Empire Files: Abby Martin Meets the Venezuelan Opposition
Abby Martin goes on the deadly front lines of the anti government protests in Venezuela and follows the evolution of a typical guarimba — or opposition barricade. Watch more on TeleSur
Abby Martin: Venezuela, a country painted as a failed state by U.S. politicians and corporate media. One that is under a total dictatorship, brutally repressing free speech and the right to protest. The protests, which have been going on for three months, are across the board uncritically romanticized and celebrated by the mass media. Many outlets are openly calling for regime change.
Since President Chavez was elected in 1998, the U.S. government has paid over $50 million to the opposition movement. Now, Senator Marco Rubio just spearheaded a bill pledging another $20 million to “defend human rights,” among other types of aid. Long wanting to overthrow the democratically elected socialist government, U.S. politicians are seizing the moment of unrest for regime change.
President Trump: The stable and peaceful Venezuela is in the best interest of the entire hemisphere. We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuelan problem. It is a very, very horrible problem, and from a humanitarian standpoint it is like nothing we’ve seen in quite a long time.
Abby Martin: With new U.S. sanctions, direct threats from the Trump administration to overthrow another sovereign government, and corporate media painting a one-sided narrative, I wanted to go see the reality on the group for myself. During my investigation in Venezuela, spending nearly three weeks in Caracas, one thing was a constant: traffic jams from guarimbas, or protest barricades, intended to disrupt life in the city. While most things carried on like normal, some parts of the city were always inaccessible, with police and military constantly scurrying to whatever streets were shut down that day.
Knowing how much mass protests define life in Venezuela, as well as the media coverage, I attended an opposition protest in Miranda State near Caracas. The demonstration, which consists of thousands of people, was a peaceful gathering, with typical speeches and chants.
What is your biggest problem with what’s happening right now?
Speaker 3: I think right, the biggest problem is, that the president don’t want us to go to election, because if we go he knows he’s going to lose.
Speaker 4: [In Spanish] There is no constitution, the rule of law does not exist. This is an absolute dictatorship in Venezuela. There’s repression, there’s a constant and severe tyranny. Out with the dictator in Venezuela; we don’t want him.
Speaker 5: [In Spanish] We’re suffering from hunger, misery, anxiety and desperation. We want this regime to get out, along with all of their followers, so that peace and tranquility is reinstated in this country.
Speaker 6: Seventeen years and some months, the country is every day falling down, down, down. It doesn’t work if you have money. Because if you have money, you need medicine, you don’t have work to buy.
Speaker 7: I have 27 years old and I’m married. And my wife, she doesn’t buy anything that she wants to.
Abby Martin: You said you’ve been fighting since 2002. What happened? Why have you been fighting so long in the streets?
Speaker 7: Because I’ve never been Chavista because I knew that, [inaudible 00:03:53], everything. Okay? Because they have a wrong idea what revolution is. My father took me to one riot, take me another, and it [inaudible 00:04:10] years.
Speaker 8: [In Spanish] They just want to plant communism, another Cuba, that’s all. Cuba won’t release us, because if they do, they can’t eat any longer.
Abby Martin: Is the United States doing enough to help Venezuela?
Speaker 3: No, I don’t think so. I mean like, a lot of Venezuelans live in the States, so we send like, the Green Cross, the one who help with medicine, like the ones who help with the protestors that get hit, they get a lot of help from the States.
Speaker 5: [In Spanish] I wish it was so, that the United States and the rest of the countries in the world would help us.
Abby Martin: Is the United States doing enough to help Venezuela?
Speaker 4: [In Spanish] Yes, they are doing fine, along with Luis Almagro [Sec. General, Organization of American states], but we need an outcome, we need a happy ending. We want international support from the United States. It is very important that they help us from New York. They need to help us, to help us non-stop. We need the United States to turn up their power towards us.
Abby Martin: We are very near Plaza Altamira right now, where the opposition looks like it’s setting up a barricade. This is a tactic that the opposition does to deter traffic, to cause a lot of problems here in Caracas. We’re going to go follow them right now and see what’s going on.
As the sun started to set, things began to change. Smaller groups donning masks and shields starting forming up. While the majority of the crowd held a candlelight vigil to commemorate those killed in the protests, the others lit flames of their own. They poured incendiary liquid in the streets and began stopping traffic.
We’re here in the middle of the plaza. There are thousands of protestors down there for the march of the torches. Right now, there are a couple dozen protestors right here with shields, helmets, masks. They’re lighting fires; they’re doing a blockade. They say their tactic is to get as many people out in the street as they possibly can.
