July 17, 2012 (TSR) – Last week, a brief and rather scantily detailed report was released from the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory (OVCS) documenting the number of protests that have occurred in the South American nation in the first semester of this year.
According to the NGO, more than 2,400 protests have taken place around the nation from January to June, ranging from citizen discontent over labor issues to demands linked to housing, prison conditions, and education.
Apart from the publication’s excessive use of incendiary and alarmist language -including the very use of the word “conflict” to describe a protest or demonstration- the report has been used to attack the government of Hugo Chavez for its alleged unresponsiveness to residents’ outcries.
But more revealing in this report is that it demonstrates the proliferation of free speech in the country, something that contrasts starkly with previous, US-backed Venezuelan governments who sent security forces to hunt down and assassinate political dissidents from the 1960s through the 1990s.
Interestingly, the OVCS report is unable to cite a single case of government repression against the freedom of expression or the right to protest in any of the four areas it mentions in its publication. This is especially notable because the NGO does make special reference to the violence that continues to plague certain sectors of organized labor in Venezuela.
“In the fist semester of 2012, the murder of at least 48 union members was registered. The rise in labor conflicts coincides with the rise in union violence, mainly in the construction sector”, the report states.
In order to understand this number, however, it is important to realize that the bulk of labor violence in Venezuela is attributable to inter-union conflicts that include organized mafias and the selling of government contracts at the local level. It is not, however, the consequence of a national, authoritarian regime clamping down on the freedoms of organized labor in the country.
The OVCS’ failure to make this point explicit in its report is a reminder of how the majority of nongovernmental organizations operating both in Venezuela and abroad are unwilling to come to terms with the flourishing environment of free expression in the South American country.
Of course, the death of union activist is a grave matter and must be addressed. One could indeed argue that the impunity that surrounds the murder of such activists is a major shortcoming of the Venezuelan judicial system. This is true.
Yet it also true that the overall problem of impunity in the country has been used, and perhaps to a greater extent, to protect right-wing opposition sectors. It must not be forgotten that since the passage of the nation’s Land Law in 2001, more than 300 small farmers have been assassinated by the hired guns of opposition landowners who have used violence in their attempts to halt the Chavez administration’s redistributive land policies. Yet, this fact has also been omitted by the Conflict Observatory in its report.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
But where the OVCS has been silent in pointing out the death of farmers or commending the greater exercise of freedom in the country, it has taken advantage of the publication to take a pot shot at the Chavez government, criticizing the “deficits” and “absence of effective responses” to citizen protests on behalf of the Venezuelan authorities. This allegation is patently false. While the Chavez administration, like any administration, exhibits its share of “deficits”, it is categorically untrue that it has ignored the demands of its citizenry.
This is clear with respect to at least three of the four categories of protests that the OVCS has created to classify the demonstrations that have occurred around the country. With labor demands representing the greatest portion of protests (41 percent), there is little doubt that a large percentage of this number is tied to the passage of the nation’s new Labor Law, signed by Chavez at the end of April this year.
The new law provides a level of employment protection and benefits unseen in Venezuelan history and was vociferously advocated for by a majority of unions, many of who had taken to the streets to urge the passage of the measure in the first months of 2012. Since it’s signing in April, the new law has also spurred a number of protests by workers who are demanding that employers, both public and private, comply with the new mandate.
In terms of housing rights which form the second largest category of protest at 32 percent, the socialist administration of Hugo Chavez has made its public housing program the centerpiece of its government for the past 2 years. This means working to deliver 3 million new homes to residents by 2019, more than 200 thousand of which have already been handed over.
In fact, the OVCS report even contradicts itself with respect to housing, stating that “the progressive delivery of homes…is allowing the government to manage the conflict effectively”.
The same is true with respect to the category entitled “Citizen security, justice and prisons” which represents 22 percent of the OVCS’ figures. At the end of June, the Chavez government launched a new social program to address the question of violent crime while in 2011, the Executive created a new ministry to deal specifically with the question of prison reform.
The final category of “Educational Needs” is not explained in the report other than mentioning that it represents 5 percent of demonstrations. Regardless of the category’s lack of elaboration, it is easy to point out the many educational programs created by the Chavez government to provide free textbooks, laptop computers, and scholarships to students around the country.
In the end, the OVCS report is poorly written, researched and referenced. Indeed, it does not even specify what constitutes a “protest”. Is one individual standing outside a government building with an angry sign equivalent to a march of, say, a thousand people? With such low academic standards, this latest publication, while intending to champion the hackneyed notion that Venezuela is somehow teetering on the brink of civil war, really only highlights the highlevels of freedom that exist in the country.
There is little doubt that this high level of freedom has contributed, at least in part, to Venezuela’s consistent top ranking in all recent international “Happiness Polls” which mark the nation for the satisfaction and optimism exhibited by its citizenry.