The Real Threat to Venezuela’s Democracy

National guards transport an anti-government protester.jpg

Jorge Silva/Reuters/Corbis

Venezuelan security forces detaining a protester, Caracas, March 16, 2014

Last week, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro took to the opinion pages of The New York Times to counter the bad press his government has received for its crackdown on widespread protests over the past two months. He accused the international media of having “distorted the reality” of Venezuela by portraying the protests as peaceful and the country’s democracy as “deficient.” Yet the steps he’s taken to respond to the protests at home have shown that the deficiencies of Venezuelan democracy are all too real. Not only have his security forces abused unarmed protesters; his government has also censored news coverage of the demonstrations and jailed a prominent opposition leader who urged his supporters to join them.

President Maduro has faced major difficulties since his narrow election victory one year ago. A longtime deputy of Hugo Chávez, who died last March, Maduro inherited the support of roughly half the country’s voters, many of whom have benefited from government-run social programs over the past decade. But he also inherited one of the highest murder rates in the world and an economy in deep trouble, with an inflation rate that topped 56 percent last year and chronic shortages of food, medicine, and other basic goods.

The current protests began in early February when, after an attempted rape, university students in the western state of Táchira gathered to demand improved public security. The protests quickly spread to other states and expanded to include other grievances, including the inflation and shortages. Soon the protesters were joined by members of the country’s political opposition, whose moderate candidate, Henrique Capriles, had nearly defeated Maduro in last April’s election. Capriles’ subsequent effort to turn regional elections in December into a referendum on Maduro also failed, with government candidates winning a majority of the contests. Following those elections, several of the more confrontational leaders of the opposition mobilized their supporters to march in the streets, and declared that they wouldn’t stop until they achieved la salida: the exit of Maduro from office.

On February 12 in Caracas, violence broke out when some protesters hurled rocks and members of security forces fired live ammunition. Three people were shot dead, including two protesters and a government supporter, provoking a new wave of protests in more than twenty cities. Most of these have been peaceful, though in many places protesters have barricaded streets, and some have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails. Security forces have been deployed en masse to contain the demonstrations, and there have been many allegations of abuse, including shootings of unarmed protestors and beatings of detainees. Gangs of pro-government gunmen have roamed the streets on motorbikes in several cities, attacking demonstrators and spreading fear to discourage others from joining the protests. Scores of people have been injured, and more than thirty have died, including civilians, police, and members of the National Guard.

In his Times opinion piece, Maduro acknowledged abuses by security forces, but insisted that these have been “very small” in number, and that his government “has responded by arresting those suspected.” The government has indeed arrested more than a dozen security force members in recent weeks (though only after video footage surfaced showing the use of live ammunition on protesters). Its first response to the February 12 killings, however, was to arrest leaders of the opposition.

The initial target was Leopoldo López, head of the political party Popular Will, who has been a leading voice calling for la salida. Foreign Minister Elías Jaua accused López of being the “intellectual author” of the February 12 violence, and the Attorney General’s office promptly obtained an arrest warrant for him on a range of charges, including homicide. It also obtained arrest warrants for Carlos Vecchio, another Popular Will leader, and two other opposition figures. After several days in hiding, López turned himself in and was taken to a military prison, where he has been held for more than a month. Vecchio and the others are now in hiding. The government has yet to present any credible evidence linking López or the others to the violence—or to any other criminal activity.

In March, the authorities also began pursuing local politicians affiliated with the opposition. On March 19, they arrested Daniel Ceballos, the mayor of the city in Táchira where the first protests began, who had denounced the government’s use of force against demonstrators; and Enzo Scarano, mayor of a municipality in the city of Valencia where protests have also taken place. The same day as the arrests, the Supreme Court sentenced Mayor Scarano to more than ten months in jail for failing to heed a court order to remove barricades set up by protesters; and the following week, it gave Mayor Ceballos a one-year sentence for the same offense. The Court has since issued arrest warrants for four other mayors, and upheld a vote by the pro-government majority of the National Assembly to impeach the lawmaker María Corina Machado, a close López ally, so that she too can face criminal prosecutions.


These prosecutions highlight one of the most glaring deficiencies of Venezuelan democracy today: the lack of an independent judiciary. After 2004, when the Supreme Court was packed with Chávez supporters, its justices openly rejected the notion of separation of powers and publicly committed to supporting the president’s political program. Lower-court judges have been under intense pressure to avoid rulings that go against the government’s interests. If they uphold the legal rights of López and the other opposition leaders, they risk being summarily fired by the Supreme Court—or worse. In 2009, when the judge María Lourdes Afiuni complied with a UN recommendation (and with Venezuelan law) to grant conditional liberty to a government opponent, an enraged President Chávez called for her to be locked up. She spent over a year in prison, followed by two more under house arrest.

