World

Less Lenin for Maduro, and more Lennon

Seamus Milne, Jonathan Watts

Venezuela's leader Nicolás Maduro says he'd join the protests he is trying to suppress, were they not right-wing ploys.

Opposition demonstrators clash with the Venezuelan police in Caracas. The opposition wants certain conditions to be met before accepting the offer of President Nicolas Maduro to talk. (AFP)

It might seem an unlikely claim for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to make after weeks of violent unrest in the country but the burly, moustachioed former bus driver describes himself as a bit of a hippy – and a fan of John Lennon's campaigns for peace and love.

Both have been in short supply in Venezuela in recent months, as the country's worst civil conflict in a decade has left up to 39 dead, many more injured and several opposition figures jailed for inciting violence. Protesters have continued an often violent campaign to overthrow the government, including arson attacks on universities, bus stations and other public buildings.

But the president at the centre of this storm shrugs off opposition accusations that he has been acting like a dictator and using excessive force. Instead, Maduro insists that he and his ministers would have joined the protests themselves if they had really been about shortages, and were inspired by musical and political icons who championed non­violent protest.

"We are all a little bit hippy, a little bohemian. We take that from the culture we knew, from the Seventies and the Eighties," he said, during an interview at the presidential palace, Miraflores, in Caracas. "We listened to Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin, and listened to and lived through the life of John Lennon.

"He was an extraordinary icon; he still is. He managed to discover the essence of the youth that fought for peace at the time – those movements that marked Europe and the United States, against the Vietnam war, in Indochina, and the intervention of troops in countries of the South. And he represented them with special authenticity."

Taste for counterculture
It turns out that Maduro's taste for counterculture doesn't stop at its music – though he also plays guitar and likes salsa. The one-time trade union activist, who later became foreign minister under Hugo Chávez, is keen on Indian philosophy and meditates regularly – which his aides credit for his ability to get by with minimal sleep.

But, in the current situation, calls to give peace a chance appear to be falling on deaf ears. Opposition politicians have so far refused to support his calls for national dialogue, and critics say he has deepened divisions by mobilising armed grassroots political activists, known as collectivos, to intimidate opponents.


Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. (AFP)

Maduro denies this and says the collectivos, who run community projects in the barrios, are being demonised. "Our side is peace, love and tolerance," he said, giving a two-fingered peace sign during an earlier radio and TV broadcast. "The opposition is a group of little Pinochets who burned down a school."

Memories don't just inspire the region for musical reasons. Many Latin Americans recall brutal crackdowns by right-wing dictators, such as Argentina's Augusto Pinochet, backed by the US, that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Maduro said this is happening once again and, to explain his thinking, referred to the case of the left-wing Chilean president, Salvador Allende, who died during a bloody military coup led by Pinochet in 1973.

"Similar questions were posed to Allende as to me," Maduro said. "Allende was told that he blamed everything on a conspiracy, on the economic crisis, that he blamed the high inflation that sabotaged him on the US, and that he was frequently accusing the little lambs of [US president Richard] Nixon and [US secretary of state Henry] Kissinger of a coup. But everything became known later."

Social advances
He said Venezuela in the 21st century was, however, far stronger than Chile in the 1970s as a result of social advances made by the revolution led by his predecessor, Chávez. He, too, said he had changed.

"I can tell you that I never aspired to be president. I always honour something that commander Chávez told us: that while we were in these posts we must be clothed in humility and understand that we are here to protect the man and woman of the streets.

"We come from those same streets, from the factories, the shanty towns, the education centres, where people dreamed of a new country. Thank God, we managed to find a new democratic road [towards a] truly humane and libertarian model of socialism.

"The revolution has been a great school that has taught us many things and has transformed us as a nation. If I ask myself where I was 20 years ago? I am someone else, vastly superior to who I was."

But his comments suggest that even, if the times have changed, the soundtrack – of Led Zeppelin, Lennon, Bob Dylan and the Venezuelan protest singer Alí Primera – has remained the same. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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