Much has been said and written about the Venezuelan crisis, but some key factors have not been addressed. Among them is the question of the popular sectors: Do they participate in the protests? What is their relationship with the opposition and the government of Nicolás Maduro? Who are the famous "colectivos" and how do they operate? Alejandro Velasco, author of Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela (University of California Press, 2015), responds to some of these questions.
Pablo Stefanoni: One of many debates that surface when reading about the Venezuelan crisis is – what factors keep Nicolás Maduro in power? He always seems on the verge of falling, but then he doesn’t. Meanwhile, the situation is getting worse. What is your interpretation?
Alejandro Velasco: There are a number of factors at play. Partly, there’s the state apparatus and the Chavista elite. As key figures in the government lose room to maneuver both domestically and internationally, and resort more and more to authoritarianism as a result, they hunker down as they perceive not only a threat to their power, but also a threat to their very existence. For some, it’s an issue of principles: facing an emboldened opposition that is flush with support in Venezuela and abroad, what’s at stake is the legacy of Hugo Chávez and in particular, moving towards a Communal state.
Beyond the opposition itself, this was always going to mean a battle against the Constitution of 1999—drafted early in the Chávez era— and with sectors of the Chavista movement less sympathetic to socialism than to participatory democracy as outlined in the document. So, for more radical sectors, in a certain way, this is a welcome but long delayed conflict, perhaps too much so to be successful, but they will battle it out anyway. For others, however, the stakes are more prosaic: Chavismo’s ties with runaway corruption—whether linked to the preferential dollar or in some cases, to drug trafficking— means that any exit from power will bring jail time, in Venezuela or abroad. So as the conflict grows more acute, in existential terms, it leads to a closing of ranks, although for very different reasons.
Of course, we have seen important fissures in Chavismo, with people who have splintered off, as is the case of Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz. As prosecutor, she has maintained a very critical position against the rulings of the Supreme Court that invalidated the National Assembly, and also against the convocation of the Constituent Assembly and the repression of protests.
For now, though, we have seen no major breaks. In a way, even the prosecutor’s criticism, as harsh as it is, has little legal weight beyond words, and in part benefits the government insofar as they show a certain willingness to give space to different voices within the state apparatus. But it is possible that the pressure she has been subjected to, especially by state media, may have greater consequences, or that her example will inspire more criticisms or generate key breaks. As yet, there are few such examples.
For its part, the opposition— although more united than in previous years— errs in their overconfidence and shortsightedness, based on a certainty of imminent victory. This dynamic has been strongly encouraged—I believe irresponsibly— by voices like that of the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, whose statements sound even stronger than those of the opposition. Furthermore, growing links to the government of Donald Trump, the emergence of right-wing governments in Brazil and Argentina, and the chavista government’s insincere attempts at dialogue, weaken any incentive for the opposition to moderate their positions and seek avenues for negotiation. Given this scenario, government entrenchment mirrors the entrenched attitude of the opposition leadership, from which, in fact, it draws strength.
Finally, there is the 'people factor.' As on other occasions, opposition demonstrations have been massive. But unlike other times, these demonstrations have managed to maintain, day after day, high levels of participation. They also tend to incorporate more diverse social groups than in the past, although it would be an exaggeration to say that it is representative of a true cross-class movement.
In fact, the gap between popular sectors and the opposition is visible in the streets. The opposition attributes this to fear or social control of popular sector neighborhoods, either by the state in its resource distribution — via the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP)— or by the so-called "collectives." There is some truth to this, but it is exaggerated. I think it is rather the opposition’s lack of capacity for self-criticism, to understand why, after eighteen years, and despite the severe crisis, they have not yet been able to deliver a message that addresses the enormous distrust among the sectors who don’t believe that the opposition in the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) cares about their interests going forward. It is much easier to attribute the lack of massive popular participation to the coercive apparatus [of the state] than to their own enormous failure.
