Nonviolent Evolution: Venezuela's Opposition to Hugo Chavez
by Benjamin Leiter
The 1998 presidential elections in Venezuela ended 40 years of two-party rule. Democratic Action (AD) and the Christian Democratic Party (COPEI), the two major political parties that had dominated Venezuelan politics since 1958, had gradually been losing credibility over the previous two decades due to chronic corruption, failed economic and social policies, and general detachment from popular concerns. Venezuelans demanded a new direction and Hugo Chávez promised to deliver.
Within the first year of Chávez’s presidency a new constitution was written and passed by popular referendum, social programs were created to meet basic needs of the poor, and longstanding political institutions were altered. Concerned about authoritarian tendencies and threatened economic interests, former political elites and business magnates became the leaders of the country’s new opposition. They united around their disdain for Chávez and little else. Ideologically diverse and often immature, the opposition was overcome with constant internal bickering and power struggles. Even more detrimental, they failed to offer convincing alternatives to Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution and, in fact presented something worse.
In April 2002 popular demonstrations were held in Caracas to protest Chávez’s dismissal of the management board of PDVSA, Venezuela’s oil company. Leaders of the opposition subverted one particular march and carried out a coup d’état against the president. Chávez was taken to a military base off the coast of Venezuela and Pedro Carmona was installed as interim president. However, the illegal, violent, and authoritarian actions of the Carmona administration caused concern even in the United States, one of the only countries in the Western Hemisphere to recognize the provisional government. The National Assembly and Supreme Court were dissolved, the Constitution was declared void, and violence was used against political enemies. Within hours, the hard-line approach backfired and resistance to the Carmona government appeared in even anti-Chávez circles. Chávez supporters, calling for Chávez’s re-installation, took to the streets, which encouraged the Presidential Guard to eventually regain control of the presidential palace. The Carmona government subsequently collapsed and Chávez returned to Caracas.
After the coup, Chávez showed some remorse and admitted his mistakes. He reinstated the former management board of PDVSA and created a commission for dialogue to discuss reconciliation.1 However, the opposition, unsatisfied with the commission, did not embrace the overture. In an interview with Frontline Teodoro Petkoff recalls how one particular opposition leader responded to these changes, “The Chávez government is illegitimate, and there is nothing to talk about.”2 So instead of dialogue, the conflict erupted in another crisis.
In December 2002 Chávez moved to gain total control of PDVSA and its revenue. The opposition responded this time with an oil strike, slowing production to a trickle. The strike was mainly organized by the management at the national oil company, with the specific intent of creating an economic nightmare and forcing Chávez out of office. After 62 days the strike was called off, but not without costing the country millions in lost revenue. Chávez fired 18,000 PDVSA employees and anti-Chávez management for failing to show up to work for several months.
The error of the coup is obvious. The irrationality of the strike is that it was unnecessary and, strategically speaking, poorly timed. Both attempts to remove Chávez ultimately backfired, bolstering his support and allowing him to consolidate his power. Gandhi argued that all avenues of petition must be tried before pursuing large-scale nonviolent intervention. A nonviolent campaign earns legitimacy and support when it follows a proportional progression of actions that gives the opponent an opportunity to respond to demands. Since Gandhi believed that persuasion and rational discussion were the best ways to resolve conflict, channels of communication were always kept open with the opponent and an invitation to dialogue was never dismissed casually.3 Contrary to Gandhi’s advice, the opposition used violent, destructive, and illegal tactics before exhausting the nonviolent, responsible, and democratic avenues to address their grievances. Their radical position and actions alienated potential allies in the pro-Chávez camp, further polarizing the country. Politically the opposition had lost, largely due to their own unpopularity, but they were by no means completely excluded from the political process. The constitution indeed allows Venezuelans to subject elected officials to a recall referendum. So throughout 2003 and 2004, instead of a coup, the opposition campaigned and canvassed to recall Chávez. In the end, the referendum was defeated but the opposition had taken a step in the right direction. They had begun to play by the rules. They had begun to fight nonviolently.
