'Venezuela is a different place to the one you read about in international press'

Irish union official Adrian Kane was one of the international observers invited to Venezuela by the National Electoral Council for this weekend’s poll. He tells the Irish Examiner of what he saw in the troubled South American state.

WHEN I flew into Caracas last Thursday afternoon, the airport was unusually quiet.

The Columbian airline, Avianca, had announced, the previous Tuesday, that it was suspending its flights in and out of Venezuela, joining an increasing number of airlines which have suspended flights to Caracas.

Traffic was also light on the main highway that leads to the city centre.

It was the second day of a ‘strike’ called by the opposition.

A strike in Venezuela is different to an industrial dispute in Ireland.

In Caracas, for example, the roads into the wealthier neighbourhoods will be ‘taped off’.

The residents of these areas, some undoubtedly supportive of the action and others intimidated by it, tend not to transgress.

The result is the closure of many businesses, shops, and services.

Meanwhile, on a packed Bolivar Boulevard in central Caracas, the Chavistas were holding their final pre-election rally in an almost carnivalesque atmosphere, prior to the controversial constituent assembly elections, which were held on Sunday.

The following day, the city came back to life as the strike was lifted; traffic increased and the city was choked up with a vast array of cars and trucks, of every shape and vintage.

The BBC, in its Thursday night news broadcast, announced that the government had banned an opposition protest rally, which had been due to take place on Friday.

The opposition is boycotting the constituent assembly elections.

Caracas was tense on Friday, as rumours abounded about some spectacular to be organised by the opposition; police and the national guard had a heavy presence throughout the city, but nothing of note materialised, other than the blocking of some roads around Chacao, a wealthy district in the east of the city.

The American government has told its embassy staff to leave Venezuela, and had threatened further sanctions against the Venezuelan government if the election went ahead on Sunday.

More airlines began to suspend flights.

I received an email, informing me that my return flight to Paris, scheduled for Monday with Air France, had been cancelled.

I began to wonder if it was wise to have come here, as part of an international monitoring delegation, at the request of the Venezuelan CNE (National Electoral Council), the body charged with organising and overseeing Venezuela’s many elections.

Over the last number of years, the narrative has taken root throughout the western world that the government of Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Madura, is becoming increasing dictatorial, suspending freedom of expression and violently clamping down on opposition forces.

Madura’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, also had a critical press, but if you looked hard enough, you would always find some less critical coverage of his Bolivarian revolution in the western mainstream press.

With Madura, however, the negative commentary is relentless.

In our post-truth world, I try to rationalise what is really going on.

The descriptions in international news reports of a country on the verge of civil war seem at odds with a city that, by Saturday, had returned to its hectic, chaotic, and vibrant self.

So what is actually happening in Venezuela? Is there an objective truth to be found in this country, which is undoubtedly becoming increasingly polarised?

One fact beyond doubt is that inflation is through the roof.

It has soared in the last two years, not quite at Weimar Republic rates, but some commentators estimate it at 800%.

There have been shortages of some foodstuffs and other products, but this has improved in recent months.

However, due to staggering inflation rates and a reorganisation of state subsidies on some staple household products, many families are struggling, particularly the less well-off.

One of the most bizarre criticisms of Maduro’s government is that there is no freedom of expression.

Most of the media, however, both print and television, are privately owned and almost all are critical of the regime.

Of the seven principal papers in Caracas, four are openly hostile to the regime, one is broadly neutral, and two, on the left of the ideological spectrum, are supportive.

The vast majority of television channels are private and are much more popular than the publicly-owned channels, which gain typically less than 10% of the viewing public.

These state-run channels are unashamedly pro-government.

Between April 6 and the beginning of July, when the current round of protests began, 84 people have been killed.

Western media coverage gives the impression that the police are solely responsible.

On further inspection, however, you find a much more complex picture. The attorney general, who has been an outspoken critic of the regime, has attributed 23 deaths to the police and national guard, and 61 to the protestors.

The so-called peaceful protests typically begin in the evening; burning barricades are strung across roads and, as the evening progresses, increasing numbers of shadowy, masked and armed figures tend to emerge.

In studying extended footage of these protests, they are far from peaceful and would not be tolerated by any EU state, and they most certainly would not be tolerated in the US.

More than 500 public buses have been burned.

The spark that has ignited this sharp increase in violence was Maduro’s decision to hold a constituent assembly election.

The opposition believes that this is an attempt by the Chavistas to undermine the national assembly (parliament), where 60% of the deputies oppose Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro, shows his ballot, after voting for a constitutional assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday.

Maduro was elected president by a slim margin following Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013.

Maduro’s government says that an analogous process took place in 1999, when a similar body, elected by the people, drew up a new constitution, which was subsequently put to a referendum and adopted overwhelmingly by the Venezuelan electorate.

The assembly is probably best described as a cross between our own Citizens’ Assembly and the senate.

Some fear that regional elections, which are due to be held at the end of this year, and presidential elections, due in 2018, will not now take place, and that this constituent assembly will impose a new constitution without recourse to endorsement by the people, via a referendum.

This is a question I put to Samuel Moncado, the foreign minister and former Venezuelan ambassador to Ireland.

It is something he refutes, assuring the audience of international observers that the register for candidates in the regional election will be opened in August and that the recommendations for a new constitution, which are due to emerge from the constituent assembly, will be put to a referendum of the people.

Significant elements in a far from unified opposition have been seeking a new constitution and talks continued, up until recent days, to encourage them to participate in the constituent assembly election.

The decision to hold this constituent assembly election was, on the face of it, not the most astute move by a government under huge economic and political pressure, but clearly Maduro felt a need to do something.

Speaking with local Chavistas, they are acutely aware of the current crisis and the need to step back from an escalation of further violence.

This constituent assembly was seen as a way of bringing the many diverse interests in Venezuela together in a less heated atmosphere.

On seeing the Tricolour on my credentials, Maria Garcia, a Maduro supporter, says emphatically: “We don’t want a replication of the violence that happened in your country taking place here.”

The other principal reason why the Chavistas want to draw up a new constitution is to give constitutional status to the social missions that they have embarked upon over the last two decades.

These missions have been the most successful part of the Bolivarian revolution; more than 1.5m social-housing units were built, literacy increased hugely, and poorer people gained access to health care for the first time.

The election of Donald Trump as US president has shifted the balance of power in some regional conflicts and, just as his unavowed support for Saudi Arabia has isolated Qatar, so, too, has his election emboldened the opposition in Venezuela.

In concluding his meeting with the international monitors, Samuel Moncado described the relentless distortion of reality in Venezuela as ‘gas-lighting’ on a grand scale.

This is something that resonated with me and with most of the international delegation, as the Venezuela I have visited, on a number of occasions over the last 15 years, and have experienced first-hand, is a very different place to the one I have read about in the international press.

I regularly doubt what I have seen with my own eyes.

I witnessed long queues outside polling booths on Sunday, as mostly poorer sections of the city turned out to vote in large numbers; other polling stations were quiet.

There were some violent clashes again in the east of Caracas, and Merida state, some 650km south-west of Caracas.

An explosion in Altamira, on Sunday evening, injured a number of police officers, who were part of a motor cycle troop.

The death toll has not yet been confirmed by authorities.

The final turnout was 41%. Just over 8m people voted. Venezuela undoubtedly needs to create a space for resolving deep-seated conflict through peaceful means.

Outside interference of the sort that has taken place of late will hinder, rather than help, this process.

Adrian Kane works in Cork for Siptu and is a national organiser representing workers in the energy sector. He is chair of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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