The news coming from Venezuela has risen from mildly interesting to highly concerning in a matter of two weeks. What started out as a series of student protests may be escalating into a civil war before our eyes. For those of us in the United States, that’s all we actually see: biased news and some sketchy YouTube videos.
Even high quality news sources like The New York Times have featured onesided articles on the front page of their publications. News outlets have been slow reporting about counter-protesters in favor of President Nicolás Maduro, if they have mentioned them at all. The true situation is more complex and has left many Americans deluded into assuming that, if nothing else, they ought to be sympathetic to the protesters. The basic narrative of the movement declares that there is horrible violence and crime in Venezuela, that the protest movement is peaceful, that Maduro and the army are repressing this movement, including on social media, and that human rights are the primary demand of the protesters.
Most of these propositions run contrary to fact. A good starting place is the photos being disseminated online by protest supporters. With only a brief glance, it appears that there is severe and violent repression and torture being perpetrated by the government. Latin American Bureau, a news source dedicated to giving voice to non-governmental organizations and civil society in Latin America, collected many of the more shocking photographs and demonstrated their origins.
At least 11 of these appalling images came from other protests or other countries than Venezuela, yet were being tweeted by people as evidence of government brutality. The article can be found at http://lab.org.uk/venezuela-howphotos- get-manipulated. Neither I nor the Latin American Bureau is claiming there is not torture and repression. There may or may not be torture, and the government is repressing protestors to some degree.
My point is more nuanced than these claims: merely, that we can already see that everything is not as it appears. There has been a lot of mudslinging from either side, owing to the extreme polarization of the political scene in the country. The first killings during the protests were executed by armed men on motorcycles.
One of the victims was a police officer. Conservatives claim the killers were henchmen of the left, but government supporters allege that they were rogue individuals. Maduro claims that opposition leader Leopoldo López is a fascist. None of the allegations above can be fully investigated or substantiated because the situation is too volatile. The police cannot investigate because they are preparing to confront protesters behind crude barricades who are armed with Molotov cocktails.
Further, there is no objective point of view coming out of Venezuela. There is a domestic media blackout, which is often construed as another act of repression. Is it still repression if one of those news agencies is government-owned? It could be, but it’s a lot harder to tell. There are myriad examples of the complexity of the Venezuelan protests, but allow me to offer one more: the charge that this is an immanent coup. President Maduro has called the whole thing a “fascist coup plot.”
A coup from the political right, which is believed to be stirring up the protests, would not be unprecedented: an attempt happened in 2002 against the late Hugo Chávez. Maduro is not nearly as charismatic as Chávez, and the political right unabashedly desires his removal from office. The right has been shown not to respect rule of law in the past. It is within the realm of possibility that these protests are not peaceful, but merely the surge before the storm. It may be a risky assertion, but I believe many Americans have a certain preconception about protest movements in the “developing” world.
Americans often believe that protests are automatically a good thing, and that the rhetoric of human rights is an end, not just a tool to harness power. This also presupposes that governments in the developing world are corrupt or malicious, or that severe repression is only a problem in places not as “developed” as the United States.
It is easy to paint Maduro’s government as the bad guys and the protestors as the good guys. I wish this were a simple fight between good and evil. That’s simply not the case. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides of this fight. Yes, Venezuela needs prayers and sympathy, but that means all Venezuelans, not just the “victims” in the streets.
Taylor Fulkerson is the Opinions & Editorials Editor at the Newswire and a junior philosophy major from Lanesvelle, Ind.