“We call on our fellow citizens to avoid sinking into an absurd fratricidal confrontation that benefits no one.”
Central Presbytery (of the Presbyterian Church of Venezuela) issued these stark words this week in a letter to their compatriots. Venezuela has made the news even in the United States, and it isn’t pretty.
February 12 is Youth Day in Venezuela, commemorating the role of young people in the battle for independence from Spain at La Victoria in 1814. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of that patriotic date, students gathered to march in several cities across the country. Peaceful marches were held by groups both in favor and in protest of the current government. In Mérida, where small violent protests have become common in recent weeks, the initially peaceful events gave way to violent clashes with riot police and protesters set up garbage fires to blockade intersections. In Caracas, several government buildings were attacked. Other cities also saw violent confrontations.
Venezuela’s opposition movement has become increasingly vocal in decrying inflation and limited access to certain consumer goods. Concern over crime and security issues grows. These protests, however, are more a generalized explosion of anger and frustration with the ruling party than an effort to have any particular demands met. The opposition coalition has blamed the government for the outbreak in violence, citing repression by the police and national guard. Government supporters have voiced their conviction that the violence was planned by the opposition, citing activists stockpiling rocks and rubble and preparing Molotov cocktails in advance of the demonstrations.
In the intervening days, demonstrations, violence, and unrest have continued in several cities. As of February 21, ten people had died and 137 been wounded, including 100 civilians and 37 security officers. Those killed include both pro- and anti-government protesters, and several arrests have been made in connection with the killings. Peaceful marches on February 22 once again devolved into confrontations in at least one city.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has strongly criticized Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for his handling of the protests. Neighboring nations including Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay have denounced the opposition movement for seeking to destabilize democratic order in Venezuela.
Maduro has called repeatedly for dialogue, inviting student groups to meet with his office in the capital. He said in an address on February 19 that he is open to “constructive dialogue to define key issues.” Opposition leader Leopoldo López (imprisoned on charges of orchestrating the current unrest, who started a movement called La Salida to unseat Maduro through protests following his party’s electoral losses two months ago) encouraged demonstrators to continue, “to stay firm against violence, and to stay organised and disciplined. This is everyone’s struggle.” One protester wore a handmade sign that read: “Venezuela, either we fight for you, or we lose you. Whoever grows tired loses.”
As a U.S. citizen, that attitude is eerily familiar. Politics in my home country appear increasingly to be a fierce, zero-sum competition between the Elephants and the Donkeys, with gloating winners and sore losers licking their wounds and preparing for the rematch. This trend calls the quest for common ground anathema, and it sickens me. Something similar is at play in Venezuela, but we hear a different narrative in the United States. We hear of the Venezuelan people fighting to wrest freedom from the grip of an oppressive regime. But where does that narrative leave the millions of Venezuelans who repeatedly vote for the ruling party? All is not well in Venezuela, and our sisters and brothers there can use our prayers and support, but let us take care in framing the narrative so that all are included in our concern.
The Presbyterian Church of Venezuela’s Central Presbytery held its regularly scheduled assembly last weekend and faced an unexpected item of business. In an open letter to their compatriots, delegates drafted a letter that envisions the Venezuelan people as seafarers in a shared vessel, with a shared destiny. The letter calls on all sides to step up to their unique responsibilities and work for a constructive, peaceful outcome that serves the common good.
“We cannot build a nation of brothers and sisters with lies, with lawlessness, much less with violence and death. . . . As a church we seek a true and lasting peace. A peace in which we all win. Peace which is the fruit of justice, of reflection, of honest consensus and without concealed weapons.”