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  February 27, 2014

Venezuela Opposition Boycotts Maduro-Backed Peace Conference As Unrest Continues

Alexander Main & Miguel Tinker Salas argue that Venezuela opposition protests do not include broad segments of the population and are aimed at destabilizing the elected government of Nicholas Maduro
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Miguel Tinker Salas is a professor of History and Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He is co-author of Venezuela: Hugo Chavez and the Decline of an Exceptional Democracy and author of Under the Shadow of the Eagles and The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. His latest book is Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

In his work at CEPR, Alexander Main focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean and regularly engages with U.S. policy makers and civil society groups to inform the public debate. He is frequently interviewed by media in the U.S. and Latin American and his analyses on U.S. policy in the Americas have been published in a variety of domestic and international media outlets including Foreign Policy, NACLA and the Monde diplomatique. Prior to CEPR, Alexander spent more than six years in Latin America working as an international relations analyst. He has a degree in history and political science from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France.


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Both pro- and anti-government forces are rallying in Venezuela today ahead of a peace conference called for by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Now joining us to discuss this are two guests.

In Caracas, we're joined by Miguel Tinker Salas. He's a professor of Latin American history, Pomona College, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela from Duke University Press. His forthcoming book is Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

And in Washington, we're joined by Alexander Main, senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. And he's also consulted for the Venezuelan government and the City of London.

Thank you both for joining us.

And let's start with Miguel. So, Miguel, you're in Caracas right now. There's reportedly both pro- and anti-government rallies happening today ahead of this peace conference called for by Nicolás Maduro. Give us the latest. And if you can, also comment on Governor José Vielma Mora--and a lot has been made about this in the Western media. He's a supporter of Maduro, but he's criticized some of his what he called violent methods of cracking down on protestors.

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS, PROF. LATIN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CHICANO/CHICANA STUDIES, POMONA COLLEGE: Well, no. Vielma Mora said he was against using repression against the population, and I think most people in Venezuela, including most supporters of Nicolás Maduro, would agree with that statement. So I think that Vielma Mora was clarifying his position in relationship to what's happened in Táchira, where the protests have been--by the opposition--have been, somewhat, very violent in confronting the National Guard.

Now, he also was very critical of the mayor, which is an opposition mayor in San Cristóbal, who took the cadaver of a victim who fell off of a second-story building and paraded it through the city. So we have that.

But what's happening in Venezuela today have been a series of protests and counterprotests on the part of the opposition. It was "Women for Peace"--interestingly enough, last Saturday, the government and Maduro and others had also a rally of "Women for Peace" on the government side. Today there was a protest sponsored by the Patriotic Pole and the government. The Patriotic Pole is the group that includes all of the supporters of the government, and it was the social movements and peasants (campesinos), who gathered in Caracas on the eve of a peace conference.

What you have is much of the protest reduced to essentially 18 different municipalities. And even within those municipalities, it's not the entire municipality. Friends tell me in western Venezuela that, for example, it's a tale of two cities: whether it's San Cristóbal or Mérida, actually one side or some neighborhoods are actually with barricades and others are functioning as if it was a normal day of work. So that's--I think it's a misnomer to consider that we're confronting a massive outpouring by millions of people. In fact, we have pockets of protest taking place in Caracas and in the interior of Venezuela.

NOOR: And Alexander, I wanted to bring you in the conversation. What's your response to what Miguel said? And, also, you know, you could describe the Western media as being almost rabidly anti-Maduro in their descriptions and how they've focused on the opposition and what they've made of José Vielma Mora's comments. And they've highlighted the fact that he's spoken out about some of the repression, but not about his support, his ongoing support for Maduro.

ALEXANDER MAIN, SENIOR ASSOC. FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY, CEPR: Yeah, absolutely. Well, in terms of what Miguel said, I mean, he's absolutely right. We're not looking at a generalized phenomenon in terms of these protests. They're taking place in, you know, very small pockets.

And, you know, an important thing to note as well is that they're taking place essentially in middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods. So it's a rather strange thing that we're seeing--I mean strange from the U.S. point of view, at least, where when one sees riots (because that's essentially what we are seeing here), you really see that in poor neighborhoods, and, you know, often poor neighborhoods take the brunt of the damage that's caused. In this case, it's middle-class students--not necessarily students; young people, at any rate, who have taken to the streets in very small numbers. But they're, you know, blocking traffic, they're burning rubbish, putting up barracades. They're putting up barbed wires around intersections that have already caused, apparently, three deaths, including the beheading of a motorcyclist that went by.

TINKER SALAS: Two motorcyclists.

MAIN: Is it just two motorcyclists?

TINKER SALAS: Two motorcyclists now that have died.

MAIN: Okay, yes. So, at any rate, you know, these are, you know, sort of dangerous barricades that have been set up, but that also are paralyzing things in these neighborhoods. I mean, you go in there, you know, it's, you know, very quiet because traffic can't go through there. I mean they really blocked things in a lot of these neighborhoods. But it is a micro-phenomenon in Venezuela, and I think that's important to, you know, keep in mind given the sort of huge coverage that it's been getting over the last few days.

