last week, massive student-led protests all but shut down several of
Venezuela's major cities, including the capital. There have been at least five
deaths and scores of injuries and arrests, coming to
a head on Wednesday night when armed, pro-government militias (the so called
descended on demonstrators in the nation's bloodiest act of repression in recent history. But, taken
in context, the protests are tragically unremarkable in Venezuela. After all,
opposition minded university students involved in the first protests against the Chávez regime would today be in
their mid to late thirties. And there have since been a great many others: each
wave had goals, each worked hard, and still the socialist revolution soldiers on....
time something feels fundamentally different. There's no Chávez. There's no
independent media. And yet the world actually seems to be paying attention.
are two reasons for this. The first is the consistent failure by the regime of
President Nicolás Maduro to paint a coherent, believable picture of what's
really going on in Venezuela. The second is international concern about Venezuela's current media
blackout and restrictions on the foreign press.
with the global community has posed a real problem for the government during
this most recent crisis. Last Friday, during a failed attempt at transnational
public relations, Elias Jaua, Venezuela's Chancellor for the Exterior, gave a cringe-inducing
interview on CNN Español. Nervous and twitchy, so much so that at one point he
actually dropped his earpiece, Jaua accused a great many people of being
fascists while claiming to be "out of the loop" on most every topic broached
upon by his interviewer. He also reproached CNN for "fomenting violence" and
the questioner himself for, first, trying to trick him and, later, for "being
angry" with him. (This episode may explain why Chávez himself never allowed his
lieutenants to address foreign media outside of state channels.)
have actually gone downhill from there. During a rambling, multi-hour speech
Sunday, broadcast by decree on every station in Venezuela, an exhausted-looking
Maduro attempted to explain that every government has the right to defend
itself against intrigue, and that, given cause, Washington authorities would
almost certainly have acted in the same manner. Only later, did he accuse the
opposition of "breastfeeding crows that will now peck out your eyes for
your cowardice" -- a comment every bit as bizarre in Spanish as it comes
off in translation.
Monday, state authorities had given up their charm offensive. Instead they
shifted to publicly accusing the United States of having "activated"
former Chacao mayor Leopoldo López, whose Voluntad Popular party organized the
protests. The government alleges that López was tasked by his handlers with
ensuring a creeping coup in Venezuela, and perhaps even the assassination of Maduro himself. The government
expelled three U.S. diplomats, and López turned himself into the authorities on
Tuesday afternoon whilst surrounded by thousands of his supporters in a confusing, and very public spectacle.
Since that time, the regime has been vague in
describing the exact nature of López's captivity, seemingly unsure whether to
call it "protective custody," "arrest," or "detainment." The fact that Diosdado
Cabello, the powerful head of the Venezuelan National Assembly and, next to
Maduro, the most powerful figure in chavismo, personally showed up to escort López
away (despite having no police or judicial authority) further muddies the
erratic behavior is rendered all the more confusing by Venezuela's lack of a functional
independent media. Venezuelan coverage of the protests is still
virtually nonexistent, and when NTN24 -- a cable station based in neighboring
Colombia -- attempted to provide its own coverage of the protests and
subsequent dispersals, it was soon restricted by government censors. The move raised eyebrows abroad, and may have brought still more
international attention to events on the ground.
the Chávez era, a few opposition stations were allowed to operate, and
international media retained moderate access to events as they happened. Though
their coverage might have been critical of the government, the outlets were by
and large professional, requiring fact-checking for news reporting and at least
a veneer of neutrality.
contrast, Maduro, lacking sufficient personal charisma to bridge the gap
between the revolution's vast promises and flawed results as Chávez once did, has increasingly sought
to limit opposition access to conventional media. Buying out or expropriating
the principal independent television and radio broadcasters, his government has
likewise made clear that what remains must self-censor (or else).
response, Venezuelans who don't support his government have come to rely on less
discerning mediums such as Twitter, further widening the gulf between what is
reported by the state and what is relayed by its critics to the outside world.
the detained student protesters from last week have now resurfaced, accusing
authorities of torturing them, issuing ransom demands to their families, and
even of sexually assaulting them while in custody. Such horrifying personal
accounts have since been picked up by various international
media outlets. The government has denied the claims, but since the country
lacks a neutral authority or functional fifth estate to credibly investigate the
matter, the allegations may very well fester, further harming the regime's
any campfire ghost story, darkness has a way of making the very worst seem
believable. By attempting to muffle domestic criticism, the regime in Caracas may
well be exposing itself to something worse, on a much larger stage. Venezuela's
gloomy media landscape is making it easier for the world to believe that Maduro's
regime has a great deal to hide.
Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is
a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His
Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images