Venezuela: a violent stalemate

Protesters in Caracas
Anti-government protesters scale a wall in Caracas in mid-June, 2017. Such protests are becoming more frequent, and are increasingly being met with violence (source: dpa)

The struggle to restore democratic governance in Venezuela is becoming more and more violent. Demonstrations against the government of President Nicolas Maduro have become more frequent and are being met with an increasing degree of violence by security forces and government-sponsored armed gangs. Dozens of marchers have been killed in the past three months.

The international community is attempting to impose some form of mediated compromise on the government and the organized opposition, known by its Spanish acronym, MUD. Despite that increasing pressure, as well as widespread hunger and a desperate lack of medical supplies caused by low oil prices and declining oil production by the national petroleum company, PDVSA, the government refuses to budge. That may change in the next month.

Venezuela has the world’s largest known oil reserves, and it depends on selling that oil for government revenue. Less well known is that the country is also the birthplace of the most successful program that uses music as a tool to help children escape poverty. The program, known as El Sistema (The System) was begun 40 years ago by a pediatrician, Jose Antonio Abreu. Its most famous graduate is Gustavo Dudamel, now musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It has been copied around the world. In Boston, for example, there is a charter school (a public school run by the private sector) that uses El Sistema as the central device in educating primary school children from homes with modest means.

The murder of Canizales puts the government in the position of having attacked one of its own

Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra brings together the most talented students from poor neighborhoods (barrios) throughout the country and is a source of national pride, both to supporters of the government and to its opponents.

Last month, a young violinist in that orchestra, Armando Canizales, was gunned down during a demonstration. Since then, at each protest, a single member of the orchestra has marched with his or her instrument to play in honor of their fallen comrade. Mr. Dudamel stopped a performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to honor Canizales and to denounce the government, saying, “I raise my voice against violence. I raise my voice against repression.”

Tipping point

The reasons this episode may be the tipping point in the stalemate between the government and the opposition are that El Sistema is a national symbol that the Maduro government has attacked, undermining the president’s claims of patriotism. More significant in the short run is that the program benefits the poor and operates in the country’s most impoverished barrios and schools, the very areas in which the founder of the current government, Hugo Chavez, got his strongest support. Organized civil society is increasingly vocal in its opposition to President Maduro. Moreover, in just the last month, more than 50 international NGOs issued statements condemning the erosion of democratic governance and violence in Venezuela.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
El Sistema’s most famous graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, spoke out against the Maduro regime after a young violinist was gunned down during a demonstration in Venezuela (source: dpa)

The pervasive hunger and lack of medical care have been eroding support for the government over the past year. Now, the murder of Canizales puts the government in the position of having attacked one of its own. If the pressure for greater democratic governance continues to grow among Chavistas – and his own attorney general has denounced the use of violence against demonstrators – President Maduro will continue to lose popular support and have little more keeping him in power than the armed forces. There, despite the presence of thousands of Cuban security officials trying to maintain discipline, military leaders have made it clear they will not become the instrument of repression.

To make matters worse for the government, it recently defaulted on a payment to its Russian creditors of $1 billion of PDVSA debt. That suggests that the government’s lack of revenue has become critical, as it continues to sell bonds and other assets at steep discounts.

The question that remains is who can serve as an honest broker between the opposing factions. The Organization of American States (OAS) has tried and failed, as has Pope Francis. Any solution must involve the Cubans. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) could not get its members to agree on a proposal last year. It might try again, perhaps getting the Cubans involved, just as Colombia succeeded in doing to end the long-running civil war in that country. The democratic states of UNASUR, now led by Peru, Argentina and Colombia, are worried that the rising tide of violence in Venezuela will spill over the nation’s border into other parts of the region.

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