Depending on who you ask, the street protests sweeping across Venezuela are either a democratic, grassroots movement led by students rebelling against a corrupt government or a right-wing, fascist campaign to overthrow an elected government in a coup similar to the one that briefly felled the Chavez government in 2002.
Believers of the first camp will point to the massive numbers of students taking their voices to the streets. Many have wound up behind bars. Students unsatisfied with the current government have legitimate grievances. "Student demonstrators gathered again in various cities to denounce repression of protests as well as a litany of complaints against Maduro, from crime to shortages of basic goods," declares the Washington Post.
Student Marcos Matta tells the paper: "We're going to stay out in the streets for the same reasons as yesterday and the day before: inflation, insecurity and a repressive state that refuses to release our colleagues."
Popular hastags on Twitter include: #16FVnzlaEnlaCalleNicolásPaElCoñoTeVas, #LeopoldoEstaEnMiCasa, #SomosEjercitoDePaz and #NoCreemosEnTuPazMaduro. These slogans express students' lack of belief in President Nicolás Maduro and their commitment to peaceful protest. There are reports that Twitter has been partially, or at times completely, shut down in the country.
But naturally the other side has a different view of the motivations and legitimacy of the protesters. Maduro has called the opposition leader organizing protests, Leopoldo Lopez, "the face of fascism." The Venezuelan government has issued a warrant for Lopez's arrest for murder, terrorism and conspiracy related to the violence during the protests.
Lopez has fired back that Maduro is taking orders from Fidel Castro, undermining the country's independence and legitimacy.
To understand really going on in Venezuela, there are several factors that should be considered. How has the country changed since Chavismo was implemented in 1999? What is, and has been, the United States' role now and in the past in Venezuela and in Latin America generally?
Two things have marked Venezuela since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999: a dramatic improvement in social conditions, especially for the many poor Venezuelans, and a dramatic increase in crime.
Poverty, especially extreme poverty, and unemployment have decreased greatly in Venezuela. In 1999, 23.4% of the population was living in extreme poverty, which fell to 8.5% in 2011. Unemployment dropped from 14.5% to 7.6%. GDP per capita increased from $4,105 to $10,801. Infant mortality decreased from 20 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000.
On the other hand, crime has gone up. The murder rate rose from 25 per 100,000 to 45.1 per 100,000. Naturally, that is an unacceptably high figure. But is there an inherent correlation to the government's policies?
The improvement in social conditions is a logical outcome of massive government investment of oil revenues in social and health programs. The redistribution of the nation's wealth has had predictable outcomes.
What is unclear is the reason for the increase in violence. Is there a connection in the government's policies to the rise in crime, which makes Venezuela one of the most dangerous nations in the world? Has the opposition proposed strategies which could change the security situation? If so, has the government ignored them?
Much has also been made of the country's inflation and shortages of basic goods. But, there is much evidence to point to a great exaggeration about the state of Venezuela's economy. The bottom line is that oil revenues are still much higher than expenses. Despite this, Venezuela has suffered from lack of consumer goods.
Ewa Sapiezynska and Hassan Akram write in Al Jazeera America that these problems may be the result of destabilization efforts by the nation's oligarchy who saw an opportunity after the recent election to unseat the Maduro government.
"The difficulty for Venezuela is that business-people are using the dollars that are allocated to them for the purchase of vital imports to engage in speculative activities on the black market, and to swell their foreign bank accounts. And of course, this means that essential goods are not imported."
The talk of destabilization brings the inevitable question of, if it is real, what is the U.S. involvement? A recently released secret document disclosed by RT News in November purports to show a collaboration between the U.S., Colombia and opposition in Venezuela to use sabotage to blame the Maduro government and increase unrest among the public. One of the opposition figures named is María Corina Machado, a lead figure in the current protests.
Going back only 11 years, the U.S. supported a coup against then-President Hugo Chavez. After a brief period where it seemed he was ousted from power, Chavez regained control and continued to be a vocal advocate against American foreign policy.
The coup was closely tied to senior U.S. officials, the Observer noted at the time. The government officials "have long histories in the 'dirty wars' of the 1980s, and links to death squads working in Central America at that time." The paper claims that Elliot Abrams, a disgraced Iran-Contra veteran, gave the nod to the coup attempt.
Bolivia's Evo Morales has claimed that the current student groups are financed by elements of the U.S. government as part of their destabilization efforts. "In Venezuela, coup attempts that come from the United States with complicity from the national oligarchies are going to keep failing," Morales said.
The United States has a terrible record, going back more than a century, of destabilization, interference, subversion and terrorism against populist democratic governments, especially in Latin America.
"Jacobo Arbenz, Cheddi Jagan, Fidel Castro, Joao Goulart, Juan Bosch, Salvador Allende, Michael Manley, Maurice Bishop, Daniel Ortega, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Hugho Chávez ... all Latin American leaders of the past half century, all progressive, all condemned to suffer the torments of hell for their beliefs by the unrelenting animosity of the United States," writes William Blum. "Since the debacle of 2002, Chávez's natural enemies at home and in Washington have not relaxed their crusade against him."
The U.S. government was actively involved in giving grants to opposition parties through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was created to carry out funding overtly for efforts which the CIA used to do covertly. The anti-leftist arm of the AFL-CIO, the CTV, was also involved in destabilization efforts against Chávez. It was as if, Blum says, the Venezuelan government was involved in financing the California recall election which saw the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the last 5 years alone, the U.S. government has supported coups against democratic governments in Honduras, Paraguay and against the powerful, leftist mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. Going back another 5 years, the U.S. helped oust Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the extremely popular winner of the first fair election ever in Haiti.
"While the press, as well as the U.S. government, will not acknowledge it, the elimination of progressive political leaders by coup d'etat is taking place in Latin America with increasing frequency," writes Dan Kovalik, a human an labor rights lawyer and expert on Colombia.
The results since the 2009 coup are indisputable in Honduras. Since popular President Manuel Zelaya was removed for office for supporting such things as raising the minimum wage, a new report has noted serious damage to the economic and social progress of the country.
"Economic inequality in Honduras has increased dramatically since 2010, while poverty has worsened, unemployment has increased and underemployment has risen sharply, with many workers receiving less than the minimum wage," the CEPR report reads.
Due to the sensitive history of coup d'etats in Venezuela itself and in Latin America in general, it is regrettable that opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez would use the slogan "The Exit", with its implicit goal of removing a democratically elected government from power, as a rallying cry for the protests.
While protesters surely have legitimate grievances against the Maduro government, there should be a deliberative attempt to respect the democratic process. If crimes were committed against protesters by the government, or vice versa, they should be investigated and punished.
No one should rush to judgement while there are still so many unanswered questions. But given the U.S.'s history of illegal destabilization against non-capitalist economies all over the world, its documented involvement in the 2002 Venezuelan coup, and continued ties to opposition figures there, it would be naive to think Uncle Same is sitting by idly as the situation unfolds.