President Maduro and his justice minster have repeatedly said that it is up to the justice system to determine whether the arrested politicians remain behind bars. But in view of the government’s control of the courts, these assurances ring hollow—as does Maduro’s claim that state agents who have committed abuses will be held accountable.

The government’s efforts to control public opinion about the protests have been equally troubling. On February 11, before any killings occurred, the director of the state broadcasting authority warned news outlets that their coverage of violence at the protests could get them in trouble with the law. It was a valid warning. Under Chávez, laws were put in place that prohibit the dissemination of messages that “foment anxiety in the public” or “offend” government officials, and authorize the government to shut down TV and radio stations whenever “convenient for the interests of the nation.”

Within hours of the first deaths on February 12, President Maduro forced cable TV providers to stop transmitting NTN24, an international news channel that broadcasts throughout Latin America, because of its extensive coverage of the violence. The following day, he announced that his government would “adopt measures” against Agence France-Presse, the international wire service, for having “distorted the truth about the events of February 12.” On February 16, his minister of communications and information announced that the government would take “judicial action” against national and international newspapers for using “manipulated photos” in their coverage.

President Maduro took aim next at CNN, announcing on February 20 that he had begun proceedings to force it off the air in Venezuela. CNN was engaged in “war propaganda,” he declared, with “the aim of justifying a civil war to provoke the intervention of the gringo army against our country.” Seven CNN journalists reported that their press credentials had been revoked. The following day Maduro abruptly changed course, declaring triumphantly that CNN had “corrected” its coverage and would therefore be allowed to stay.

The attacks on these international channels were not mere acts of improvisation in the face of a crisis; they were the latest push in a decade-long campaign to control how the news gets reported on Venezuelan TV. In 2002, when Chávez was briefly removed from office during a short-lived coup d’etat, the country’s four main private TV channels gave extensive coverage to efforts to oust him, and then suspended their news coverage as his supporters mobilized in large numbers to return him to office. Following the coup, Chávez took aggressive steps to limit his opponents’ access to the airwaves—including repeatedly warning stations that they could lose their broadcasting licenses. Two of the four private stations voluntarily dropped their critical coverage; a third was forced off the air; and the fourth was hounded by administrative sanctions and criminal charges until the owner sold it last year to investors reportedly linked to the government, who have dramatically curtailed its critical content.

The government also increased the number of state-run TV channels from one to six, and made extensive use of the state’s emergency broadcast authority, requiring all the country’s TV and radio stations to interrupt their regular programming for hundreds of mandatory presidential broadcasts every year: Chávez announcing new policies, inaugurating new schools, addressing political rallies, playing a guitar, celebrating his birthday, and, almost invariably, berating his critics.

These tactics have continued under Maduro. The Venezuelan channels have avoided live coverage of the anti-government protests, while providing it for pro-government ones. Since February 12, the government has ordered more than thirty mandatory broadcasts, totaling more than forty-five hours of airtime, some of which Maduro has used to denounced the protesters as trying to foment a “fascist” coup. While some news programs have interviewed opposition leaders and government critics, they do so under the legal and political constraints imposed by the government. A local human rights advocate who was invited on one show told me, for example, that the host warned him before they went on the air that the station had been instructed by the government to be very careful how they refer to barricades. On April 2, a news anchorman on a major station resigned, while on the air, because of the restrictions being placed on coverage, which he later said included “specific instructions” not to use the words “barricade,” “shortage,” and “peaceful protest.”


President Nicolas Maduro.jpg

Venezuela's Presidency/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro speaking about the protests, Caracas, February 17, 2014

The threats against CNN and censorship of NTN24 have also sent a message to the Venezuelan media, according to local advocates of press freedom, who note that reporters covering the confrontations in the streets have been intimidated by security forces. Venezuela’s National Press Workers Union has documented more than 170 “acts of aggression” by security forces against journalists, including physical assaults, threats, and detentions. For example, Rafael Hernández, a photographer for the magazine Exceso, was detained after he took a photo of an officer hitting a woman, held for nine hours, and beaten repeatedly; the police confiscated his camera and film.

