Why It’s Dangerous to Push a Selective Narrative About Venezuela

(Photo by Efecto Eco/ Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)

Anyone who has been following recent events in Venezuela is aware of how precarious the country’s situation has become. Due in part to falling oil prices, soaring inflation, and, most of all, abysmal governance on behalf of president-turned-dictator Nicolás Maduro, the country finds itself at the brink of a civil war. Venezuela’s slip into chaos is alarming, but has not gone unnoticed—almost every Latin American state has condemned Maduro’s recent power grab since he called for a constituent assembly last month to rewrite the country’s laws. The United States also issued sanctions. Major media outlets, such as CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Guardian, have all closely followed the country’s slide into what increasingly seems like a dictatorship.

As the situation worsens, protests have erupted against Maduro’s regime over the past few months. Some have gotten out of hand. The government’s tight control over information has made it difficult to know exactly how many people have died since demonstrations broke out in April, but an AP report from July 27 estimates that there have been at least 100 casualties in the past few months. Most of the casualties are of “young men killed by gunfire,” but the toll also includes “looters; police allegedly attacked by protesters; and civilians killed in accidents related to roadblocks set up during demonstrations.”

As the AP report also mentions, the death count in Venezuela has become highly politicized. The government has largely blamed members of the opposition for inciting violence, while the opposition has claimed its protests are peaceful, and are holding Maduro responsible for most of the deaths.

The government should be held accountable for the safety of all citizens, but this doesn’t necessarily excuse the opposition’s role in stoking violence. In late May, a man was drenched in gasoline and set on fire during an anti-government protest in Altamira, an upper middle class neighborhood in Caracas. Maduro would later go on national television and claim that the 21-year-old, Orlando Figuera, had been stabbed and set on fire simply because he was a government sympathizer: “They nearly lynched him, just because he shouted out that he was a ‘Chavista’.”

In its coverage of the event, The Guardian noted that witnesses to the incident had said that the crowd had accused Figuera of being a thief. Thief or not, he was still set on fire. At the time, some in the crowd had also said he should die. About two weeks later, he did die from a cardiopulmonary arrest after having suffered burns on 80 percent of his body, according to Colombian media outlet Noticias Caracol. In its coverage of Figuera’s death, Caracol included a highly disturbing video capturing the moment in which he was set on fire.

Figuera’s mother was later interviewed, asking of the country’s opposition leaders, “Why does Julio Borges permit that, and why does [Henrique] Capriles permit that? Who am I to blame? The opposition … they were the ones that drenched my son in gasoline like an animal.” Capriles, one of the country’s top opposition leaders, was reluctant to remark on the specific event, opting instead to demand justice via Twitter for everyone killed in protests.

The opposition has been right to speak out against human rights abuses committed by the Venezuelan state. But their muted response to Figuera’s death —among other similar killings— has helped to further a distorted narrative about violence in Venezuela, which is often amplified abroad.

Videos shared by media companies such as Now This have highlighted the government’s role in recent outbursts of violence around the country, claiming that “more than 90 people have been killed by government forces,” while failing to mention the dozens more that have been attributed to opposition protesters.

Some news organizations have reported that at least eight to nine people —including Figuera— have been burned alive in opposition protests since they erupted in April. In July, a harrowing video shared by media outlet HispanTV recorded anti-government protesters smacking and throwing glass bottles at the charred body of a black Venezuelan man. Security camera footage from that same month also documented a similar incident, in which a man was mobbed and later set on fire outside of a metro station in Altamira.

For understandable and legitimate reasons, many people living outside of Venezuela are simply unaware of the barbarism that some anti-government protesters have engaged in. The burnings and killings represent only a fraction of the 100-plus deaths in Venezuela, many of which are attributed to government forces. But reports and videos shared by large media companies that fail to acknowledge opposition violence only further distort an uneven narrative, blaming the government for every single escalation of violence while simultaneously presenting the opposition and its leaders as an entirely peaceful and faultless movement.

This has wide-reaching effects. That same narrative has also been echoed by crucial voceros for the country’s situation, such as Venezuelan-American comedian Joanna Hausmann—perhaps best known for her video poking fun at different types of Spanish accents in her Joanna Rants video segment. Last Thursday, Hausmann shared an inflammatory comment posted in response to one of her “Joanna Rants” videos on Venezuela. In her response, she mocked claims that Venezuela’s opposition destroys food and “murders black Venezuelans” by saying, “What an active imagination.”

(I was briefly blocked by Hausmann for pointing out that the claims were actually firmly rooted in reality.)

In the face of President Maduro’s lies about the country’s constituent assembly and the government-controlled media’s refusal to portray the country’s actual situation, violence on behalf of opposition supporters seems like a much smaller, and less consequential issue. But denying and ignoring such barbaric acts can lead to a slippery slope, where perpetrators feel that they are justified in and licensed to essentially kill other civilians.

This is not a defense of the Venezuelan government, nor is it a generalization of opposition supporters. This is a plea for opposition leaders and public figures like Hausmann to provide us with a more nuanced picture of what’s going on in the country.

There is no question that for the sake of Venezuela, Maduro must step down. If he is not overthrown, and if he comes through on his promise to hold elections next year (which now seems unlikely), he and his socialist party, the PSUV, will likely lose. The fact that protesters have resorted to violence to send the government a message is testament to just how unpopular he is, and how dire the country’s situation has become.

As Venezuela grows more polarized and violent, however, the opposition’s silence on the barbarities committed at their own rallies is concerning—especially if they soon take over the country’s government. In addition to demanding justice for all victims, opposition leaders must acknowledge —and plainly denounce— hate crimes committed by their supporters. Until now, they have been reluctant to do so, and by ignoring this, media outlets and public figures capable of bringing light to such an issue are either pushing an intentionally selective narrative, or indulging in collective ignorance.

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Miguel Salazar is a writer based in New York City. He’s written for The Nation, The Bogotá Post and Colombia Reports, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @bymiguelsalazar

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