Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Venezuelan Church and the current crisis

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

The Catholic hierarchy in Venezuela has taken a seemingly contradictory position on the current unrest fueled by the far right opposition seeking to immediately depose the elected government of President Nicolás Maduro. This headline characterizes it, "A mediation proposal with rhetoric of the opposition" (Una propuesta de mediación con retórica opositora Página/12 03.04.2014).

The opposition paper El Universal reproduces the new statement of April 2 from the Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana (CEV), Responsables de la paz y el destino democrático de Venezuela 02.04.2014. It's also available on the CEV's website.

The second and third paragraphs certainly read like a brief for the opposition:

Causa fundamental de la actual crisis es la pretensión del partido oficial y autoridades de la República de implantar el llamado "Plan de la Patria", detrás del cual se esconde la promoción de un sistema de gobierno de corte totalitario, que pone en duda su perfil democrático; las restricciones a las libertades ciudadanas, en particular, la de información y opinión; la falta de políticas públicas adecuadas para enfrentar la inseguridad jurídica y ciudadana; los ataques a la producción nacional, que ha conducido a que en nuestro país hoy se haga necesaria la importación de toda clase de productos; la brutal represión de la disidencia política; el intento de "pacificación" o apaciguamiento por medio de la amenaza, la violencia verbal y la represión física.

Los estudiantes y otros manifestantes pacíficos, ejercen su legítimo derecho, previsto en la Constitución, y merecen, por tanto, todo respeto. Las manifestaciones se han visto a veces empañadas por actos de violencia que han dejado muertos, heridos y destrozos en instituciones y propiedades. Es difícil señalar el origen de todos ellos, pero es evidente que muchas acciones delictivas son originadas por personas o grupos infiltrados con el objeto de tergiversar o desacreditar las protestas y provocar su condena. El empleo de barricadas y el ataque hacia personas e instituciones, así como la quema de vehículos particulares y de servicio público, crean una situación que no se debe aceptar ni aplaudir.

[The fundamental cause of the current crisis is the attempt of the governing party and authorities of the Republic to implant the so-called "Plan of the Fatherland," behind which they hide the promotion of a system of government of a totalitarian type that puts its democratic credentials in doubt; restrictions on civil liberties, in particular that of information and opinion; the lack of public policies adequate to confront the legal and personal security issues; attacks on national production that have forced us to the point in our country today where it is necessary to import every type of products; brutal repression against political dissent; the intent to "pacification" or producing tranquility by means of threats, verbal violence and physical repression.

The students and other peaceful demonstrators are exercising their legitimate right provided in the Constitution and deserve, above all, complete respect. The demonstrators have been seen at times as stained by acts of violence that have left deaths, wounds and destruction of institutions and properties. It is difficult to determine the origen of all of that, but it is evident that many criminal actions are originated by persons or groups infiltrated with the objective of distorting or discrediting the protests and provocing their condemnation. The employment of barricades and the attacking of persons and institutions, such as the burning of private and public vehicles create a situation that should not be accepted or applauded.]
The rest is pretty much in the same vein.

This will be interesting to see how Pope Francis/Bagoglio handles this going forward, as the radical opposition in Venezuela seems determined to keep up its disruptions.

Earlier public statements by the Venezuela Church hierarchy seemed to take a more neutral tone with an emphasis on promoting peaceful dialogue between the opposing sides. (See, e.g., Barbara Fraser, Venezuela's Catholic leaders urge dialogue, respect for demonstrators National Catholic Reporter/CNS 02/25/2014; Conferencia Episcopal envío comunicado ante "la creciente tensión" Últimas Noticias 14.03.2014) This latest official statement is clearly tilted heavily to the opposition position, and mealy-mouths about organized violence of the opposition while broadly condemning the government with much exaggerated claims, e.g., that Maduro is building "a system of government of a totalitarian type."

