I remember how we came to hate each other. The arrival of Hugo Chávez to office did not only mean a break in the policies to which we had been accustomed. From the beginning, the political vocabulary was altered forever; we were no longer one country, we had become ‘them’ and ‘us’, and that gap gradually widened. Those with something to gain by this division exploited it, including, especially, Chávez himself.
The discomfort in the people was already present; Chávez exploited it to promote his movement, he knew how to be the trigger. In his speeches one heard constantly about enemies, whether concrete or abstract; whoever was not with him became unpatriotic immediately; he made threats and appealed to a collective fear, warning that if he did not win, the country would sink.
He also referred to his adversaries in a derogatory, discourteous and invalidating way, with nicknames or insults such as ‘squalid’, ‘majunche’, ‘frijolito’, ‘coup plotters’, ‘traitors’, ‘mobsters’, ‘oligarchs’, ‘fascists’, ‘swindlers’ and ‘bourgeois.’ During his campaign against Henrique Capriles in 2012, he did not use his opponent’s name, only monikers, and said he would be ashamed to debate with him because he was ‘nothing’, a nonentity.
Academics and communications experts have long analyzed Chávez’s divisive rhetoric in televised speeches and newspaper articles. Some of the phrases he used: “Squalid donkeys. Poor squalid ones! They are pitiful”; “They will not return”; “Damn you, State of Israel! Damn you!”; “I saw them crawl, slimy; in front of the empire, what they produce is disgust and pity”; “If a bourgeois government comes, destabilization will begin”; “Opposition people know how to administer this shitty victory. It was a victory of shit, and ours a failure of courage.”
What are the proper limits of “tolerance”? In claiming freedom of thought and action, can we destroy, or threaten, or encourage acts of hate? There is much that cannot be consented to, in order to progress as a society. There is nothing abstract about this question. I’m not talking about philosophical aphorisms written by Popper or Burke; “tolerance” is about what each of us can and can’t endure, both politically and personally, and live with ourselves. In our times this reckoning is a heavy and often unpleasant necessity, an etching of ethical lines right into the face of our lives, with real and deadly serious consequences.
In Venezuela the division of society caused many families to separate and become enemies. My parents fought over their political differences for years until they decided to divorce. That experience helped me to take my own path: I never supported, do not support, and will not support the Chávez regime, Maduro or any other of its members; but the polarization in the country also taught me that anger cannot guide my actions, and I will not stop loving and respecting my family and friends for having ideas different from mine. It helped me that none of them were related to the government or the opposition, they are private citizens with their private values, opinions and ideologies.
Unfortunately, for some families these fights have crossed the line into the sordid and violent. A few months ago, attorney Maria Gabriela Mirabal was beaten and almost killed by her own son over their political differences. She had denounced her brother for corruption, accusing him of being a front man for Alejandro Andrade, the former treasurer of Venezuela, who is currently serving a sentence in the United States for money laundering. Mirabal’s children, along with much of the rest of the family, sided with their uncle. On the day of the attack, she received her son in her home after more than ten years estrangement. The blows hurt her, but even more painfully, she learned that her own child was capable of threatening her with a gun to her head.
From the beginning of his government, Chávez and Maduro encouraged ‘colectivos’, militiamen and armed groups to defend the model of the country that he had designed. The rhetoric of hate was fundamental to whipping up his most radical followers. During the electrical blackouts of 2019, Maduro called on the ‘colectivos’ to defend the country and keep the ‘peace’. These violent groups have threatened, attacked and killed people with impunity in the past, and are still generating fear in the streets. The regime relies on them to maintain a show of force, to control protests and other situations that might put the stability of its power at risk.
Throughout history bands similar to these have emerged both from the right and the left. They invariably promote a false discourse of peace, where violence is used to defend their beliefs. Currently, the US is evidencing parallel cases with groups carrying weapons in protests, and claiming the right to attack those who do not think the same as them, because of a distorted vision of what they believe is justice and love for their country.
As in the United States, educated conversation on the subject of politics between two people with different ideologies has become nearly impossible in Venezuela. Respect for others is gone.
