Venezuela's Violent Anti-Government Protests: An Interview with Matt Willgress (Pablo Navarrete/Alborada.net)

[Matt Willgress, coordinator of the UK-based
Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC), is interviewed by Pablo Navarrete's about the current political violence in Venezuela, how it has been covered in the British media and what can be done to show solidarity with Venezuela.]

Pablo Navarrete: Could you give me your take on the violent anti-government protests that took place in Venezuela in February and that still, to a lesser degree, continue today?

This is a good question, as there has been so much misrepresentation about what caused the current wave of violence. Contrary to much of the discourse in the media – and from Venezuela’s rightwing - there is little doubt that the violence has mostly been provoked by some sectors of the opposition. The Government has repeatedly condemned all violence and called for peace and dialogue, the major regional bodies such as the OAS and UNASUR have endorsed this stance.

On 22 January, a number of more extreme leaders of the rightwing opposition demanded “the ousting” (La Salida) of the elected Government of President Nicolas Maduro. One of its leaders, Leopoldo Lopez was explicit that his aim is regime change, saying ”there should be a complete … change in those who are in power… It’s clear now that the problem isn’t just Maduro, it’s all the heads of the public powers who have kidnapped the state“. The first violent incidents occurred soon after these remarks, with violence in Tachira. Then the next wave of major incidents occurred on 12 February when thousands marched to celebrate National Youth Day, both for and against the Government. After these marches, a tiny minority sought to exploit the situation, from which a wave of violence was started, which continues to this day, although in an ever decreasing number of areas, centred around areas which would be the equivalent of Kensington and Chelsea here.

In terms of opposition elements provoking most of the violence, this can partly be shown by looking at where the violence is aimed, including:
• power stations;
• the Ministry of Transport (which faced gunfire) and ticket offices as part of the torching of – and attacks on – public transport
• the headquarters of the Fiscalía General (Attorney General);
• trucks of the state grocery store chain PDVAL carrying subsidised food;
• health centres, public universities and so forth;
• on media associated with the Government and its journalists.

As their support has dwindled, this violence has been reported as getting more extreme as its proponents get more frustrated at their inability to achieve ‘the ousting’, with one person even being arrested for putting diesel in the water supply in Merida. As we are doing this interview news has come through that the headquarters of the Venezuelan government's housing mission and an adjacent pre-school have been attacked. Such attacks are clearly aimed at creating chaos and destabilisation. Another shocking feature has been illegal, militarised barricades manned by the opposition, which have seen “Over 10 individuals…reportedly.. killed by crashing into barricades, from wires strung across streets by protesters and in some cases from having been shot trying to remove barricades.

PN: Venezuela writer Luis Britto has said that the current protests constitute a "coup attempt" and that the foreign media have played a leading role in this. How would you evaluate the British mainstream media's coverage of current events in Venezuela?

Polls show that over 80% of the Venezuelan population reject these violent protests and support dialogue, and this perhaps explains why they have kept losing momentum, yet this is in no way reflected in the media coverage given to each ‘side.’ What has also been disappointing about so much media coverage has failed to ask ‘who stands to gain from the current violence?’

With supporters of Nicolas Maduro clearly winning December’s elections, elements of the rightwing opposition committed to ‘La Salida’ have much more to gain from violence than the Government or its supporters. Yet much media coverage – often stemming directly from stories of the overwhelmingly anti-Venezuelan Government Venezuelan private media – has portrayed the situation as one of organised Government violence or arrests against peaceful protesters, in no way challenging the discourse put forward by those organising for illegal regime change, namely the minority of the minority Venezuelan rightwing opposition.

To give one key example, far from the impression given in much of the international media, the deaths have not all been of opposition protesters at the hands of state forces, nor has this been the principal cause of death, which has been the violence at the barricades. Latest figures how there has been 36 fatalities as a result of the current wave of violence, of which 21 can be said to be due to opposition violence (For a detailed analysis from March 24 see this article by the Washington-based thinktank CEPR). For these reasons, it’s vital that media misrepresentation of the situation in Venezuela is vigorously challenged.

PN: Finally, apart from exposing this misrepresentation of the situation in Venezuela in the British media, what else would you say people in the UK can do to express solidarity with the Venezuelan people defending their democracy against a possible rightwing coup?

As we’ve said, it’s absolutely vital as we have said to expose and challenge media misrepresentation. Every letter published in a national paper or well publicised initiative against media misrepresentation and accuracies (such as this letter from academics to the Guardian which people can add their name in support of here) is important. People should also use social media such as Facebook (VSC page here) and Twitter (follow VSC here) to help get the truth out. You can also join the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign online here and get involved directly with our campaigning.

Something else important people can do is help lobby MPs to take a different stance to the hostile one coming from the US on Venezuela using the easy online tool here. The aim of this initiative is to get as many MPs as possible to join other voices for across Europe in supporting the proposals from Venezuela – and Latin America more widely through bodies such as the OAS and UNASUR – in supporting peace and dialogue, and opposing external intervention (including proposed US sanctions) in Venezuela.

Finally, if people want to express their solidarity with Venezuela – and find out more about the truth about the situation in the country – they can get involved with VSC’s ongoing national speaking tour (No More Pinochets in Latin America – No to Extreme Right Wing Coup Plotters in Venezuela!) and come along to our National Conference on May 10. The latter will be addressed by numerous leading Venezuelan, Latin American and European guests, and provide a unique opportunity for in-depth discussion on different elements of the situation in Venezuela and next steps in our solidarity campaigning.

Alborada.net is a media partner of VSC's May 10 National Conference, 'Hugo Chavez' Legacy & the Ongoing Transformation of Venezuela'. For more information click here.

Click here to watch Pablo Navarrete's 2009 Alborada Films documentary 'Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela'.

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