Framing the Debate: Narrative, Violence and Democratic Competition

As Venezuela looks back at ten years of rule by Hugo Chavez decentralised and sporadic violence is beginning to mar the widely peaceful, yet typically noisy campaign trail in the run up to Venezuela’s February 15th referendum on the removal of term limits, which would allow President Chávez to continue at the head of Venezuelan politics in 2013. To understand the shape of the contest we must make sense of the narrative frames used by leaders on both sides, though they form an important part of the democratic debate they can also fan the flames of violent conflict.

Recently the pro-government Caracas based group La Piedrita threw tear gas canisters at a meeting of the opposition party Bandera Roja, and at representatives of the Vatican. The opposition has also engaged in violent acts, with its student supporters generally in the forefront. In Caracas police stopped an unauthorized opposition march, finding the sound equipment truck filled with Molotov Cocktails. Meanwhile students in the Andean city of Merida, believed to belong to the opposition affiliated to the M13 movement, attacked a police cordon during a protest injuring 5 officers, one of whom was shot in the leg.

So why are some members of both "Yes" and "No" campaigns turning to violence when last week’s pacific, countrywide marches by both sides clearly demonstrate the will of most activists for a peaceful democratic contest? In the corrupt Venezuelan rentier state the material interests of political elites are important, yet alone they are not enough to explain the kind of decentralised violence we currently see.

Opposition leaders have framed the conflict as their battle against the rising authoritarian tide; Julio Borges, leader of the strongest opposition party, Justice First, declared the campaign a part of Chávez’s "mania to control absolutely everything we do". Describing the amendment as the ominous sounding "indefinite re-election", rather than "Yes" camp’s "unlimited ability to run for office", constitutes an important part of this framing. That both of these frames are effective is apparent in poll figures, those using the former frame finding 52% of opinion against the amendment, and those using the later finding 54% in favour.

Yet the narrative frames through which people understand a conflict affect not only their allegiances, but the modes of fighting it they deem legitimate. The "resisting authoritarianism" frame helps determine the actions of opposition activists. Representatives of the M13 student group have admitted to being armed; it appears to them as morally required in the face of a mortal threat.

The potency of the frame is also seen in the hesitation shown by police forces. Though they have begun to respond to violence with tear gas they stood impotent as the first wave of violence crashed against them two weeks ago for fear of appearing authoritarian. I sat in a meeting where a police officer pleaded for help from community groups, "we are being shot at and can do nothing, we need help" he told us.

The opposition’s frame sits in an explosive relation with that employed by Chávez. Last week, in his first of a series of opinion pieces to be published in the run up to the referendum Chávez situated the changes firmly in his counter imperialist narrative, stoked further by rumours of a meeting in Puerto Rica of opposition leaders with the US ambassador.

"If the majority of you Venezuelans support the amendment with a Yes, it will be possible for me to continue at the helm in 2013. But that isn’t what truly matters. Here and now what matters is that if No wins, they will impose colonisation and the anti-homeland, and if the Yes wins, there will be a homeland, there will be independence."

This frame’s emotional context is, like that of the opposition, based in a resistance mentality. The "Yes" campaign understands itself as resisting subordination to the forces of imperialism and its agents, and, as with opposition activists the idea of resisting an unjust imposition in the minds of some mandates violence. What’s more, when violence erupts from one group it serves only to validate the other side’s framing of the conflict and thereby precipitate further violence.

Utopia 78, a leftist student group, that like M13 operates in Merida, claims to have renounced arms 5 years ago, "we are armed with courage alone" one activist joked with me. Yet the resistance mentality has seen leftist groups in Merida increasingly call for U78 to confront M13, accepting violence as necessary in the context.

While both frames may capture important elements of the truth, only the re-imposition by moderates on both sides of a frame stressing that the referendum is first and foremost part of an ongoing democratic contest will avoid an escalation of the violence. This electoral focus characterised the mass demonstrations of the 23rd which passed without incident, demonstrating the effectiveness of the "democracy first" narrative.

Leadership is required from opposition sectors in the responsible restriction of the "fighting authoritarianism" frame to reflect the Venezuelan reality, that the amendment is to allow Chávez to run again in a popular election for president, and that it will be settled by referendum on February the 15th.

Such leadership is more apparent among the President’s supporters. Last Wednesday I saw the newly elected pro-Chávez governor of Merida state, Marcos Diaz Orellana, order the retreat of the police at the height of a violent confrontation with students, and proceed to walk alone through a hail of thrown stones to negotiate the cessation of violence directly with student leaders.

Likewise President Chávez has declared "any violent destabilization that arises should be dissolved immediately", yet this message is still to be accepted by the whole of his movement. Indeed such acceptance it will be slow to emerge while Chávez frames the amendment first and foremost as part of the fight against imperialism and while violent opposition student protests continue.

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