Over the next two years the opposition continued to lose. They boycotted the 2005 congressional elections hoping to provoke an international outcry about the Chávez government but instead only handed all 167 seats in the National Assembly to pro-Chávez parties. Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate, lost the 2006 presidential election and while the opposition raised questions of voter manipulation, international observers (The Carter Center & OAS) overwhelmingly certified them as fair and open. So when 2007 came along and Chávez and the National Assembly introduced a constitutional referendum that would amend 69 articles, many of them controversial, the general assumption was that it would pass. Chávez had not lost yet and the opposition certainly was not in the habit of winning.
There is a good chance the opposition would have lost too, if Chavez had not made the tactical error of taking Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) station off public airwaves several months earlier. RCTV was popular among the opposition for its political position against the government, but popular among all Venezuelans for its soap operas. In fact, pollster Datanalisis found that almost 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed closing RCTV, but most pointed to the loss of their preferred evening entertainment rather than concerns about limits on freedom of expression.4
This time, it was not the old-guard opposition, but university student who led marches denouncing the “shut-down.” The student debate over RCTV was held in the streets, universities, and the national assembly. The decision to not renew RCTV’s license was not reversed, but the energy and organization formed in those protests carried over to the fight against the referendum several months later. Venezuelans ultimately rejected the referendum in what Chávez described as a “photo finish.” A stark contrast from the coup-plotters five years earlier, this movement to check Chávez was largely nonviolent.
Defending Press Freedom
In May 2007, a few months after its broadcasting license came up for review, Radio Caracas Television was the oldest private television network in Venezuela. Despite the channel’s popularity, the government decided not to renew the license, arguing that RCTV had actively and openly supported a coup against Chávez in April 2002. RCTV denied the accusation, but even the coup participants recognized the important role of the media in ousting Chávez. One coup-leader, Vice-Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez, told a Venevisión reporter on the day of the coup, "We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you."5 Furthermore, Chávez was boldened by a presidential election victory only several months earlier and intended to spend his political capital. He probably did not expect such a strong reaction from students who were quite apathetic in the 2006 presidential elections. On May 19, 2007, it looked as if Chávez had calculated correctly.
The first large demonstration against the closing was held in Caracas, called for by 26 political organizations, most belonging to the traditional opposition. That day, thousands hit the streets to protest the government’s move.6 But on May 21, four days after the government rejected a plea made by RCTV to prevent the shut-down, hundreds of students joined with journalists and held their own march in Caracas. They carried a one-kilometer long banner that read “S.O.S. Freedom of Expression” written in 10 different languages to the Caracas office of the Organization of American States (OAS).7 This action was the beginning of the largest Venezuelan student movement since the 1960s. Although the government’s decision to revoke RCTV’s license was legal, it was interpreted by many as political revenge and an attack on press freedom. Several days later students at la Universidad Católica Andres Bello (UCAB), La Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB), and la Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) protested in favor of “freedom of expression” by blocking traffic near their respective schools. On May 28 some 5,000 students from universities across Caracas joined together for the first time.8 According to student leader Yon Goicoechea, “…on May 28th much of what we felt exploded. It was that day, after the arbitrary closing of RCTV, that the students found ourselves in the streets…”9 The night of May 28th, after the big demonstration, about 80 student representatives of almost all Caracas universities held a meeting to discuss the direction of their collective action, clarify the values they were defending, and formulate a cohesive message. Tactics was also a key part of the discussion and after some debate the representatives decided that nonviolence would be their means, and freedom of expression their message.10
From May 28 to June 8, students held at least one collective action every day, including various demonstrations and marches against the RCTV closing. Students also held a press conference, delivered a speech to the National Assembly, presented a letter to the Attorney General, and petitioned the Organization of American States for the recuperation of civil liberties. Often, they showed up to demonstrations with their hands painted white, a symbol of nonviolence.
As the students gained credibility and power, the government began to take them seriously. In addition to responding to protests with police repression, Chávez also stepped up verbal criticism of the students. BBC reports, “‘We’re students, not coup-plotters’ is one of the common chants in the university demonstrations in favor of RCTV, after the government linked [the student demonstrations] to an alleged international conspiracy against the state.”11 The students rejected this characterization. For the most part, the movement recognized Chávez as the legitimate President of Venezuela, a clear break from previous, more radical opposition forces.
