• Rebecca Hanson is a contributor of WOLA’s blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
Differentiating his campaign from those of his predecessor, Nicolás Maduro has made crime and violence in the country a major talking point so far. Roberto Briceño and others have suggested that the Interim President, unable to hide behind a charismatic personality, has been forced to take on the issue in a way that his predecessor was not. However, these comments are not totally accurate, in that the Hugo Chávez administration, since the mid-2000s, was increasingly engaged in citizen security initiatives, especially in lower-class areas of Caracas.
As we have noted in previous blogs, these initiatives relied on both a militarized presence in high crime areas (exemplified by the Bicentennial Citizen Security Presence, or the Dispositivo Bicentenario de Seguridad Ciudadana [DIBISE]) and preventative approaches that advocate for a “decriminalization of poverty” (represented by the National Experimental Security University [UNES] and the General Police Council). While Maduro has been more vocal on the issue, his rhetoric, as we will discuss below, has not diverged drastically from Chávez’s. Rather, he has continued to pull from “social movement” strategies—promoting culture, sports, and arts in popular sectors—and mano dura solutions for those who do not “respond” to these approaches.
Maduro stated early on that he would assume citizen security as a “personal issue,” charging himself with becoming the president that “finishes off” crime in the country. However, in discussing the causes of crime in the country, Maduro has stayed close to Chávez’s discourse.
He has critiqued the media and the culture industry for making a “festival” out of death and celebrating “bullets and blood” in print and on television. He has also held United State’s capitalism and cultural decadence responsible in a number of speeches. This discourse is almost identical to that of Chavez, who also pointed to capitalist driven-inequality, media consumption, and destabilization plots spearheaded by Colombia and the United States as crime’s fountainhead.
Recently, Maduro announced two initiatives to reduce crime in the capital, the construction of “territories of peace” and the “Movement for Peace and Life,” which will link government resources with social movements and cultural activities. These announcements are especially interesting given the strong mobilization capacity the Chavez government has demonstrated in the past as well as the active relationships the government has cultivated with social movement groups and actors in popular sectors since the mid-2000s.
Speaking in Petare in March, he announced that one of the key components of these “territories” would be the construction of “courts of peace” (canchas de paz) to create spaces for sports, culture, and educational workshops. According to Maduro, these territories of peace “are not an invasive, repressive, authoritarian, capitalist concept. Rather, the concept is one that looks for the rebirth of humanity from within the community.”
The Movement for Peace and Life was inspired by a youth collective “El Otro Beta” in Petare, which promotes art, culture, and sports in popular communities. The collective was widely recognized last year for their campaign “Chavez es Otro Beta” before the presidential elections, which showed a youthful Chávez boxing, riding motorcycles, and rapping [See The Christian Science Monitor's coverage here].
Using this collective as its model, Maduro has said that the movement will bring together artists, youth social networks, and athletes to promote ideas that will encourage the “rebirth of the values of life.” The movement will be officially based out of the National Experimental Security University in Catia but will be spread out among 79 of the most dangerous municipalities in the city.
The Interim President has said little regarding the role of the police and the military in fighting crime, other than to recognize institutions like UNES and national police reform in general as part of Chávez’s legacy. With his civilian background, one might assume that he will depend less on military ventures like the DIBISE.
Yet, recent comments suggest that he will continue to rely on Chávez’s dichotomous approach to crime (see post here). Emphasizing the need for dialogue in constructing peace, Madro said that he was willing to “go up into the most dangerous barrio in Petare without guns and on foot…without fear, to talk to the youth and tell them to stop the killing…to knock on the doors of the hideouts of the criminals” and engage them in a dialogue of peace.
However, in the same speech Maduro warned that his administration would “tighten the mano dura to protect the decent people (el pueblo decente) that have not been penetrated by the evil of violence. I extend my hand and if [the criminals] do not take it…we will go up [into the barrios] with the police and the National Guard because this has to end.” In another speech Maduro stated “With one hand we will be constructing education, culture, sports, and youth, but with the other hand there must be authority…citizens are guaranteed education [and] work in order to live a healthy life. The state says: For those who step outside of these rules, here is the law, here is authority.”
Of course, many citizens’ perception of the military is not necessarily negative. And, the role of the military is complicated: They have been heavily involved in efforts like housing construction after natural disasters and, as in many Latin American countries, are viewed by many citizens as capable of “effectively” dealing with crime in the barrios.
Additionally, for some Venezuelans a mano dura approach translates into attempts to control previously chaotic and sporadic approaches to crime that have been confounded by high rates of impunity. In other words, for some mano dura suggests an actual follow-through with a consistent and effective citizen security plan.
Nevertheless, these statements also exhibit what Venezuelan sociologist Veronica Zubillaga has referred to as the “paradox of the Bolivarian Revolution.” As Ms. Zubillaga has pointed out, basic living conditions in popular sectors (especially for women and children) have improved dramatically within the Bolivarian Revolution thanks to the State’s social investment. However, these sectors are still disproportionately affected by violence and police abuse.
And, the Bolivarian government, in attempting to deal with drugs in the barrios, has turned to incarcerating young men from the lower classes in ever increasing numbers. On the ground this paradox means that those who do not “take advantage” of government missions and opportunities leave themselves open to military operatives and a future in a penal system riddled with problems.
In my next post I will look at what Capriles has said about his plan for security in the country, how Maduro has responded to these statements, and discuss some of the reasons why Maduro might have decided to take up an issue that did not greatly impact Chávez’s popularity.