What recent episodes of protest and violence in Venezuela tells the region

Pía Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics

For more than a decade Venezuela has been a focal point in the continental geopolitics. It was in Venezuela where, at the end of the 1990s, the fault lines of the neoliberal model spread opening new possibilities, in theory and practice, for post-neoliberal and socialist experiments across the region. And for more than a decade these experiments seemed to work. According to the World Bank (2014), despite falling growth rates, Latin America continues to successfully reduce poverty and promote shared prosperity. The proportion of the region’s 600 million people living in extreme poverty, defined as a daily income of less than US$2.50, was cut in half between 2003 and 2012 to 12.3 percent. Poverty reduction was accompanied by strong income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the population. In the case of Venezuela, a total transformation of the country’s social, political and economic system meant policies leading to a 50 per cent reduction of poverty and a 65 per cent drop in extreme poverty, from the end of 1998 to the end of 2012.

While socially this is undisputable, Venezuela entered a dangerous path of protest/repression that for the last two weeks put its troubles in the spotlight. The way that politics settles in Venezuela will affect the future of the region. This is not an exaggeration. In many ways, the Bolivarian Revolution represented a structure of opportunity for many of the new regional processes such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) or that of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC). Not to mention the Venezuelan–led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the project that also gathers Cuba, Dominica Republic, Antigua, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; or blocs such as Petrocaribe, of significant relevance for many Caribbean nations. Politically these blocs still have to take the lead and, at a minimum, pronounce themselves in relation to the crisis in democratic politics in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, just as we have seen in Brazil, Chile and Argentina in recent months, the practice of democratic citizenship in a ‘post-neoliberal’ era is far from consolidated. New episodes of social mobilisation are now effectively expressing unsettled citizenship in Venezuela. This case, perhaps where political contradictions have become more exposed and strained, acts as a reminder of the political malady of the Left: social polarisation and (class) contradictions affecting ‘post-neoliberal’ political experiences in the region. In Venezuela, the attitudes between hardcore opponents and hardcore supporters of the (Chavista) government are well entrenched, with structural and ideological roots that predate the Chávez era. High poverty and inequality due to the misdistribution of oil wealth in the decades prior to Chávez created conditions for a deep class divide.

Current protests in Venezuela reflect discontent with inflation, consumer product shortages and a high crime rate. The international media has reported this at large (see here, here and here), and perhaps more fundamentally, the political tension between president Maduro and opposition leaders. These are immediate motives. Yet, don’t be misled. Violent events in recent weeks speak of subjacent causes held by a deeply polarised society, split in half not because of partisan claims – although certainly elections have strengthened polarisation by institutionalising a zero-sum, winner-take-all political culture– but because of a social fracture amongst Venezuelans who identify only weakly with each (class-anchored) side.

With no elections scheduled for two years, the worst case scenario could be that violence escalates to a point of no return. On the contrary, political settlement will require dialogue and thus toning down the mutually exclusive claims of fascism by the government referring to the opposition, and of tyranny by the opposition speaking about the government.  President Maduro gave some indication of having understood this, calling for dialogue with some sectors of the opposition in search of that elusive and contingent balance so necessary to Venezuela and the rest of the region. Addressing political and social polarisation is key in Venezuela – yet not only- as conservative forces are emerging as a real challenge to current Leftist experiments. Ultimately, it is the very ability of democracy to combine new forces of transformation and resistance which is, once again, at stake in Latin America.

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