Mark Weisbrot writes in Venezuela is not Ukraine Guardian 03/04/2014:

The spread of cell phone videos and social media in the past decade has made it more difficult to misrepresent things that can be easily captured on camera. But Venezuela is still grossly distorted in the major media. The New York Times had to run a correction last week for an article that began with a statement about "The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government …" As it turns out, all of the private TV stations "regularly broadcast voices critical of the government". And private media has more than 90% of the TV-viewing audience in Venezuela. A study by the Carter Center of the presidential election campaign period last April showed a 57 to 34% advantage in TV coverage for President Maduro over challenger Henrique Capriles in the April election, but that advantage is greatly reduced or eliminated when audience shares are taken into account.

Although there are abuses of power and problems with the rule of law in Venezuela – as there are throughout the hemisphere – it is far from the authoritarian state that most consumers of western media are led to believe. Opposition leaders currently aim to topple the democratically elected government – their stated goal – by portraying it as a repressive dictatorship that is cracking down on peaceful protest. This is a standard "regime change" strategy, which often includes violent demonstrations in order to provoke state violence.
Kanya D'Almeida writes that the current disruptions are "the country’s worst political turmoil in over 10 years." (In Venezuela, a Popular Uprising, or Class Warfare? Inter Press Service 03/27/2014) She gives this broad description of the protest:

Beginning in early February as sporadic student demonstrations, protests are now a daily occurrence, drawing anywhere from 500 to 5,000 people who say they have taken to the streets against perennial food shortages, soaring inflation and a steep rise in crime, including 21,000 homicides in 2012 alone according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, representing one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Although initially peaceful, the protests recently turned deadly, with civilians hurling Molotov cocktails from behind their barricades and the National Guard dispatching units decked out in full riot gear to meet them.
And she points out that this has been very much a protest by the affluent against the government they see as representing the poor (which doesn't in itself invalidate the content of their expressed grievances, which D'Almeida notes "seem perfectly reasonable on paper"):

A Mar. 25 statement signed by over 30 independent Venezuelan human rights activists says protests have largely been confined to affluent sectors in eight of the country’s 335 municipalities.

These neighbourhoods, home to mostly upper- and middle-class Venezuelans who constitute an electoral minority, are now the sites of makeshift barricades where “cables, barbed wire, felled trees, rocks, and spilt grease oil…mix with disused furniture, tires and rubbish that are lit on fire,” according to a recent study.

“The covers of public drains have been lifted, leaving holes in which at least two motorcyclists have died,” added the study.

Contrary to news reports that most of the 33 deaths have occurred at the hands of security forces, the study found that 17 of the victims died at the street barricades, including a pregnant woman who was shot Monday when the bus she was riding in was halted by protesters and its passengers forced to disembark.

"The people you are seeing on the streets constitute the hard-line of the right-wing opposition who decided that they did not want to wait till the next election to get rid of the government," Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington DC-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, told IPS over the phone from Lima.
But there has also been a class element of the protests in action directed against poor and working people, including:

protesters’ systematic targeting of public welfare institutions, utilised by the country’s most destitute and marginalised groups, in a deliberate attempt to weaken the nerve center of the Socialist state.

“There have been attacks on government supermarkets that sell food at subsidised prices, on clinics where Cuban doctors provide free medical care, and on educational facilities,” James Petras, professor emeritus of sociology at the Binghamton University in New York, told IPS.

A few nights ago demonstrators torched an experimental university in the western city of San Cristobal, cradle of the protest movement, where several hundred low-income Venezuelan students were receiving subsidised education.

Over the last 12 weeks, Petras says, protesters have also targeted “many centres of social gathering and recreational activities, electrical grids – especially those that supply areas where support for Chavez is strong – municipal buildings, local banks that supply microcredit loans to small-scale enterprises, and the list goes on.”
Speaking of San Cristobal, Barbara Fraser writes that the protests started there:

The demonstrations began in San Cristobal, capital of the western state of Tachira, in early February, when an attempted rape prompted students to protest the lack of public security. They spread to other parts of the country, including Caracas, and turned violent on Feb. 12, Venezuela's Youth Day.

San Cristobal, near the Colombian border, remained the scene of some of the fiercest demonstrations and crackdowns on protesters, and a large number of military troops have been sent to the town, Gonzalez de Zarate said.

