May 10, 2006


Crime Brings Venezuelans Into Streets: Large Protests Over Soaring Homicide Rate Create Political Challenge for Chavez (Monte Reel, 5/10/06, Washington Post)

rustration among crime-weary Venezuelans recently has become a political issue, erupting into several large street protests demanding that Hugo Chavez's government do something to stem the violence. Chavez's opponents are trying to make crime a central theme of the December presidential elections, demanding action from a president they say has neglected the issue since taking power in 1999.

Many of the protesters have suggested that Chavez has divided Venezuelan society with his frequent criticism of the country's upper class, rhetoric they say has incited lower classes to violence against the wealthy. They also argue that crimes against the poor have been overlooked by a police force tainted by widespread corruption.

Venezuela, a country of 26 million, has recorded an average of nearly 10,000 homicides a year since Chavez took office. The homicide rate, 37 deaths per 100,000 people, is more than double what it was in the 1990s.

Though the number of reported homicides peaked at about 11,900 in 2003, the public outcry reached its highest pitch in recent weeks after several high-profile cases. Three Venezuelan-Canadian teenage brothers were found dead with their chauffeur after being abducted by armed men in police uniforms in Caracas, and a well-known Italian-born businessman was killed after being abducted at a temporary roadblock near the capital.

Among the suspects arrested in the businessman's killing were a police officer and a former police officer. Their possible involvement underscored the feeling many Venezuelans have about the police: that they're part of the problem, not the solution.

"Here, everything moves with money," said Sandra Molina, complaining about police corruption. "We just hope the man who did it doesn't find someone that he can pay to make everything disappear."

The government has responded to the recent complaints by promising police reforms and a gun buyback program. But such measures are unlikely to calm the fears of those who believe solving the problem of escalating violence demands deeper structural changes.

"The characteristic response of the Venezuelan government, historically, has been that of evasion, following the law of least resistance and a complete lack of accountability," said Rafael Rivero Muñoz, a founder of one of Venezuela's top investigative police units who now works as a consultant. "There is an absence of political will to change it because crime causes fear, and that fear helps the government control the people. Neither the government nor the opposition wants to destroy the machinery that will help them in the future."

Despite the billions in revenue flowing into Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, any attempt to stop the violence has been eclipsed by other priorities that Chavez has emphasized, especially his calls to reduce poverty through social programs and to forge regional alliances to counter U.S. political influence in Latin America. The idea is that wider economic opportunities, made possible through social programs, will reduce crime in the long run. But the lack of a direct crime-fighting strategy has been the subject of much of the discontent on the streets in the past month.

"A lot of people voted for Chavez hoping that he would bring to order the problem of violent crime, and this didn't happen," said Marcos Tarre, a public security analyst in Caracas. "The government doesn't have a clear public security policy. Instead, there has been a very simplistic and erroneous manner of thinking that the problem is the responsibility of the military."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 10, 2006 7:34 AM

Crime and corruption are easiest to rationalize in societies organized around ideoligies of class warfare. Personal responsibility based on transcendant morality is believed to be a sham foisted on the masses by those controlling the means of production. The old base/superstructure theory. Marxism and all of it's intellectual debris is the cult of the political criminal. Chavez should be knocked off.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at May 10, 2006 8:09 AM

Considering the guy just asked voters last week to decide on a referendum that would allow him to remain in office until 2031, not doing anything about an increase in violence now could be used later not just to crack down on street crime, but to criminalize dissidents against the regime in the run-up to the next election (which Jimmy Carter already has certified as being free and fair, BTW).

Posted by: John at May 10, 2006 10:06 AM

How much of the street crime is driven by Chavez himself? In Nazi Germany, the answer was pretty clear. Same in places like Zimbabwe and even parts of China.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 10, 2006 10:38 AM

Jim's right. Street crime serves as a cover for more repressive police protection.

Posted by: erp at May 10, 2006 11:37 AM

I thought he was giving everyone guns to protect themselves against the invasion W's planning?

Posted by: Sandy P at May 10, 2006 2:26 PM

President for 25 more years.

Posted by: ic at May 10, 2006 4:42 PM