Speaker 10: [in Spanish] Well, up to what we know, we are protesting because we want a better Venezuela like the one that existed before. Well, look, I…to our knowledge, there is a dictatorship. And we can’t live with the Cubans here in Venezuela because it’s bad.If you see the dictatorship we are going through, there’s scarcity of food and all that, we only want to retake how things were before.
Abby Martin: And how many people have the government killed, security forces, military police, so far?
Speaker 10: [In Spanish] There have been more than 200, or less, about 180 dead.
Abby Martin: And what are the demands, right now, for protestors?
Speaker 10: [In Spanish] What we want is mostly, well, ousting the president. We want elections. We fight for elections because we want to change everything and we need a new president.
Speaker 11: [In Spanish] The only message we can send from the resistance to the rest of the world is help us, that’s the first thing we ask for. Because, when you look at it we go to the streets and the first to repress you is the government. At the moment we cannot show you the bullets they shoot, these are large marbles, of iron. They have killed several in this way. The guy killed in Los Teques yesterday was shot with a marble. And it’s a lie, they don’t shoot tear gas or pellets. They’re shooting live rounds.
Speaker 12: [In Spanish] Gun shots! That’s a bullet and this is true. And Maduro says it’s a lie. This is true. They only shoot and shoot.
Abby Martin: Several times we were aggressively surrounded by masked protestors demanding to see what media outlet we worked for. Only when they heard that we were from the United States did they back down. But told me to only film repression against them, not their actions. As the crowd grew, they announced they would be marching a blocked major freeway. Protestors and squadrons of motorbikes began mobbing through the streets, setting fires and creating roadblocks along the way.
So, we’re here at the highway right now. We just talked to some protestors who said that they’re blocking the highway. They just set up a barricade of fire. They’re doing it down there. The national guard is about to come, which they say they want us to see how they oppress them when they do come. Stopping cars leaving the highway, they trap drivers on the off-ramp. I talked to several in the heat of the offensive.
Speaker 13: [In Spanish] At the moment they have done nothing but we came to represent today, we won’t stay still, we are still fighting. Fighting for freedom, and fighting against this 17-year dictatorship.
Abby Martin: How hard is it to live under a dictatorship?
Speaker 13: [In Spanish] It is very hard, because as an entrepreneur, you don’t work for yourself, but for the government. You cannot be independent, all of your work and effort is for the government, and that’s what we don’t want here.
Abby Martin: What is this? What are you carrying?
Speaker 12: [In Spanish] This is what they attack us with. With this they have killed our fellow fighters in the chest. And all those corrupt people and government officials, they have to go. They must go to prison. It is unbearable that people are killing each other, to buy corn meal or a packet of rice, when the government should provide all of this, because this is a human right, being able to work, and have food, and freedom of speech.
Crowd: [In Spanish] Venezuela, freedom, active resistance!
Abby Martin: Then the protest moved onto the highway itself, shutting down all lanes in both directions. Most surprising is how they did this, taking over two large trucks.
So right now we’re on the highway. Every single entrance to the highway has been blockaded, lit on fire, and now we’re looking at two enormous trucks that have been somehow taken over and maneuvered in order to block the main thoroughfare of the highway right now.
Protestors held the freeway like this for some time. According to them, waiting for state forces to respond. Then they commandeered a third truck, pushing it towards the edge of the freeway. Below is Miranda Air Force Base. They started hurling rocks and chunks of concrete at the base below. And that’s when soldiers guarding the base responded.
Crowd: [Spanish 00:11:29]
More, more, more.
Right here. Right here.
Go back, go back, go back.
Abby Martin: They fired several tear-gas canisters that landed directly in front of me and my team. And the protestors quickly retreated from the freeway back to the streets above. Apparently there was an air force base there and they were throwing rocks.
Speaker 16: Yeah.
Abby Martin: And a big blockade. And then they hurled tear-gas canisters over the side and we got hit. But not really hard because it wasn’t that close. The protest regrouped at their fallback position. When national guard soldiers I couldn’t see fired more tear gas. This time, staying on the front lines hurt a bit more.
Crowd: Go this way.
Watch the holes.
Abby Martin: So yeah, right after I said I didn’t get hit hard with tear gas, we’re running away and, you know, there’s all these provocations with the police and the protestors and they just started hurling tear-gas canisters at us and we were just caught in a huge plume of tear gas. It’s extremely painful. My ears are really, really burning. I felt like I was blind for like, five minutes, so, that just happened.