Around July 14 the students had stopped calling for large-scale demonstrations and for the most part abandoned the RCTV issue. Consequently, university autonomy became a more central issue during the following months.
RCTV never was readmitted to public airwaves, but it would be rash to stay that the student mobilizations had no effect. They surprised both the government and the opposition as a new contending force among Venezuelan civil society. By adopting diplomatic discourse they appeared as a more moderate and responsible opposition to the government, more interested in democracy than ousters. They successfully expressed their message and damaged the government’s image nationally and internationally. But the most important result of RCTV mobilizations was the organizational structure that was later used to oppose the constitutional referendum. Indeed, the protests against the referendum were born out of the protests of RCTV. Between July and November 2007 students carried out sporadic actions, mainly focused on university autonomy. Strategically, these small-scale actions served to maintain organizational energy until a larger, more pressing issue emerged.
Fighting the Referendum
On November 2, 2007, that larger issue came into view when the National Assembly approved a proposal submitted by Chávez to amend 69 articles of the 1999 Constitution. Venezuelans would vote on the proposal in a popular referendum a month later. The most controversial changes were the elimination of presidential term limits, granting the president more authority over the central bank, expanding state expropriation powers, and increasing the presidential term from six to seven years. Chávez defended the referendum saying it was essential to advancing his socialist vision and cited amendments beneficial to the working poor, such as the six-hour work day, social security benefits extended to informal sector employees, and transferring more power to communal councils.
While freedom of expression was the main focus of the students four months before, a broader theme of democracy became the central value of the November campaign. Students were primarily concerned that concentration of presidential power would further weaken Venezuela’s democracy. Chávez and his supporters practically controlled all branches of government, leaving few checks on power at an institutional level. Student leader Yon Goicochea told the Washington Post that the movement was not a fight between the right and the left, but rather a fight for democracy.12 Most students were happy to have Chávez finish his second term in office and took little exception to his social programs for the poor, but were uncomfortable with eliminating additional checks on presidential power.
More specifically, the students wanted more time to debate and discuss the referendum. One month seemed like too little time for the country to fully understand and become familiar with the 69 proposed constitutional amendments. It was clearly not enough time for a robust debate. But when this request was denied, their main objective turned to defeating the referendum.
Out of all the tactics used, mass mobilization captured the most attention. On November 7, around 80,000 students marched to the Supreme Court requesting a suspension of the referendum.13 On November 29, days before the vote, hundreds of thousands joined a student-led march in Caracas against the referendum. And while the largest demonstrations were held in Caracas other protests occurred in seven other states throughout the country as well.
Students also used direct action to press their demands. On November 1, after delivering a request to the National Electoral Council to postpone the referendum, students linked arms and refused to leave the premise. Freddy Gonzalez, a student leader, describes the event,
We tried to link ourselves together because, although we believe in democracy and its institutions, we are tired of delivering request that no one responds to. [The action] was intended to apply pressure. There are some students who say that we are like the postal service: delivering letters all over the place. No longer will they ignore us, we will be heard.14
Student leaders also took steps to prevent violence from erupting during protests. González explains that “before the march to the Supreme Court we organized peace brigades, in an attempt to avoid problems.”15 Peace brigades reflect a serious commitment to nonviolence, however in any large demonstration not everyone will be committed to the same values. The important point though is that violence was not a premeditated or organized tactic of movement, but rather the result of more radical, spontaneous elements. Although student leaders called for nonviolence, violence did break out at many demonstrations often in confrontations with the massive pro-Chávez student marches supporting the referendum.
In addition to the mass mobilizations and direct action, students also carried out information campaigns, tactically making use of the opposition media, and urged people to get out and vote. Challenging opposition fears of election fraud, Goicoechea warned, “To prove that they have ignored your vote, you must vote…we will not avoid electoral fraud by staying home watching TV.”16
On Election Day, opposition voters followed Goicoechea’s advice and defeated the referendum 51 to 49 percent. However, many Chávez supporters who had been very loyal at the polls over the past ten years stayed home, simply choosing not to vote. It was this unusually high abstention rate among Chávez´s base that hurt him most. While it’s unclear exactly how much the student mobilizations influenced the referendum results, most analysts agree that they played an important part. The student movement contributed energy and credibility to a flagging opposition and achieved with nonviolence what business leaders and politicians failed to achieve with violence five years earlier.
