Student protests have entered their second week here in Merida, and so far the authorities have given them free reign. Bear in mind, I use the term ‘protest’ in only the vaguest sense. The students have no visible demands, and they have no mass support. Instead of holding a protest with a point, their action consists entirely of piling petrol soaked timber and tires on a main road outside the Universidad de los Andes (ULA) and setting them ablaze. Motorbikes can still weave past the piles of burning junk they throw on the road, but anything with four wheels or more can’t make it. At any given time only one, two or three students can be seen guarding the flaming roadblock. These kids just seem to wander around with rocks or bits of sharp shrapnel in their hands, intimidating pedestrians outside the university gates. It’s not just any road they target; they block one of the main roads in Merida – causing massive traffic congestion elsewhere, as people are forced to take lengthy detours (Merida doesn’t have the best road plan). Worse still, one of Merida’s largest hospitals is on the same road, near the ULA. The roadblock is just north of the hospital, so anyone coming from the city centre (that isn’t relying on public transport, which has to be diverted) could probably still reach it. However, a patient trying to reach the hospital from the north would have to detour through the city centre. To understand why this would be a problem in an emergency, you have to understand how bad Merida traffic is at the best of times. Imagine New York traffic, then add a few potholes, remove the traffic lights and slim down the streets to medieval dimensions. But, of course, thanks to the added congestion already caused by the students, downtown Merida is even worse than usual. Traffic pretty much doesn’t move all day. There would be no way for an ambulance to get through.
These ‘protests’ took place throughout last week, but stopped over the weekend. When I went past early Monday morning, there was still no sign of the roadblock. But alas, by mid morning (ie, around the time ULA classes are supposed to start) they were at it again. The bus I was riding almost got through, as they were just setting up the tires. However, the driver didn’t seem to want to take a chance when he saw the bottles of petrol come out, so he turned around. Many of the people in the bus were seniors, most heading further up the hill. Another important detail: the road is on a steep slope, and it gets steeper the further you go up. It was a mild 25C, but even so I could see some of the elderly pedestrians were having trouble hiking up the hill after being dropped at the roadblock. As we passed, the students stared us down, rocks in hand.
The police response thus far has been to redirect traffic when they see the tires being rolled out onto the road. There isn’t much else they can do, as universities are off limits to the police in Venezuela. When the police close in, the students just run and hide in the ULA. When the protest finishes around 5-6pm, the authorities clean up the mess left on the road, but it’s of little consequence. The next morning the kids return, and it starts all over.
UPDATE: This afternoon the police had somehow taken control of the roadblock, though the students threw rocks at them from inside the campus. The cops stood on the street firing rubber bullets into the university, while the students peppered them with rocks. I’m yet to speak to anyone here really seems to know what’s going on, and where this ridiculous stunt is going.
An end in itself?
I firmly believe everyone has the right to protest, even if it inconveniences the general public. For example, a decade ago roadblocks were effectively used in Bolivia’s famed water wars. However, in Bolivia, the roadblocks were part of a larger campaign, with a clear agenda and a broad base of support. Sabotage was a means to an end (and just one of many tools in the toolbox), not an end in itself. However, these students don’t seem to have no concrete demands; if they do, they’re keeping them under wraps. Moreover, they only set up the roadblock during class time (there were no signs of student protests over the holidays). Their agenda appears to be to skip class and cause trouble, not to promote social change. They don’t appear to be trying to build a mass movement, because they’re more interested in acting like thugs, and sparring with the police.
However, it’s important to note that these students do not represent the majority of the Venezuelan opposition. The simple fact that they can rally no more than a handful of supporters at a time in an opposition stronghold like Merida is evidence enough that their tactics aren’t endorsed by the majority of the local opposition. Yet these types of students employ the same aggressive tactics over and over. In the western media, their ridiculous antics garner nothing but sympathy. When they inject peaceful opposition rallies with violence, their aggression is whitewashed away by western sympathisers, while killings of real activists go largely unreported, even by human rights monitors who claim to be impartial. However, fringe opposition groups aren’t just receiving moral support from abroad. Last November, journalist and attorney Eva Golinger reported on documents that appeared to indicate the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was quietly backing a plan to destabilise Venezuela with sabotage and violence. Washington has long denied any meddling in Venezuelan internal affairs, despite Wikileaks documents that indicate the US has been showering the opposition with cash for years. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden also indicate Venezuela has been a key target for NSA snooping. Although aggressive students like this are beloved abroad, up close they just look like pests.
Unfortunately, however, it’s exactly these types of rightists that accuse the government of repressing them. And Washington agrees. Last year US envoy to the UN Samantha Power claimed there is a “crackdown on civil society” taking place in Venezuela. She further labelled Venezuela as one of a handful of “repressive regimes” she vowed to stand up to. However, by the time she made that statement well over 7000 Occupy protesters had been arrested in the US, according to according to OccupyArrests.com, while the NYPD had been accused of 14 specific allegations of police brutality towards activists. It’s not hard to find allegations of serious misconduct by Venezuelan police, despite efforts to clean up the country’s security forces. Yet if Power wants to stand up to a repressive regime, perhaps she should look closer to home. Rather than focusing on Venezuela, maybe she should look at Cuba. Not the entirety of the island (which she did indeed mention in her “repressive regimes” speech), just that one little slice of land where human rights abuses seem to be concentrated. Coincidently, that one little chunk of Cuba where human rights violations are reportedly “systematic” also happens to be the only piece of the island where Washington has any real influence. Maybe human rights aren’t Washington’s agenda after all.
Venezuela has its problems, but it’s hard to view this as repression. The country’s security forces face a long road to reform, and no doubt a photograph of Venezuelan riot police firing rubber bullets into a university wouldn’t be great for Venezuela’s international image. But is it repression? Without all the facts, I don’t know. What about students burning junk on the road, intimidating people and duking it out with police from inside a university campus? Who’s more repressive – the police clearing a road and chasing off the students, or the students who want to bring Merida to a standstill with their senseless dummy-spit?