This goes back not just to polarization in the Chavez era. Popular sector distrust goes beyond that, towards middle and upper class sectors whose discourse of human rights and democracy tends to focus on civil and political rights more than social or economic ones. But there also exists a moral debt that the opposition owes, tied to their own repression – not only during the 2002 coup, but during the Caracazo in 1989. That’s not to mention various massacres in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which calls into question any real attachment that anti-Chavista sectors have for the democratic principles they brandish. All of this impedes a massive revolt by popular sectors, which tends to give the government room to maneuver.
Pablo Stefanoni: On the point about popular sectors, why don’t they “come down from the hills” as you sometimes hear, given the growing shortages caused by lack of economic control?
Alejandro Velasco: First of all, it’s important to understand that just as the opposition is heterogeneous, and that within Chavismo there are different currents, popular sectors are complicated and sometimes contradictory actors. Two examples in Caracas: In 2015, the majority of the 23 de Enero parish, seen as a bastion of the revolution, voted for the opposition. And in the municipality of Sucre, which encompasses the largest slum in all of Latin America – Petare— the opposition has governed since 2008, although communal councils that are very close to the government do operate there. There are many other important examples like this, of popular areas with mixed political representation. It helps us to qualify responses to the crisis, which in fact are quite diverse.
For example, while it is true that we haven’t seen massive participation by those sectors most affected by the severe crisis, there undoubtedly have been protests in the barrios. We see more and more looting, from shops and supply trucks, in particular in the interior of the country, where the state security apparatus is more tenuous than in the big cities. Furthermore, disturbances have been reported in western Caracas, comprised more of popular sectors, as the food supply system in the barrios— the CLAPs— suffers from failures and delays.
For various reasons, these events are not usually defined as protests. First, because the opposition is interested in projecting an image, above all internationally, of nonviolent organization, centered in political demands: general elections, freedom for political prisoners, recuperating powers for the National Assembly. It is very easy to see the complaints they raise as violations of human rights in the international arena, as they are civil and political rights more than economic and social ones. Given this, though it is clear that the opposition would welcome a popular, massive, and multi-sectoral rebellion, it would be difficult to situate and channel it within the discursive frame and strategies they have outlined. So these protests are latent, still limited to the margins.
Also, the idea of the barrios “coming down” from the hills is very tied to the 1989 Caracazo and tends to limit what we imagine as a popular protest in Venezuela. We tend to think in terms of massive and sudden social explosions, which is not the way protests in popular sectors that identify with the grievances of the opposition have transpired: slowly.
Today, the kind of protest seen in popular sectors is more about recovery than partisan politics. But statistics from the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict show continuous protests on a national scale: neighborhood-level protests against the effects of shortages, inflation, the collapse of public services, etc. In this way the barrios have been protesting and will continue doing so.
But, and this is key: it is one thing to protest the government, but an anti-government protest is another thing. In the recent past, when the opposition showed most strength in popular sectors, it did so by focusing their message precisely on claims that had resonance in the barrios. But they tend to lose terrain when they distance themselves from these messages and focus on demands of a more strictly political sort: immediate government change, an end to repression and state-led violence, absence of political representation. Not that these are issues that don’t matter to popular sectors. In fact, the exact opposite: these were precisely the grievances that catapulted Chávez to power, in his discourse, and for a while in practice, and which won him the votes of sectors that were once marginalized by social and political elites.
But today, the focus on condemning the state for repressing the opposition – which is undoubtedly valid in principle – looks like class privilege to popular sectors, as police violence and abuse is their daily bread.
In this context we see a lack of protests in popular sectors, given that, as the crisis worsens, these groups are not going to bet on a new government unless they see some concrete signs of what is to come, especially if it’s led by people who for decades have demonstrated little willingness to approach, and even less to understand, popular sector demands. They [the opposition] did not make an effort to understand why Chávez was able to captivate the dreams of so many Venezuelans – which didn’t just happen because they received “favors,” because they lacked sophistication, or because they were bought off.