What is striking about this story for me is that nonviolent solutions replaced violent ones. I am not arguing that the 2007 Venezuelan student movement is an ideal model for nonviolent resistance. Indeed rocks and bottles were thrown and violent confrontation with police and pro-Chávez students were common. But even Gandhi’s India had its riots. The point is that violent solutions had failed and the students recognized that the most rational response to a radically polarized society is nonviolence. They saw that violence only further polarizes a society, alienates potential allies, and bolsters the opponent. The polarization in Venezuelan politics has created a very stressful environment for both sides. So when the students avoided belligerent rhetoric and instead based their discourse on themes of national reconciliation, democracy, and respect, it was an invitation for Chávez supporters to join them.
In polarized Venezuela independents are hard to find and almost everyone chooses sides. But often people tend to be loyal to one side because of a deep distrust of the other. Student leader Stalin González points out that, “People don’t believe in political parties anymore.”17 If the opposition hopes to provide a convincing alternative to Chávez, they could learn from the students who, no longer trusting political parties, created a new strategy, embraced nonviolence, and took matters into their own hands.
Ben Leiter '06 spent 2008 studying political science in Caracas, Venezuela through a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship.
1. VOANews.com, “Carter in Venezuela to Promote National Dialogue,” July 7, 2002, http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2002-07/a-2002-07-07-2-Carter.cfm?moddate=2002-07-07.
2. PBS Online, “The Hugo Chavez Show,” Frontline, posted 19 November 2008, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/hugochavez/interviews/petkoff.html.
3. Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 70.
4. Brian Ellsworth and Christian Oliver, “Venezuela Replaces Opposition TV with State Network,” Reuters, May 28, 2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/wtMostRead/idUSN2723008820070528?pageNumber=1.
5. “Coup Co-Conspirators as Free-Speech Martyrs,” Fair, May 27, 2007, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3107.
6. La Tercera, “Venezolanos protestan masivamente el cierre de televisora RCTV,” 19 de Mayo de 2007, http://www.latercera.cl/medio/articulo/0,0,3255_5702_269879685,00.html.
7. Humberto Márquez, “Venezuela: Marches and Counter-Marches over TV Station’s End,” IPS, May 21, 2007, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=37828.
8. USA Today, “Thousands Protest as Venezuelan TV Station Goes off the Air,” May 28, 2007, http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-05-28-venezuela-tv-protest_N.htm.
9. Gustavo Tovar Arroyo, Estudiantes Por la Libertad: Pensamiento y documentos de la Generación del 2007 (Caracas: El Nacional, 2007), 7.
10. Ibid, 124-126.
11. Carlos Chirinos, “‘Explosión’ estudiantil en Venezuela,” BBC Mundo.com, June 1, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/spanish/latin_america/newsid_6712000/6712683.stm.
12. Juan Forero, “Students Become Potent Adversary to Chávez Vision,” Washington Post, 2 de diciembre de 2007, pág. A20, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/01/AR2007120101636.html?referrer=emailarticle&sid=ST2007120102040.
13. Simon Romero, “Students Emerge as a Leading Force Against Chávez,” New York Times, 10 de noviembre de 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/10/world/americas/10venez.html?scp=1&sq=Students+Emerge +as+a+ Leading+Force+Against+Ch%E1vez&st=nyt.
14. Laura Helena Castillo Marielba Nunez, “Lo seguiremos repitiendo: con la violencia no se gana,” El Nacional, 4 de noviembre de 2007, http://impresodigital.el nacional.com/ediciones/archive/default.asp?d=04&m=11&a=2007&archivo=n1_5n1.asp&searchstring=.
16. Enrique Krauze, "Humanizing the Revolution," New York Times, 30 December 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/opinion/30krauze.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Humanizing+the+Revolution
17. Simon Romero, “Students Emerge as a Leading Force Against Chávez,” New York Times, 10 de noviembre de 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/10/world/americas/10venez.html?scp=1&sq=Students+Emerge +as+a+ Leading+Force+Against+Ch%E1vez&st=nyt.