At first glance, the countries seem quite different: Venezuela is deeply and bitterly politically polarized, with shortages of basic food staples and goods, rising inflation, spiraling crime rates, and what some say is a breakdown of institutions. Venezuela's protests have resulted in the arrest of a high-profile member of the opposition, plus a higher death toll with more reports of brutality from both state security forces and paramilitaries. The demonstrations are openly politicized, as the opposition and government face off in what has been an increasingly tense battle.
But at the heart of the protests in both countries is also a desire for an improved quality of life and a demand for accountability.
As Venezuela marks two weeks of major demonstrations, some observers have drawn contrasts with Brazil. There was, for example, the goverment reaction at a policy level. In Brazil, there was hand-wringing and emergency meetings, carefully scripted, pre-recorded remarks from the president, congressional action, and swift promises for reform. In Venezuela, there was a lot of angry rhetoric blaming everyone from the Americans to the Colombians, as the president danced merengue on national TV, declared a new national holiday to extend the upcoming Carnival break, and sat for an interview involving fun with charts featuring possibly invented statistics. (Tonight, there was a peace conference intended to bring people together for a dialogue, though some members of the opposition refused to go.)
From The New York Times:
"Unlike the protests in neighboring Brazil last year, when the government tried to defuse anger by promising to fix ailing services and make changes to the political system, Mr. Maduro says the protesters are fascists conducting a coup against his government. He has largely refused to acknowledge their complaints, focusing instead on violence linked to the unrest. Here in Táchira State, he says the protests are infiltrated by right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups, and he has threatened to arrest the mayor of San Cristóbal."
But others have found some things in common between the two.
In what is mostly a remarkably balanced op-ed, Brazilian Congressman Jean Wyllys points out that some Brazilians have criticized protesters in their own country, calling them vandals, while at the same time praising Venezuela's demonstrators. Both countries have the right to protest, he says, in spite of the differences in policies or governments, and citizens of both countries have demanded their right to be heard and to get a legitimate response.
"The Venezuelans that are dissatisfied with the situation of the country have the right to protest against the government. Protest isn't a coup--even if some ruling party members say it is, in both Venezuela and Brazil--in fact, it's a fundamental civil right...If thousands of people are in the streets protesting against a government's policies, that shouldn't be considered a mere mistake by the government; first the government should reflect on what could be so wrong as to result in bringing so many to the streets!"
Even Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff made the comparison in remarks this week:
"We even had our own exceptional moment, which was the June protests, in which there was no repression. We live with democracy, we think that those who have democracy will always want more democracy. Those who experience development want more development. And those who have public services want to improve them, expand them, and will want more. So, we're a country that we're happy to say that we've matured when it comes to democracy."
This could also apply to Venezuela, and looking at poll numbers, you'll find similarities. Both countries, for example, are displeased with the way things are going: a recent Gallup survey found that only 44 percent of Brazilians and 40 percent of Venezuelans are happy with their country's direction.
Released this week, a Gallup poll conducted in September and October shows that Venezuelans have grown increasingly pessimistic. Over 60 percent think the economy is getting worse, and around 80 percent don't feel safe walking alone at night. About 33 percent think their standard of living is getting worse--up from only 11 percent a year earlier. Another 33 percent say their standard of living is actually getting better, but that number declined from 54 percent in 2012.
Similarly, Gallup showed in June that 55 percent of Brazilians were dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and 41 percent said the national economy was going poorly. When asked about the country's priorities, 85 percent said law and order was important, but 14 percent said the country could be described as having adequate law and order. A February CNT survey found that 77 percent of Brazilians feel urban violence is getting worse; a National Victimization Survey released in December revealed that half of Brazilians are "very afraid" of becoming a murder victim. And a November Boston Consulting Group poll found that only 31 percent of Brazilians feel that on a personal level, they are financially secure.
So while Venezuela has some extremely complex political issues at play with more serious economic hurdles, there are also basic issues at hand that Brazilians share: the desire to feel safe, to be able to afford things they both want and need, and to feel a sense of advancing in life, rather than backsliding. They both seem to want a better quality of life.
"The people are marching for access to food, for some sense of economic stability," writes Venezuelan-American blogger Veronica Bayetti Flores of Venezuela's protesters. "Lots of them are angry bourgeois; a lot of them also are folks who can’t afford to send maids to stand in line for four hours to get basic staples on their table, folks who have spotty access to electricity and water." But perhaps it was a mother in the Venezuelan city of Valencia who put it simplest. "I don't support any political party," she told Reuters. "I just want to live, to do my shopping and not get killed."
Image: A June 2013 protest in Belém, Brazil. Image: Semilla Luz.