This is what underlies what I referred to above: mistrust. Undoubtedly, in the barrios, the government is not only weakened, but discredited, even among the most committed Chavistas, for whom the government reacts with timidity and incoherence against what they perceive as a violent opposition. But surveys show that the opposition has a clear majority, with about 55% support versus 15-20% for the government. This means that in spite of the crisis, a large part of the population that once sympathized with Chavismo and is now disappointed in the government has still not decided to support the opposition. And certainly, they are right to think this in the context of protests that are becoming increasingly violent, particularly now, when protests are directed towards changing the government without a clear vision for the future.
Pablo Stefanoni: To what degree do CLAPs and the collectives work as mechanisms of social discipline?
Alejandro Velasco: These mechanisms certainly exist, but their impact, especially of the so-called “collectives,” is exaggerated in the discourse and in the imaginary of the opposition and its echoes abroad. A few days ago, for example, an opposition leader called the National Guard “collectives,” while a few weeks ago a statistic circulated in a major international press outlet, that indicated that the collectives “control” 10% of the country. Beyond questions about how one arrives at this number, about how control – territorial, demographic, operational – is defined, what this sort of analysis points to is a homogenous subject that doesn’t exist in reality. Although the collectives share certain characteristics – among them the most significant one of course is the use of weapons in a para-state role – the reality is that there is a wide variety of groups that call themselves “collectives.” The majority identifies with the government, but their level of support and their motives vary greatly, especially in moments of open conflict like the one Venezuela faces currently.
In very general terms, we can identify three types of collectives: one group is long-standing, with origins preceding Chavismo. In terms of revolutionary ideology and tactical discipline they are very well organized, and trace their roots and inspiration to the guerrilla movements of the 1960s. They also carry out important social work in their communities, in addition to vigilance against local criminal gangs in the spaces in which they operate, which gives them legitimacy – though of course there are exceptions. These groups have clashed with the Chavista state, even with Chávez in his time, as they criticize the lack of ideological commitment against rampant corruption within the governmental elite. They are autonomous from the hierarchy of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV) and control their own weapons, which Chávez wanted them to hand over to the Armed Forces, unsuccessfully. In fact, while other components of the repressive state apparatus have close ties with collectives, the armed forces generally see them negatively. This helps explain the dynamic that causes them to take action in times of high conflict: not so much in support of Maduro but in the defense of what they understand to be a military campaign without quarter to neutralize them in the context of transition.
Another group formed between 2007 and 2012, at the height of Chavismo. They use the aforementioned group as their model, and developed certain similar functions of defense and social work in limited spaces. Their ideology is much more committed to “21st century socialism;” or, more loyal to Chavismo, and therefore less autonomous. Many are comprised of much younger people than in the first collectives, with less of a history of social struggle in their communities, but willing to forge that experience during the resource bonanza of those years. As these resources have become scarcer under Maduro (and before), and because they lack a strong and independent ideological base, some have turned to criminal activities, making use or their government contacts, their weapons, and control of specific spaces.
Finally there are what we might call “disguised” collectives. They arose during the implementation of the so-called Operation Liberation of the People (OLP), under which Special Forces enter the barrios to disperse supposed criminal groups. These operations often end in extrajudicial killings. In the context of these OLPs, police precincts have had contact with collectives in spaces where they operate – in principle to avoid confrontations. But in this case the police have also appropriated some of the collective’s tactics of vigilantism, with clearly repressive ends, especially as they turn to intimidation and shock tactics among opposition-controlled areas. In doing so, they confirm the sense that all collectives are a latent monster under the bed. We begin to see these groups in the protest cycle of 2014, properly part of the government but who act in name and tactics like armed civil groups, dressed as civilians and riding in motorcycle groups.
