The assassination of three labour leaders belonging to the largely pro-PSUV UNT, Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernández and Carlos Requena on November the 27th has been placed in context by analysis articles as the spreading rural political violence to urbanised forms targeting labour leaders and social workers, perpetrated by an opposition coming off the back of some significant electoral gains and flush with foreign funding. What has not been discussed is the emotional response of leftists against such crimes. Westerners are ill equipped to understand this response because the violence we normally encounter, such as knife crime in the UK, is fundamentally different. As such though we may meet the violence in our societies with denial, acceptance, or positive activism none of these capture the dynamic of resistance found among Venezuelan leftists in relation to the current wave of political violence.
Over the last few months once or twice a week I have attended the meetings of a group of leftists in Merida. Normally boisterous affairs where the oldest laugh the loudest the group prides itself on being active, working in the community rather than "hablando paja" (talking rubbish). It has about 80 members divided equally between genders.
Tonight began as usual. We sat round the long wooden table and fought to offer our seats to anyone who would take them. The formidable moderator asks if there is any business left over from the last meeting, no one responds, collectively we then create the agenda for this week’s meeting.
We start by creating a committee to assess appointments to the local government, positions no one wants until someone foolishly suggests that those who he considers "active members" should make it up. The discussion ironically decends into questions of senority in a group that is ideologically opposed to hierarchy. This kind of behaviour is unusual, people are on edge. Before discussion becomes too heated the moderator steps in an calls a vote on candidates, this is completed and then the power cuts out as if in disapproval.
The lights come back on almost immediately extinguishing the soft glow of 20 mobile phones as rapidly as they had appeared; this is not an altogether infrequent occurrence. We move to the second article on the agenda; a man reads an interview given by an English professor to the Venezuelan media. The silence is complete. He finishes reading and we enter a heated but friendly discussion.
Suddenly we arrive at the third article on the agenda. Laughter stops, smiles fade. We begin a lengthy discussion of political killings and counter revolutionary violence. "How do we know it is political?" one old man asks, "I don’t see any of the opposition dead in the street".
Venezuelans are not new to violence, either from the state which massacred many impoverished Venezuelans in the 1989 Caracazo, or in society – homicide rates have risen disturbingly since the beginning of the Bolivarian process. In this context, sadly, one can be sure that there are a number of the opposition dead in the street.
But then this is not the violence the old man refers to. The attitudes to the rising homicide rate in Venezuela are very similar to those I’ve found in England in relation to knife crime. All are agreed that it is a terrible thing, that it is an indicator of the much talked of "moral decay" of society. Yet what strikes fear into us in relation to these statistics is that they seem arbitrary. There is something horrifying in the idea of randomness when talking of knife crime or homicide. The idea that a normal person waiting outside a club in Bristol one cold night could be stabbed is frighteningly close to us in the UK, just the other side of the statistic.
To understand the response of Venezuelan leftists we must recognise that political violence is a response to political activism. I believe that every leftist of the group works because they believe that their work is just. Whether they really choose to work is a large philosophical question, but that they feel to do so is not. Thus these people feel they choose to put themselves in danger for something they believe is right.
Yet people in England also feel that they choose to go to a club late one Saturday night, it becomes a justified risk one takes to enjoy oneself which of course one tries to take precautions against. It is in this sense like crossing the road, taking this risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Knife crime also appears similar in that it is as morally condemnable as are political killings, fault should not be attributed to its victims, and we are as obligated to fight against the one in society as the other.
Yet Richard Gallardo, Luis Hernández and Carlos Requena were not killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were killed for their political actions by people opposed to those actions. It is only when we understand this dynamic and its emotional implications that we can understand why the smiles faded, and what replaced them.
Going out in the face of frightening statistics may be considered an act of resistance, this is a mistake. Such actions can only be a form of denial or acceptance of the risk because in themselves they do not challenge the existence of knife crime or the intentions of its perpetrators. The perpetrators of knife crime do not consciously oppose the idea of enjoying oneself on a night out. Continuing activism in the face of political violence however is exactly what is opposed by the perpetrators of that violence, in addition it can also potentially challenge the perpetrators themselves and thus the existence of the violence. Such activism thus transforms into resistance in two dynamics.
What does this mean in the Venezuelan context? The violence is aimed at curbing unionism, thus continuing unionism is an immediate and direct form of resistance. Yet also we should understand that Leftists in Venezuela widely view "the oligarchy" as the enemy to be defeated to bring equality, development, and true democracy to their country. This same oligarchy is perceived as the force behind the murders in Aragua. Given the empowerment of unions is hoped to strike a blow against the power of the oligarchy unionism becomes doubly an act of resistance. Not only does it resist its repression, but it seeks to end this repression by undermining its perpetrators. Understanding responses as resistance rather than reaction is key to the psychology of conflict in Venezuela, and creates hope of a response that is morally bound rather than a brute expression of rage.
Though in England we may despair at knife crime, and the best of us may organise to fight against it, knowledge of neither response enables us to understand the emotional impact of political violence. Thus to my surprise when the smiles faded, among clear signs of fear and anger, the grim certainty of a ready group of people appeared. The group I attend is not directly confronting repression targeted against it, but by seeking to change society and challenge the oligarchy its mentality is also that of resistance in the face of political violence. This second dynamic by which activism transforms changes the emotional context for activists generally to one of resistance, though only some of them directly encounter repression. One man told us how his daughter, the assistant to a PSUV governor had had to relocate after receiving death threats. She now works as an assistant to a different PSUV governor. This story of resistance was received by leftist activists themselves not under threat, it strengthened their resolve to revolutionise society as by doing this they also hope to end the violence.