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Steve Ellner: As both sides continue to mobilize supporters, class divisions within Caracas will limit the opposition’s ability to oust the Maduro regime

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

In Venezuela, protests are continuing as the opposition leader, Leopoldo López, will appear in court on Wednesday after turning himself in to the National Guard. A Venezuelan court upheld a public prosecutor’s demand for his arrest.

Five people have been killed since the protests began, including four opposition demonstrators and one government supporter.

Now joining us to discuss this is Steve Ellner. Steve has taught at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977, author or editor of a number of books on Venezuela, including the forthcoming Latin America’s Radical Left. His recent piece: “Venezuela Right Wing Provokes Violence in Timeworn Practice”.

Thank you so much for joining us, Steve.


NOOR: So, Steve, give us an update of what’s happening right now in Venezuela and talk about this opposition group, Popular Will. And what are its demands? And how legitimate is it?

ELLNER: Okay. Firstly, I think that the question breaks down into two components. One is peaceful demonstrations that have been taking place over the last ten days to two weeks in different cities throughout Venezuela, peaceful but also disruptive, because typically the protesters take over a main avenue and an urban area and block the traffic, take over two out of three lanes, and so the traffic backs up and transportation is paralyzed, or virtually paralyzed, for a period of hours. So that is on one hand.

And on the other, at night time the groups of the demonstrators or new demonstrators engage in acts of violence. And there has been considerable violence. The targets have been public buildings, the state TV channel in Caracas. Federal buildings have been targeted. And so the violence consists of, you know, burning tires and other objects and that kind of thing, throwing stones, and in some cases shooting.

So with regard to your question with regard to Leopoldo López and his organization, that also breaks down into two components, because on one hand, López is really calling for regime change. That’s what we call it in the States. His slogan in Spanish is “Salida”. Salida means removal. And he’s calling for the removal of the president, but not just the president. He’s really calling for a change of government.

On the other hand, other sectors of the opposition–a little bit cautious of that all-encompassing demand. And the standard-bearer of the opposition alliance, the MUD, Henrique Capriles, who’s the governor of the state of Miranda, is really calling for a refocus. His position is that the demonstrations should focus on specific demands and specific issues.

The rector of the Catholic university, which has been very critical of the Chávez government all along, but the new rector–his name is José Virtuoso–has criticized this demand of the removal of Maduro, Nicolás Maduro, from power and has stated that these kinds of demonstrations are not going to lead to a change of government. And the implication is that the protesters should focus on specific demands and not regime change.

NOOR: And just who is Leopoldo López? And whose interests does he represent?

ELLNER: Okay. López is one of the main opposition leaders. In 2012, the opposition held internal elections to choose their candidate against Chávez for the elections that took place in October, and López was one of six or seven precandidates. He ran in those internal elections and got a very small percentage of the vote. And he ended up throwing his support behind Capriles.

So in terms of electoral support, López really doesn’t have much to go by. But he’s become sort of a hero because of his calling for the removal of Maduro. It’s a very kind of dramatic position. And now he just recently–yesterdy he turned himself in to the government and he’s in jail. So he has really been thrusted on the center stage, and that’s helped him politically.

But nevertheless, like I said before, the opposition leadership is divided and the opposition, the rank and file of the opposition, is also divided as to whether this call for regime change is really appropriate.

NOOR: And, you know, you just talked about how the opposition is fractured. And by Venezuelan standards, the protests have been small, ’cause under Chávez you saw opposition protests with as many as a million people taking the streets.

There is a protest coming up on Saturday. What can we expect? And is Maduro’s regime challenged? Does it feel threatened right now?

ELLNER: Right. Firstly, with regard to the size of the protests, it is true that they don’t compare to the protests that took place prior to Chávez’s overthrow. And the–you know, in Spanish it’s called poder de convocatoria, the ability of the government to mobilize the people in vast numbers, which the government has retained throughout the whole–these fifteen years the government has been able to call for massive demonstrations. The opposition did at the time of the coup and at the time of the general strike, which took place a few months after, seven or eight months after that.

But between then and now, the opposition’s ability to get people on the streets has not been as great. That has picked up in the last year. During the presidential elections, Capriles was able to mobilize the people so that [snip] think that we’re in a situation now of vast mobilization on both sides. Yesterday, the opposition mobilized in the eastern part of Caracas, which is the middle class, upper middle class area of Caracas, and the Chavista workers, the oil workers federation, called a rally, a march and a rally in favor of the Maduro government, and that was also pretty massive, so that both sides are now able to count on drawing a lot of people onto the streets.

But I must add that one of the distinguishing characteristics of these mobilizations all along, going back to the beginning of the Chávez period, is the fact that the opposition mobilizes in the middle and upper middle class areas. For instance, in Caracas, the eastern part of Caracas is middle and upper middle class, and that’s where the opposition demonstrations are taking place, whereas the popular sectors of the population live in the western part of Caracas, and they have a marked presence in the downtown area of Caracas. So that’s where the Chavistas, the Chavista concentrations are located. This march yesterday was, you know, in the western part of Caracas, and it ended up in the downtown section.

So there is a class bifurcation, and I think that as long as that continues, the ability of the opposition to bring about this regime change will be rather limiting.

NOOR: And, finally, we’re almost out of time. But what has been the U.S.’s role in this? We know they have worked to destabilize Venezuela in the past. They’ve funded opposition groups. And what impact is it having on the ground in Venezuela?

ELLNER: Yes. There has been some documentation of NGO money that has been funneled into opposition groups. And the Maduro government and the Chávez government before that are very sensitive to that issue, especially given the U.S. record of regime change throughout the world, both historically and currently in the case of Syria and other countries.

So several U.S. diplomats have been expelled on several different occasions. About four or five months ago, there were three diplomats–I think three diplomats who were expelled, and one of them had traveled to areas to meet with the opposition. She went to the state of Bolívar, and she met with a group, Súmate, which is a group that María Corina Machado, one of the more radical opposition leaders, was the vice president of. So this U.S. diplomat met with Súmate. And then she went to the state of Amazonas, which is controlled by the opposition. The governor is a member of the opposition. It’s one of the few states that the opposition controls. And she had meetings there. So that was, you know, raised by the Maduro government, and she was one of the people who was expelled.

Now, just a few days ago, Maduro expelled three more U.S. diplomats, claiming that there was also interference, that they were meeting with people in the opposition.

I would say that the government will have to demonstrate this with facts. But the fact of the matter is that the United States has sided with the opposition openly. For instance, with regard to López, the Obama administration expressed its concern for López prior to his arrest, and all the statements from the White House has been in support of the protesters. But the fact of the matter is that there has been considerable violence. And the fact of the matter is that the Chavistas are also on the streets. And so the U.S. position is practically explicitly siding with the opposition. And I think that has become an issue here in Venezuela in the last couple of days.

NOOR: Okay, Steve, we’re going to have to hold it there, but we’ll certainly keep following this story. Thank you so much for joining us.

ELLNER: Thank you for having me on this program.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor. Check out all our coverage of the ongoing crisis and protests in Venezuela at

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Steve Ellner is a Contributing Editor ofLatin American Perspectives and the editor of “Latin America's Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century.