In mid-February, Venezuela seemed once again to be at the brink of self-destruction. In the largest coordinated series of demonstrations against the government of Nicolás Maduro in many months, protesters in Caracas numbered in the tens of thousands. The regime countered with massive turnouts of its own, turning streets into streams of red-shirted Chavistas.
While the long-running unrest in Venezuela is rooted in opposition to the socialist programs enacted by the late Hugo Chávez, a number of other issues have exacerbated the situation. As perceived by Maria Paola Figueroa, an economics researcher for the Washington, DC-based Institute of International Finance, the social unrest in Venezuela “is being fueled by rampant crime, acute hard-currency shortages, rising inflation, weakening economic activity and growing scarcity of basic goods.” Increased turmoil, she adds, “is making stagflation almost a certainty in 2014 while undermining governability and raising the risk of a full-fledged political crisis.”
On the ground in Caracas, many say that the situation already qualifies as a crisis. A journalist colleague who goes by the nom de guerre of Manuel Portal reports what he says is sanctioned state terrorism, commenting on the armed “bandas de malandros” he has witnessed “azotando y aterrando a la población.”
Portal also confirms that the Venezuelan opposition, composed largely of university students and professionals (as opposed to the working class Chavistas) is utilizing social media to get its message out and coordinate its activities. “We are making history with the use of Facebook and Twitter,” he says, noting that Blackberrys, iPhones and other mobile devices are being used to make videos, photographs and audio recordings to support the opposition’s case. Many protesters are using Zello, an app which allows smartphone users to send voice messages, like a walkie-talkie. Based in Austin, Zello became the most downloaded app in Venezuala until it was blocked by the government.
And, in a country where salsa is the music of the masses, spirits have been buoyed by the presence on Twitter of Nuyorican salsa icon Willie Colón in support of the opposition movement. “Los heroes que salvaron a Venezuela,” he stated in one recent Tweet, “son los estudiantes.”
News coverage by of the ongoing crisis has been spotty, reigniting the old debate about whether U.S. based media outlets ignore and trivialize Latin America. To make their point, some have cited how coverage of the crisis in the Ukraine has grown day-by-day while attention to the Venezuelan situation has all but disappeared. Yet others see a political agenda in how Venezuela is covered. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for instance, recently fell back on the old right wing contention that much of the U.S. media has a liberal bias. “They have this romantic concept not only of Chávez but also of Fidel Castro,” he told the Miami Herald. “They don’t like it when something horrible is happening in these countries and they don’t cover it.” The conservative Media Research Center contends that U.S. networks “minimize coverage of anti-socialist protests in Venezuela” while mentioning the “anti-government protesters” on one hand but not “the radical ideology of the Venezuelan regime” on the other.
However, some media observers cite evidence to the contrary. “I think having so many Venezuelans that fled the country after Chávez took over in newsrooms [of Spanish language networks] gives opposition voices an upper hand,” said Gabriela Domenzain, formerly with the Obama campaign and now with The Raben Group, a Washington, DC-based lobbying firm. “It’s hard to be balanced when the reality of Venezuela is so dire and on a downward spiral.”
She states that while the #SOSVenezuela Twitter campaign has elevated and exported the crisis from Venezuela to an international audience, and many important newspapers in the U.S. have started to cover the protests, these stories are still few and far between.“What is happening in Venezuela is important to the region, to some of the largest political and economic allies of the U.S., and the violence there may provoke increased migration to the U.S. All of us in the U.S., not just those of us that speak Spanish, should be paying attention.”
The lack of mainstream attention to the country proves how important Spanish-language television networks such as Univision and Telemundo are to the conversation in the U.S. on global democracy, Domenzain argues. “It also shows how out of touch the mainstream media continues to be on the issues and countries that the fastest growing minority in this country care about.”
Domenzain also discounts reading too much into how the Ukraine has been covered in contrast with Venezuela. “It’s a false comparison and coverage of these crises is not mutually exclusive,” she adds. “As Spanish-language networks have proven, both can be covered accurately and with the attention they deserve.”