Years from now, when we think back on 2017, the first thing to come to mind will be a cloud of tear gas. But did you know that most of the thousands of tear gas canisters fired on protesters had to be bought abroad?
In fact, most of the tear gas for repressing Venezuela’s protest movement is Made in Brazil. Nor is the Brazilian government an innocent bystander in all this: under Brazilian law, tear gas made in the country needs export authorization from the government.
Brazil’s tear gas pipeline exemplifies the attitude of the international community all year: a kind of realpolitik you could describe as pragmatic cynicism. “If Venezuelans choose to tear gas one another like brutes,” the feeling goes, “why shouldn’t our companies walk away with a piece of the pie?”
Last week, finally, we began to see some pushback against that, as Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense banned the Rio de Janeiro-based company Condor Tecnologias Não-Letais from selling 23 tons of tear gas (approximately 80,000 tear gas canisters) to the Venezuelan government – one half of the water and a “little” gas Maduro says he’s using to control the 2017 protests – as the body count climbs toward 80.
If Venezuelans choose to tear gas one another like brutes,” the feeling goes, “why shouldn’t our companies walk away with a piece of the pie?
In a particularly perverse application of pseudolaw, chavismo has found ways to injure and kill unarmed civilians during protests and give a distorted appearance of following the law by using non-lethal weapons such as tear gas, which have been happily provided by countries such as Brazil, the US (oh, the irony!) and Spain.
Although in accordance with law, tear gas, as a non-lethal weapon, cannot be shot directly at individuals but only as a last resource to preserve public order during a protest, tear gas canisters have constantly been used as projectiles by the security forces in Venezuela. At times, they have been shot at point-blank range resulting in serious injuries or deaths by trauma.
It bears remembering that article 68 of the Venezuelan constitution expressly forbids the use of firearms to control public protests, which explains the government’s creativity in the use of tear gas.
Nelson Bocaranda had earlier reported the deal cut by VEXIMCA, a subsidiary of the all-mighty government procurement company CORPOVEX. There’s an opacity angle to this as well: these days, most defense procurement takes place through VEXIMCA rather than through the Ministry of Defense, to avoid public tendering and record keeping requirements by using an obscure state-owned company with little in the way of public records.
Even if the export hadn’t been banned in Brazil, getting the shipment to Venezuela wasn’t going to be straightforward: Colombian air carrier Avianca refused to transport the tear gas shipment to Venezuela.
While the Brazilian ban is commendable, the battle against the International Community’s pragmatic cynicism is slow and grinding.
Condor, the Brazilian manufacturer, is one of the world’s major producers of tear gas. Their products have been used to repress protests under autocracies such as Turkey and Egypt and during the Arab Spring. The opacity of its records and its dealings with autocratic governments have been criticized in Brazil in the past.
Between 2008 and 2011 Condor sold the Venezuelan government 143 tons of non-lethal weapons including tear gas and rubber bullets for 22 million reais (approximately $6.6 million). The company confirmed that it had two active contracts in Venezuela without giving further details. The Brazilian Ministry of Defense confirmed that no exports of tear gas to Venezuela had been made since 2011.
According to sources in Venezuelan customs quoted by El Pitazo, the government imported over USD 24 million of riot control weapons between 2009 and 2014.
A technical report made by the Universidad Central de Venezuela regarding tear gas collected during protests in the university’s campus in 2014 during La Salida determined that 60% of the tear gas found was the now expired load bought from Condor between 2008 and 2011.
The remaining 40% came from the US, or were manufactured in Venezuela by the state-owned military industry corporation (CAVIM), through a joint venture with the Spanish company Falken. The government continued to use the expired gas from Condor through to this year’s protests, even though the use of expired tear gas can be harmful.
So where might the government turn for fresh gasesito now?
There is no information about the CAVIM-Falken joint venture, but we guess that it has not been able to produce more tear gas.
Although public records on defense purchases are notoriously opaque in Venezuela, the use of expired tear gas and the attempted purchase both suggest government stocks are running low. The US is probably not an option, as CAVIM was subjected to a two year arms embargo by the US Department of State. That ban is now expired, but you can imagine the blowback if sales are resumed.
There is no information about the CAVIM-Falken joint venture, but we guess that it has not been able to produce more tear gas. Spain banned the export of riot control materials to Venezuela in 2014 during the #LaSalida protests. The government may try to turn to India, one of the world’s top manufacturers of tear gas, or to allies like China or Russia.
While the Brazilian ban is commendable, the battle against the International Community’s pragmatic cynicism is slow and grinding. The worst of the old style of engagement was at full display at the OAS meeting last week.
Meanwhile, human rights abuses pile up: firearms are used to kill protesters, rubber pellets used at short range kill unarmed teenagers before the television cameras, and the government casually announces the creation of concentration camps for detained opposition protesters while Luis Almagro fights quixotically in Cancun to get OAS members to approve a resolution calling on the government to “reconsider” the Constituyente.
We need all the international help we can get and we welcome it. But Brazil can’t pierce through the wall of pseudolaw to hold the regime accountable for its actions. That’s our job.