And in terms of, you know, the government response to that, you know, there have been allegations that there was a lot of, you know, very heavy repression. I think there are certainly cases of abuses on the part of the state security forces. I think in a lot of cases, you know, in these neighborhoods, there's perhaps a lack of any sort of intervention taking place on the part of state security forces. They, I think, are wary of going in there and clashing with these students, causing, you know, more casualties, potentially.

You know, there are already a number of casualties. Each one is, you know, generally in the media and so on attributed to the government, although, really, if you look over who has been killed so far, it's probably about 50 percent opposition supporters, and the rest are, you know, either pro-government or just not really as involved in politics. So, you know, these are things that are not really being covered in the mainstream media.

NOOR: Right. Miguel, how much of these protests are expanding into the urban working class? Because if you just read the headlines in the Western media, they're all about the protests broadening and growing, but the urban working class, which the majority, from what I understand, do support--they are Chavistas, but they're about split on their support. So have they taken to the streets? Are they part of the protests now?

TINKER SALAS: They're not part of the protests, per se. But, for example, in Minas de Baruta, in Caracas, a few days ago there were protests in what is essentially a very poor neighborhood, and people were complaining about scarcity and about other issues. I mean, there are some real issues in Venezuela the government needs to tackle, and these are primarily economic issues and primarily the question of being able to not have scarcity. And people are tired of confronting those issues. Inflation is also upwards of 50 percent. So those are real issues that affect broad sections of society, especially working class and poor segments of society. So they are concerned.

But again, what the opposition is offering as an alternative is simply street protest. They've actually pushed their people into a dead end. They have only one goal: overthrow the government. They don't have short-term measures. They have not made proposals on crime. They have not made proposals on how to address economic issues. They have not indicated how they would govern the country differently. And, in fact, just the opposite happens. People that I talk to tell me, if this is how they want to govern, by creating ungovernability, by making the city impassable, by disrupting society, then that's a very poor example. So I think that's the largest question they face.

And the electoral cycle does not benefit them this year, because for the first time in almost 15 years there are no elections scheduled in Venezuela. So, again, let me reiterate: they have taken their movement and their people into a dead end, because they don't have anything else to offer except oust Maduro by undemocratic means, because at the heart of their position is they refuse to recognize his election. And understanding that last December, 2013, from Municipal elections, the opposition made them into a plebicite on Maduro, they lost. They gained a couple of major urban cities, but they lost, and Maduro's forces won close to 75 percent of the municipal areas, so that coming from that victory to now have a condition of ungovernability simply underscores and belies the fact that they are not willing to abide by the democratic process and they are looking for extralegal means to oust a democratically elected government.

NOOR: And I know we're running out of time, but, Alex, let's end with you. So there may be legitimate demands here, but is the call for the resignation for Maduro really a demand for destabilization?

MAIN: Well, absolutely. I mean, these are destabilization tactics. When you paralyze neighborhoods and smoke them out and terrify entire communities, which is what these small groups of young people have been doing for the past ten days or so, you know, that is the objective.

And, you know, I think it's important to underline that this is not a new thing. This has happened many times now over the last 14 years, ever since, you know, Venezuela first elected, you know, Hugo Chávez, that the opposition has engaged in these destabalization tactics, sometimes with, you know, a temporary success, as was the case in 2002, during the April 2002 coup.

This is not so much reminiscent of the 2002 coup, when the opposition did manage to mobilize a really mass middle-class protest. I think it's much more reminiscent of 2004, where we saw the phenomenon of the guarimba that took place at the end of February and the beginning of March. The guarimba is exactly what we're seeing now. It is, you know, creating chaos with small groups of people that are setting up barricades, that are, you know, threatening anybody who comes close to them, that are, you know, burning things, that are damaging public property, etc., trying to provoke, actually, a very strong response from state security forces in order to sort of try to get a snowball effect and try to get a more generalized rebellion.

Well, as I said earlier, there hasn't actually been much repression of these protests, at least not recently. I think it's been, you know, fairly minimal. And so, you know, they're not really managing, I think, to mobilize more support.

But in the meantime, you know, I think the really tragic thing for the opposition is that the radical sector of the opposition sort of has the upper hand as the support of the private media in the country and so on. And, you know, they are not about elections, they are not about constitutional processes; they're about, you know, getting rid of this government immediately. And that's what they've made clear.

NOOR: We're going to have to leave it there. But Alexander Main, thank you so much for joining us.

MAIN: Thank you.

NOOR: And Miguel Tinker Salas, thank you for joining us from Caracas.

TINKER SALAS: Thank you very much.

NOOR: You can check out all of our coverage on Venezuela at And if you enjoy and appreciate our extensive coverage, you can also donate at

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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