The confusion about who or what is truly a collective suggests that, in a transitional context, the armed forces – who have tumultuous relationships with the collectives, whom they see as usurpers of their functions – will have ample room to maneuver under the pretext of neutralizing anything considered a collective. This clearly tends to deepen the sense of an existential defense by collectives who are otherwise critical of the Chavista hierarchy, whether for corruption or for lack of revolutionary commitment.
Pablo Stefanoni: And the CLAPs?
Alejandro Velasco: The CLAPs function as a form of social control in a clearer way and with a greater impact, given that they cover much more territory, and, further, involve assistance that has become more critical and necessary as the crisis worsens. Not for nothing that Maduro’s approval ratings went up in the beginning of this year, coinciding with a massive and successful CLAP distribution operation. But it is also a double-edged sword. The more the CLAPs create an expectation of critical and timely aid, the higher the expectation of timely follow-up. To the extent that it doesn’t fulfill this expectation, it’s not only possible but probable that this tie to the government will undo itself and people will come out to protest.
What scenarios do you foresee for Venezuela?
Everything points to a scenario of more confrontation, which, in fact, marks a milestone in Venezuela’s recent past. It’s quite remarkable that the intensity of the polarization, and the levels of protest and conflict that the country has experienced over the last two decades (and even before), compounded due to the high number of arms in the street and high rates of criminal violence – has not led to civil war.
Today we are in a very different conjuncture than previous occasions of tension, protest, and violence. The government is not only weak in terms of popular support, but also faces a completely antagonistic geopolitical situation. And there are so many politicians immersed in corruption, that it is unlikely they may receive immunity in a context of political transition. The government is cornered and has demonstrated it has no interest in negotiating in good faith, since they have everything to lose. This is why they use all institutional levers to try to stem that debacle, accepting the costs to legitimacy in the domestic and international spheres. Of course, within the opposition, which has more support than ever in and outside Venezuela, there is also no willingness to negotiate. First because it is a question of principle –as in “we don’t negotiate democracy,” although what they understand by democracy is a lingering questions – but more than anything, because they feel close to a final victory.
However, it is also true, even though it may be difficult to accept, that neither the opposition nor the government has enough power on its own to emerge victorious. This is why they are stagnated, in brutal trench warfare with no clear outcome. The government is aiming to wear down the opposition; the opposition seeks a decisive break within the government – for example, of key players in the armed forces – and the growth of protests by popular sectors that will require repression of the sort that have met protests more conventionally associated with the opposition. This would take away a lot of credibility between sectors that remain highly critical and disappointed with the current government, but who have not yet decided to bet on an alternative opposition government.
The wildcard is the Armed Forces. It’s more and more evident and known, not just internationally but within Venezuela, above all among those who sympathize or sympathized with the government, that military elites are openly involved in corruption, especially in trafficking medicine, food, and foreign currency, which directly affects popular sectors. But unlike elite civilian Chavistas, the armed forces know that they are the key to any negotiation because they control the weapons of the state – and that they are in positioned, in a given moment, to direct these weapons toward “pacifying” sectors, like the collectives, that violently oppose a transition. In fact, the opposition maintains ties to the military hierarchy and has asked publicly that they declare themselves against the government. And they may yet, but beyond the hypocrisy of this request by the opposition, who have criticized the military for many years for overpowering civilians, it is the very same civilian sectors that will suffer the consequences of a military take-over.
It is worth remembering the words that then a high-level Democratic Action leader told the new president Carlos Andrés Pérez on the eve of the 1989 Caracazo: “When the army goes into the streets, it is to kill people.” As such, it doesn’t help to speak of angels and demons in Venezuela. Those who raised human rights as an issue then now violate them, and vice versa. And the barrios that are so often talked about but so rarely heard – and even less understood— are the ones who end up paying the highest price. In sum, this is the crux and the weight of our current crisis.
This article originally appeared in Spanish at Nueva Sociedad. Translation by Laura Weiss and Lauren Kaori Gurley.
Alejandro Velasco is a historian and professor at New York University. He is executive editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.