While soldiers had cleared the freeway, protestors continued to block several intersections in the area, with more trucks and barricades. What I had experienced was a typical guarimba, a few hundred or less semi-armed protestors ruling the streets, shutting down as much as they can. Using largely violent tactics. They push as far as they can go until security forces respond, then flee with new photos of repression. Given what the media has been saying, I was shocked to learn that there were no arrests that night. It seems like there certainly is a right to protest in Venezuela.
And the curated images we see in the news are obscuring a much darker, deadlier reality. Since the beginning of the protest on April 6, through July 1, we found 95 deaths attributed to the protests, with over 1,000 injured. Of that 95, 11 have unknown or undetermined connections to the protests, and are murders that took place in the vicinity of a protest.
So let’s look at the remaining 84 deaths. It is true that many protestors have been killed by police and the national guard. Several have been killed in shootings, and two killed by tear gas. According to Venezuela’s attorney general, one of the most outspoken critics of the government’s response, 23 deaths are attributed to state forces. Many investigations into alleged killings by state forces are still ongoing. In several cases, people were first reported in the media to have been killed by state forces, but evidence later revealed that they were actually killed by opposition weapons.
But let’s assume that number is correct, 23. So if only 23 out of the 84 are attributed to state forces, what has caused the majority of the deaths? The remaining 61? Those 61 actually have been caused by opposition protestors. Many of those killed directly in murders and political assassinations.
Let’s look at those numbers that so many unquestioningly attribute to state repression. We found 23 to have been indirectly killed by opposition violence, in a variety of ways. For example, six people have died in vehicle accidents while trying to escape opposition barricades. Three are civilians who died because opposition barricades prevented lifesaving ambulances from reaching them. Nine of those 23 are opposition protestors who accidentally killed themselves. One in an explosion from an opposition mortar. And eight electrocuted themselves to death while looting a bakery.
In addition to these indirect deaths from opposition violence, 38 people have been directly killed by opposition violence. Sixteen of those 38 are seemingly random killings of civilians at opposition barricades or near a protest. Seven of the 38 are police and national guard members killed by protestors. Six of them were shot by protestors, and one national guard member was beaten to death by a mob of protestors.
One would think these facts would be included in a fair report of force used by the state. But more heinously, 14 deaths are political murders and assassinations of Chavistas and government supporters by the opposition. Most were targeted for attending a pro-government demonstration or for being identified as Chavistas. Two were socialist figures who were kidnapped, tortured, and executed. Most chilling was the lynching of 21-year-old Orlando Figuera, who was brutally beaten, stabbed, and burned alive by opposition protestors. According to an interview with Orlando in the hospital, they yelled, “Hey black guy, see what happens to Chavistas” before throwing a Molotov cocktail on him and lighting him aflame. Orlando died from his injuries just days later. At least four other people have set on fire but lived, allegedly for being Chavistas. And many others brutally beaten by opposition mobs.
So of those 84 fatalities associated with the protest movement, 23 deaths are allegedly from state repression, and 61 deaths from opposition violence. As surprised as I was to see that the reality of these numbers is so warped, I was completely unprepared for what would happen to me for simply reporting these facts. Because I questioned the validity of the fatality count being 100% due to state forces, prominent opposition spokespeople created a false hysteria over an outrageous lie, that myself and Empire Files producer Mike Prysner were not journalists, but in fact working directly for the government intelligence forces. And that we weren’t actually conducting interviews of protestors, but taking their pictures to turn in to police forces. And not only that, but the police had then arrested protestors based on our intelligence.
The life-threatening lie was first promoted by a professor at Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar University and opposition activist, Jose Vicente Carrasquero. The rumors were echoed and exaggerated by several prominent opposition journalists, like Manuel Malaver, and Miami reporter Angie Perez. The disinformation campaign incited a virtual lynch mob against us for days, which translated into real-life stalking and threats, calls to find and kill us, doxxing of personal information, and more.
Revealing their character, scores of opposition Twitter accounts specifically used the word “lynch” when calling for violence against us. More than that, this opposition hate campaign also posted the address of an event Mike was speaking at, inciting people to come confront us. And worse. Dozens of Venezuelans ex-pats actually showed up, chanting against socialism, and tried to physically force their way into the event to disrupt it.