Moreover, the Press Workers Union figures would be higher if they included attacks on private citizens who have documented violence against protesters. Marvinia Jiménez, a seamstress, was attacked by members of the National Guard after she attempted to film them with her phone as they shot at protesters. Jiménez was thrown to the pavement, where a guardswoman sat on her and pummeled her head with a helmet, leaving her face badly bruised. She spent a night in jail and now faces charges for resisting arrest. Fortunately, the beating was filmed on the cell phones of several other people, who were able to share what happened with the world.

Supporters of Chávez and Maduro often seek to downplay concerns about press freedoms in Venezuela by pointing to reporting critical of the government in the country’s newspapers. It is true that the government has not targeted the print media as aggressively as television, perhaps because the number of Venezuelans who read newspapers is a small fraction of the number who watch TV. But several newspapers have faced administrative sanctions—and even criminal prosecution—for their reporting. Last November, the director of a small daily, El Mundo, was fired after Maduro publicly lambasted the “perversity of the owners” for a headline that was critical of his administration.

And since the protests began, Últimas Noticias, the country’s largest daily, has come under pressure for its independent reporting. Perhaps its most important piece was a study of video footage from February 12, which showed uniformed police accompanied by men in civilian clothing shooting at fleeing protesters—including one who is seen falling to the ground with a fatal gunshot to the head. When it was posted online on February 19, the report provided the first solid evidence that security forces had used lethal force against unarmed protesters and made it harder for the government to blame the violence on the opposition. It was only after this report that the government began arresting members of its security forces, and prosecutors felt compelled to drop the homicide charges against Leopoldo López.

It soon became clear, however, that it would be difficult for the paper to continue to publish such revelations. Shortly after the report appeared, the president of the conglomerate that owns Últimas Noticias resigned and was replaced by a former governor and open supporter of the Maduro government. The conglomerate’s vice president quit a week later, alleging that she had been asked by the new president to politicize the newspaper’s reporting. And in late March, the head of the paper’s investigative reporting unit, which produced the February 19 report, resigned in protest after the paper pulled another article about the protests at the last minute on the grounds that it was too “political.”

That article—which has since been posted online independently—was by a seasoned journalist, Laura Weffer, who spent time with both protesters and members of the National Guard as they faced off in the Plaza Altamira, the main square in Caracas where protesters have gathered since February 12. Weffer’s article depicts protesters from modest backgrounds driven to activism by economic hardship. It also depicts soldiers who share their concerns:

A young [national guardsman] says: “My mother, in Zulia, has to endure the same lines as these kids just to buy a bottle of cooking oil. I think they’re right, but sometimes they go too far.”

But this reporting contrasts with the government’s version of reality, according to which, as Maduro wrote in the Times, “the protests are being carried out by people in the wealthier segments of society” who are out of touch with the aspirations of the Venezuelan people.

In fact, for Maduro and his supporters, the real offense of López and other members of the opposition is their use of la salida as a rallying cry. The demand that the president give up power is, in their view, tantamount to a coup. But calling for la salida is not a coup, and it’s not a crime, or shouldn’t be. A coup is when you seize power, not when you merely demand it. In a democratic society, people should be free to grab a megaphone, march in the street, and demand whatever they want from their elected leaders.

Whether la salida is a wise political strategy is another matter. Some opposition leaders have criticized this rhetoric. Capriles, the former presidential candidate, has urged the opposition to focus instead on specific grievances that are shared by a majority of the population. The opposition is less likely to win over erstwhile Chávez supporters if these people believe that another coup is afoot. Protesters are also less likely to be safe in the streets if the belief is shared by members of security forces and pro-government gangs. And it should not be surprising if this belief is widespread: the government has been priming its supporters to see coup plots around every corner for more than a decade. Maduro did as much in his New York Times article, highlighting the fact that some members of the opposition supported the short-lived coup of 2002.

That coup was twelve year ago, however. The damage the Venezuelan government is doing to the country’s democracy is happening now: jailing political opponents, controlling the high court, intimidating judges, beating protesters, abusing detainees, tolerating violent pro-government gangs, shutting down TV channels, censoring journalists, and filling the airwaves with mandatory broadcasts of the president denouncing his critics as “criminals” and “fascists.”

La salida can also be translated as “the way out.” Level-headed voices, both within Venezuela and abroad, have been arguing that the only way out of the current crisis is dialogue between the government and its opponents, and on April 8, the president and opposition leaders agreed to hold talks. For a meaningful dialogue to occur, the opposition will almost certainly need to drop the demand that the government give up power. But more importantly, the government will need to abandon the authoritarian tactics it has been using to run the country.

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