and repression that now everyone has seen. Since that moment, I felt the need to love my country, to value my country more, and to know that I needed to fight and that I had the responsibility to add my own grain of sand to make a better future.
When the protests and the encampments started, how did you get involved?
Every year we celebrate the “Day of Young People” in Venezuela. This year, we wanted to celebrate it with a march to the public prosecutor’s office to reject the detentions of several students who had been protesting since Feb. 5. That march, like everyone knows, was repressed. They killed two of our colleagues. Seperately, they also killed a colleague from the colectivos, Juancho Montoya. From there, we saw that we had to go to the streets to protest because our colleagues who were protesting peacefully were subject to repression and detentions that today, after two months, has led to having 41 dead colleagues, 2,600 arrested, and 50 cases of torture. [Editors note: These figures are accurate as of early May.] This is a record in the country.
The government has taken off its mask. You can no longer call this a government; this is a dictatorship with which we won’t sit down and talk, with which we won’t accept any conditions to sit at the table to dialogue. This is a regime that needs to get out of power and we are working toward that, that’s why we aren’t leaving the streets of the country until we gain our freedom, until we can give Venezuela a future. And that future begins with the ouster of Nicolás Maduro from power.
Can you explain how you came to found this encampment?
This is a dream that we’ve wanted for a while, to show the world that we can protest in a different way. We did three tours around the country. We collected colleagues and friends for the fight. We all made a decision to abandon our homes, abandon our families, and abandon our classrooms to come to Caracas and raise the flag of liberty.
I was one of the ones who had this idea, but in reality, I’m just one more Venezuelan. I’m just one more young person who wants a different future. The dream of a different Venezuela brought me here, made me leave my family, made me leave a state where I had a ready-made future. Tomorrow, who knows what will happen to us. If a bullet ends our dream because that’s what we’re living through in this country, or our government kills us, or the insecurity in the streets kills us.
What is your ideology? What are you trying to achieve?
This is resistance. This is to resist against a government that is suppressing the young people, a government that wants and tries to call for peace by using tear gas, detentions, and putting our fellow students in Venezuelan prisons. This is a fight of resistance.
Our ideology right now is called liberty. Our party is called Venezuela. And our objective is to give Venezuela a different future. And part of that different future is the ouster of Nicolás Maduro from power. Nicolás Maduro leaving office guarantees peace in Venezuela. That’s our first objective.
I can’t say what the main problem is because in this country, 20 people are killed a day. In this country, you can’t find food. In this country, the electricity goes out. In this country, there is no work. In this country, there’s no future for the young people.
Can you tell us what happened to bring about today’s action?
Today, like almost every day, the Venezuelan regime — in its witch hunt of a civil society that is helping the youth of Venezuela — tried to intimidate by going into homes, taking people away. Today, in the Plaza Altamira, they took a 73-year-old man and his 70-year-old wife simply because they were supporting the Venezuelan youth by allowing them to use their home to eat, to shower, to fight for a different future.
In response to that unjust action, we decided to blockade the streets around the Plaza Altamira. The euphoria of the people, the frustration and rage of the moment made them light fire to a few government entity booths. Those are things you can’t criticize or control because it’s in the moment. These actions will continue while the government stays the course.
What have you seen from your side to illustrate the role colectivos are playing in this fight?
The colectivos are armed groups that are sponsored by the Venezuelan regime. The colectivos are collaborating with the Venezuelan regime. That’s why we’ve invited the country to add to the barricades as a form of protest because we have to protect ourselves against the violence of the Venezuelan regime so that we can peacefully protest.
This is a war. Here, they kill more people than in the war in Iraq. Here, more than 100 Venezuelans die in one weekend. This is worse than a war.
Are you preparing for things to get worse on the ground?
The situation in the country is getting worse every day. We’re prepared for everything, but they’ll be no match for the ideas, the future, and the dreams of the Venezuelan youth. They are armed, they have bombs, arms, the power of the state. But we’re also armed. We’re armed with ideas, hope, dreams, and those aren’t stopped with bullets. They may end the life of a colleague, but thousands of Venezuelans will come out to continue the legacy of that person.
How much support are you getting from other sectors of the population?
We don’t have the support of political parties because this isn’t a fight for political parties or against political parties. This is a fight of an entire population that wants freedom. This is a dictatorship, and dictatorships should be fought. Dictatorships need to be thrown out. That’s what we’re concentrating on.
The day that political parties have a role to fill, we’ll stand with them, but right now this is the fight of an entire Venezuelan population that wants freedom, change, a future, and hope for the country.
In "Venezuela Divided," Fault Lines examines what's happening on the streets of Caracas more than one year after the death of Hugo Chávez. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Saturday, June 28, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, June 29, at 2 a.m. Eastern.