On Feb. 14, Bishop Mario del Valle Moronta Rodriguez of San Cristobal urged dialogue and an end to the violence.
The Real News reported a month ago on this class aspect of the protests, Venezuela Anti-Government Protests Lack Support from the Barrios 03/04/2014:

Given this background, the penultimate paragraph of the CEV's statement sounds ambiguous, at best. In the context of the full statement, it does sound like a partisan statement on behalf of the radical opposition:

Nos solidarizamos con la población de las ciudades que más han sufrido la violencia y los efectos de la militarización. Particularmente con los habitantes de San Cristóbal. Invitamos a todos los católicos a ofrecer a Dios el AYUNO del próximo VIERNES SANTO EN SOLIDARIDAD con todas las familias que lloran a sus seres queridos, pidiendo para ellas consuelo, esperanza y fortaleza espiritual.

[We solidarize ourselves with the population of the cities that have suffered most from the violence and the effects of militarization. Particularly with the inhabitants of San Cristóbal. We invite all Catholics to offer to God the FAST of the coming HOLY FRIDAY IN SOLIDARITY with all the families that cry for their loved ones, asking comfort, hope and spiritual fortitude for them.]
The Venezuelan Catholic hierarchy's statement of April 2 doesn't find space to object in particular to the opposition's targeting of the poor in the militant demonstrations. But as the quotes above show, it is not unwilling to criticize the government's role in responding to the protests.

San Cristóbal is in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, one of the states reportedly most affected by interruptions in the delivery of foodstuffs by the current protests and street blockades and attacks on facilities. Panorama reports in Hechos violentos han impedido distribución de más de 280 toneladas de alimentos 31.03.2014 that Carlos Franklin Cesis, the country's Vice Minister of Food Production, claims that up to 240 tons of foodstuffs have been unable to be delivered to various locations since the disturbances began on February 12, with the states of "Zulia, Bolívar, Carabobo, Táchira and Mérida" the most affected.

The national government removed Daniel Ceballos as mayor of San Cristóbal last week, along with Enzo Scarano removed as mayor of San Diego in Carabobo state. Both were supporters of the opposition charged with refusing to enforce the laws against erected barricades to block the streets and removed from office after being found guilty. Ceballos was sentenced to 12 1/2 months in prison and Scarano to 10 1/2 months. New elections have been called in which the wives of both Ceballos and Scarano will stand as conadidates for the conservative opposition coalition; Maduro's Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) coalition will also run candidates in the new elections. (12 meses de prisión TalQualDigital 26.03.2014; Esposas de Ceballos y Scarano son candidateables a las alcaldías de San Cristóbal y San Diego Panorama 26.03.2014)

The national Interior Minister Rodríguez Torres just announced this week that a drug trafficker sought by Interpol, Gabriel Alejandro Reyes Beltrán, had been arrested in San Cristóbal leading a group doing a barricade. Rodríguez Torres: "Detuvimos a un narco que liderizaba una barricada en Táchira" Panorama 02.04.2014. Rodríguez Torres claims that this is a sign of how drug dealers and opposition paramilitaries are working together in San Cristóbal.

Two Lebanese brothers, Khoury Chamel Akl and Sfeir Richard Akl, were arrested Monday in Caracas. The National Police displayed an impression collection of combat materials they said were seized from the pair (Presentarán a dos libaneses detenidos en decomiso de material explosivo en Baruta Panorama 02.04.2014):

Durante la inspección de la camioneta, presuntamente propiedad de uno de los hermanos Akl, fueron encontrados varios artefactos explosivos, un niple, una pistola, así como, sustancias incendiarias, teléfonos satelitales, celulares, visores nocturnos, chalecos antibalas y un Sistema de Posicionamiento Global (GPS).

[During the inspection of the car, presumed to be the property of one of the two brothers Akl, they discovered various explosive artifacts, a pipe, a pistol, as well as incendiary substances, satellite telephones, mobile phones, night-vision visors, bulletproff vests and a global positioning system (GPS).]

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