Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Land of Dreamers

“The credibility of the organization is in serious question by any credible observer. The record of the OAS in Venezuela is an embarrassment.”
—José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch

In February a 17-year-old girl was attacked and robbed in San Cristóbal, a Venezuelan city on the border with Colombia. It was the kind of unfortunate incident that could and does happen in virtually any city in the world on any given evening. But in San Cristóbal it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since the previous year the city’s University of the Andes’s Botanical Gardens had become overrun by drug dealers and criminals. This was part of a national trend that has resulted in Venezuela having one of the highest crime rates in the world. In San Cristóbal many of the criminals’ victims were students, and they lobbied for better security—in vain. After the February 3 attack, word of it spread and the next day students came out to protest. The police response was to arrest protestors and send them to a detention center hundreds of miles away in a city called Coro, where they were reportedly mistreated.

The student response was more protests—not only in San Cristóbal but across the country, including the capital Caracas. They’ve been going on ever since. Government forces have pushed back with force, using tear gas and water cannons. As of this writing, the reported death toll is 36. The government’s political opponents were quick to jump on the protest bandwagon. The most prominent was 42-year-old politician and economist Leopoldo López, and he was soon put behind bars by the government.

Obviously, the protests are not simply about unhappiness over the crime rate. Under the administrations of the late Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, oil-rich Venezuela is an economic basket case. Inflation is sky high and shoppers at markets face queues at times numbering more than a thousand. Maduro, who not only lacks his mentor’s charisma (which was always lost on me) but is clearly incompetent, won election to the presidency only narrowly and not without suspicions. And, given the government’s tight control on the media, the election could hardly have been considered very fair in any event.

According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the masked thugs on motorcycles who have been inflicting the most harm on the protestors are paramilitaries organized by the Chavista government.

One suspects that the situation in Venezuela would have gotten more worldwide attention if not for the even more dramatic events involving Ukraine. Reporting in the general international press has been sketchy at best. Some reports I have heard paint the student protestors as “middle class” or “conservative,” suggesting a bourgeois-vs.-poor narrative.

A rare high-profile mention of the situation came during the Academy Awards ceremony a few weeks ago when Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto expressed solidarity in his acceptance speech with “the dreamers” in Ukraine and Venezuela. Fellow actors Kevin Spacey and Forest Whitaker later tweeted their criticism of the Venezuelan government. Previously vocal Hollywood supporters of Chavez—Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Michael Moore—stayed silent. A photo showing Penn—who has deservedly earned praise for his relief work in Haiti—holding a sign in Spanish supporting Maduro showed up on Twitter, but it was pretty obvious that it had been composed à la Photoshop. More significant was criticism from musicians Willie Colón and, especially, Rubén Blades, whose political activist credentials are impeccable. Clearly stung, Maduro insisted on television that Blades had been misled by fascists. According to none other than Madonna (in a February tweet), “Fascism is alive and thriving in Venezuela” and “Maduro is not familiar with the phrase ‘Human Rights’!”

Events in Venezuela have divided Latin American countries. The protests have been ignored by the Organization of American States, which met in Washington on Friday. In an unusual move, Panama made Venezuelan opposition lawmaker María Corina Machado a temporary member of its delegation so that she could address the body, but delegates voted not to include her in the formal agenda. After hours of arguing, she was finally allowed to speak briefly in an ad hoc capacity. The delegates also took the unusual step, in a 22-to-11 vote, of barring the media from the session. The U.S., Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay and Chile supported her appearance. Brazil, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina and various Caribbean countries joined Venezuela in opposition. Her plea for a resolution demanding that Venezuela release its political prisoners and respect freedom of speech went nowhere. Machado’s supporters fear that she could face arrest after her return to Venezuela.

Brazil’s rebuke of Machado apparently reflects the fact that Brazil is heavily invested in the Venezuelan economy. But it is a sad irony, given that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff herself was once a student leader who stood up to authority and who, as a result, was tortured by her country’s military.

In the end, a lot of people choose sides based on ideology rather than on respect for democracy or human rights. That is how yesterday’s firebrand who used to fight authority can, later in life, become the defender of authority that abuses its power.

If you find that thought as depressing as I do, then you may take some pleasure from the YouTube video on this page of the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio. Filmed last week at a debate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, it went viral in South America. A young Venezuelan woman is applauded by the audience when she tears into leftist Senator Alejandro Navarro, a defender of the Chavista regime. After telling of a journalist friend who was threatened for writing about the government, she yells at the senator, “Go live in Venezuela. I give it to you, I give you my home.”

Even if you don’t understand Spanish, her body language says it all.

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