But the threats of violence were not empty. Just days later, a TeleSUR journalist was actually shot in the back by opposition protestors, when her and her team were viciously attacked with Molotov cocktails, bullets and explosives. Many other journalists have also been called infiltrators and attacked, like when a Globalvision crew was doused with gasoline by protestors at a recent demonstration, and told to leave or they would get burned. Amazingly, international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have been silent on the attacks on journalists from the opposition, and have only condemned the government for press repression.
For as much as Venezuela’s poor is used as the basis of the international media campaign to oust the government, the poor people from the barrios of Venezuela are not the ones protesting. The marches and violent guarimbas are concentrated in only a few states, where the middle and upper class areas are, most of them run by opposition governors or mayors. And the targets of the protestors speak volumes about the nature of the opposition: factories, public transportation, Socialist Party offices, hospitals, and clinics have all been attacked. Even the childhood home of Chavez was set on fire. They have also set fire to the government’s housing ministry, the supreme court, and more.
In one case, a maternity clinic was raided and the facility besieged by opposition forces for two days. A cultural center I visited, which gave free music lessons to youth and provided space for art collectives, had also recently been attacked and vandalized by opposition protestors. Ironically, even though protestors use food shortages as one of their main grievances, they frequently attack food distribution centers. Most recently they burned a warehouse containing 50 tons of food intended for schoolchildren.
The representatives of the opposition don’t denounce the violent guarimbas sustained by the small contingent of protestors. In fact, top opposition leaders have directly called for violence. But there is another side of this story: the millions of Venezuelan voices who are rendered invisible to the Western media.
Speaker 17: [In Spanish] There has been a very strong economic war on the part of the sectors of the bourgeois elite, and the entrepreneurs, towards the people, those who produce food, those who produce staple goods and have been hoarding them. Much like what they did to Salvador Allende in Chile.
Speaker 18: [In Spanish] Look, really for a process of polarization in which we are living in Venezuela, we’re reached a point of zero tolerance. Where to identify someone as a member of the Revolution or something that has to do, for example, with Comandante Chavez, they point us out, beat us, burn us, kill us. We are categorized by our skin color, by our hair, there are a number of factors that have caused us revolutionaries to be concerned about going to the streets. Because they identify us easily, because we are not afraid to wear clothing that identifies us with Chavistas. The situation in the streets is quite tense, quite complicated by the situation, by a group of people who don’t believe in tolerance and does not respect the other for thinking differently.
Abby Martin: And what do they do to you if they see that you’re a Chavista? I mean, what have they done to people who identify themselves as this?
Speaker 18: [In Spanish] Look, they point us out, corner us, threaten us. At least to me, in my house, in my building. I was given a car from the Revolution, and they threw human excrement on the hood. They scratched the car. They wrote things to my mother for being a spokesperson for the communal council, and for the new system of distributing food. My mom was pointed out and trapped in an elevator. So that is what happens to us Chavistas, for wanting to help others they point us out and mistreat us.
Speaker 17: [In Spanish] There are some people who are filled with hatred, and they want to divert it towards the people, hurting people, they want trouble. But they are a minority if we go to the statistics.
Abby Martin: Do you think that you live in a dictatorship?
Speaker 17: [In Spanish] No, not at all. Here you can see that the people have free transit, people do what they want, to participate, talk, even though the country is burning from the sectors of the fascist right. They are burning the country and have committed acts of vandalism, terrorist acts, and the full strength of the law has not been applied to them, like is done in the United States or Europe. These people are going around doing whatever they want. Here a person has free will, freedom to think, to believe in the political, the economic, the social, the cultural, the religious arenas. Whoever says that this is a dictatorship is completely mad. So in what kind of dictatorship are there elections, where people participate, where people do what they want? That is completely illogical.
Speaker 19: [In Spanish] I am 100 percent revolutionary, Chavista, and I think what the right-wing factions are doing is wrong. The problems can’t be solved in the way they propose, with violence and chaos in the streets of Venezuela, in Caracas, by attacking the police, the National Guard. I think things should be discussed in a dialogue to solve problems. And as long as they don’t have a plan and a leader, they won’t be able to oust a government as revolutionary as the one we have today.
Speaker 17: [In Spanish] They are violent people who tend to show only violence by screaming and hitting, all these characteristics. But no one is scared here. Actually here there are many people who are restrained from falling into the same violent game as the others do. Because we think that’s no way to solve problems. Dialogue and the achievement of a peaceful solution, as rational people within philosophy and the human Aristotelian though, but nobody is scared. Here there are groups on the left who are really radical and they would like to respond, but we have not done it, since the solution must be rational. We can’t fall for that reptilian behavior and hurt people, that’s their game.