During the time I worked as a TV reporter, I witnessed a lot of politically related violence on the streets. Once, a group of Chávez supporters attacked us with rocks towards the end of a peaceful opposition march. The police failed to control these people, who’d stayed a long time threatening us; eventually we had to run from the rain of rocks, and it was not the first time. Working as a journalist in Venezuela comes with the risk of tear gas, explosions and threats from sectors opposed to the free press. For example, in 2014 Reporters Without Borders denounced the attacks by the National Guard on journalist Mildred Manrique, who was covering protests. Her house was raided and she was detained one night, denounced as a terrorist for having bulletproof vests and teargas masks in her residence, protections widely used by journalists during times of riots.
We could blame Chávez, Nicolás Maduro and other members of their regime for this endemic bitterness; we could blame the people for having fallen into the trap. The truth is that we are all responsible: those who rolled the dice, and those who went along with the game. Because the problem is not only a government that has ruined a country by leaving it almost bankrupt. There are other losses related to values, mutual respect, tolerance and the recognition of differences.
People are tired of the barriers that separate us. These labels must be erased from our minds to achieve a more equal world, where no one is treated as an inferior being and where nobody fears for their life for thinking, acting or looking ‘different’. But, at the same time, it is necessary to be aware that to demand equality we must also offer it.
We must also realize that demanding our rights does not give us the power to destroy or harm. Therefore, in raising our voices to speak out about inequality, discrimination and human rights violations, we must do so with intelligence and compassion, not believing ourselves to be masters of the truth, but instead deserving of change; and to obtain that change it is important to start with respect.
This year, Venezuelans will witness two important elections. First, the Venezuelan parliament, in which a large part of the opposition will not participate because it considers that the conditions for a fair and democratic process do not exist. The division of the opposition suits Maduro, he uses this news to divert attention from the countless problems of the country. The bombardment of events also makes the population forget recent events such as the expropriation of some of the opposition political parties. Before this year’s legislative elections, Maduro simply decided who should have control of the political organizations that would oppose him.
Second, the U.S. presidential elections have aroused much interest due to the political position of President Trump regarding Maduro’s regime. Venezuelans (émigrés who’ve become U.S. citizens and can vote, as well as those who live elsewhere) have again taken sides, regardless of whom they may support in Venezuela. Insults fly thick and fast on social media.
Recently, two U.S.-based Venezuelan public figures, actor Edgar Ramirez and broadcaster Erika de la Vega, have been attacked for not supporting Trump in the November elections. They’ve been falsely accused of being communists, and even of receiving a salary from Maduro. Many of these social media users do not understand that U.S. policy is not handled the same way in Venezuela, or that being opposed to Trump does not mean being pro-Maduro. To put it another way, Biden is neither Chávez nor Maduro.
Erika de la Vega was born and raised in Venezuela to Cuban parents, who fled Castro’s authoritarianism. For that reason, she spent many years in Venezuela denouncing Chávez through radio and television, when his critics were few; eventually she was forced to leave the country and her passport was cancelled. It is sad and worrying that she is now accused of supporting Maduro’s regime, simply for having an opinion of her own and defending it, as she always has.
In the past, Venezuelans were politically separated into ‘Copeyanos’ and ‘Adecos’, although the differences between the two parties were not very marked. Those who supported Chávez, and now Maduro, seem to think that all the political past was corrupt, and that is why they hope to find a better way, fearing that the old policies may return and the people may not be important to the rulers. Their opponents, meanwhile, hope that the country can move forward, knowing that the last 20 years have been a social and economic trainwreck. Internally, both the opposition and the officialdom are also divided, which makes the situation a permanent hotbed of contention, where no one can agree.
Venezuelans are not the only ones in this game of insults, disrespect and anger. Around the world there are many who love to hate and have turned it into a sport. They should take into account what has happened in this South American country in the last two decades, which can be read as a kind of social experiment, and ask themselves if they prefer to live in a world where ideas and individuals are respected and listened to, or continue to fan the flames that will eventually set us all on fire.