Pro-Maduro mili­tias to face ‘mother of all protests’

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY FREDERIC PUGLIE

LOS TEQUES, VENEZUELA | The priest had just told parish­ioners to “go in peace” at the end of Mass on Easter Sun­day when a truck­load of heav­ily armed na­tional guards­men rolled past the 18th-cen­tury St. Philip Neri Cathedral in this small city out­side Cara­cas.

It was yet an­other re­minder that in Venezuela, a coun­try on the brink of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic col­lapse, peace may be an even scarcer com­mod­ity than food and medicine. That is par­tic­u­larly true in Los Teques, which for the past two weeks has been a hot­bed of protests against em­bat­tled so­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro.

Con­fronta­tions con­tin­ued to es­ca­late over the week­end, with lo­cal res­i­dents burn­ing tires and the Bo­li­var­ian Na­tional Guard launch­ing tear gas bombs against res­i­den­tial build­ings on Satur­day night. Osten­si­bly to pre­vent loot­ing, the guard on Sun­day fur­ther “mil­i­ta­rized” sev­eral neigh­bor­hoods, where it pa­trolled streets in ar­mored vehicles.

So as they filed out of the church onto the cen­tral Plaza Bo­li­var af­ter the 5 p.m. Mass — the day’s third — their home­town’s del­i­cate sit­u­a­tion was not far from wor­ship­pers’ minds.

“My fam­ily and I live close to here, and we’ve been hear­ing shots be­ing fired un­til mid­night,”

said Jubrardith Cha­con, who at­tended the ser­vice with her young son.

The 34-year-old school­teacher said she lived in Mon­tana Alta, a neigh­bor­ing sub­urb where 19-year-old Jairo Or­tiz died dur­ing a protest against the gov­ern­ment on April 6 — an in­ci­dent that started the spi­ral of vi­o­lence in the Los Teques area.

That some res­i­dents have re­sponded by set­ting fires and loot­ing stores, the of­fi­cial ver­sion, is “not cor­rect,” Ms. Cha­con in­sisted.

“But given the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion we are liv­ing — we are not be­ing heard, there is no free­dom of ex­pres­sion — we have reached the limit,” she said. “This has been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Peo­ple are tired. We don’t want this gov­ern­ment any­more be­cause it has brought us all of this.”

The dif­fi­culty of feed­ing one’s own fam­ily, cou­pled with ram­pant vi­o­lent crime, is what has brought many or­di­nary Venezue­lans to the break­ing point, Ms. Cha­con added.

“There are many chil­dren who have died from hunger, mal­nu­tri­tion, need and [lack of] medicine. And look at what time the church is clos­ing be­cause of the ter­ri­ble in­se­cu­rity. Imag­ine, it’s only 6 o’clock,” she said. “And the po­lice don’t help, they don’t of­fer a hand. No­body of­fers a hand. To the con­trary, they turn a blind eye.”

Sky-high ten­sions are ex­pected to ratchet up Wed­nes­day dur­ing what one op­po­si­tion leader has called “the mother of all protests” against the gov­ern­ment, while pro-Maduro forces plan coun­ter­demon­stra­tions — all on a na­tional hol­i­day that marks the start of Venezuela’s in­de­pen­dence strug­gle in 1810.

In an omi­nous move, the pres­i­dent on Mon­day an­nounced plans to ex­pand the num­ber of civil­ians in­volved in the Bo­li­var­ian mili­tias cre­ated by Hugo Chavez, Mr. Maduro’s late po­lit­i­cal pa­tron, to 500,000, up from 100,000, and pro­vide each mem­ber with a gun.

Mr. Maduro told a gath­er­ing of thou­sands of mili­tia mem­bers in the cap­i­tal that it is time for Venezue­lans to de­cide if they are “with the home­land” or against it.

“Now is not the time to hes­i­tate,” he said.

Many in Los Teques put the blame for their trou­bles squarely on Mr. Maduro, whom — in a Venezue­lan Easter tra­di­tion — they picked as this year’s “Ju­das” and promptly burned in ef­figy. Pres­i­den­tial pup­pets were also set on fire in dozens of other lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing at a Cara­cas site just blocks from Mi­raflo­res, the lo­cal ver­sion of the White House.

“I feel hate [to­ward Mr. Maduro] be­cause, thanks to his in­ep­ti­tude [and] his ig­no­rance, many lives are cur­rently lost,” said high school stu­dent Jeremy Pena, who was strolling across the largely de­serted Plaza Bo­li­var on Sun­day af­ter­noon. “Spend­ing money on tear gas bombs and equip­ment to sup­press demon­stra­tors in­stead of spend­ing money on the health care, which is to­tally dis­man­tled.”

Many of Ms. Cha­con’s friends and fam­ily mem­bers who used to back Mr. Maduro, mean­while, have had enough of the gov­ern­ment’s “shame­less­ness.”

Sid­ing with the gov­ern­ment

Oth­ers be­lieve the real evil force in the coun­try is an oli­garch-con­trolled op­po­si­tion, which the pres­i­dent claims is wag­ing an eco­nomic war against his “Bo­li­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion.”

The two per­spec­tives re­flect the sharp so­cial and eco­nomic di­vi­sions that have long plagued the coun­try.

“I’ll ad­mit there are fail­ures. But there are fail­ures be­cause they haven’t stopped the sab­o­tage,” said Maria Jose­fina Morales, a 57-year-old health care worker. “The medicine — we have op­po­si­tion in­fil­tra­tors who take it, steal it, let it ex­pire. They them­selves — the op­po­si­tion — hide the drugs. When you give it to pa­tients, they are al­ready ex­pired.”

Like­wise, the sit­u­a­tion in Los Teques can hardly be blamed on a gov­ern­ment try­ing to re­store or­der, said Ofe­lia Mujica, a 64-year-old lawyer.

“The op­po­si­tion is in­cit­ing vi­o­lence. I see all this in­cite­ment to protest — for them to go out, burn, vi­o­late, tres­pass. I don’t see it as some­thing good,” Ms. Mujica said. “And they’ve mis­treated the na­tional guard. When they throw stones at you, you have to de­fend your­self.”

In an at­mos­phere this highly charged, it is no surprise that politics even made its way, ever so sub­tly, into the cathedral, where Sun­day’s homily in­cluded calls to re­ject the “usurpa­tion of power,” refuse to “live un­der op­pres­sion” and “ful­fill the sa­cred duty of lib­erty.”

Seven out of 10 Venezue­lans iden­tify as Ro­man Catholic. And hard-lin­ers around Mr. Maduro have long viewed the church with sus­pi­cion. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers, such as 2013 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and Mi­randa Gov. Hen­rique Capriles, have tended to be un­apolo­get­i­cally pub­lic about their faith.

Pope Fran­cis’ ef­forts to me­di­ate the cri­sis have only brought the Vatican sharp crit­i­cism from both sides. Gov­ern­ment crit­ics say the Ar­gen­tine-born pope’s at­tempts at a com­pro­mise are only le­git­imiz­ing the op­pres­sive rule of Mr. Maduro.

Mr. Capriles — whose of­fice sits right across from the cathedral and who has said that Mr. Maduro is be­hind any loot­ing in the city — on April 7 was given a 15-year ban from hold­ing po­lit­i­cal of­fice. The de­ci­sion, handed down by Comptroller Gen­eral Manuel Galindo, a Maduro loy­al­ist, fur­ther in­fu­ri­ated pro­test­ers in Los Teques, Mi­randa’s state cap­i­tal.

“The pres­i­dent blames the gov­er­nor [for the vi­o­lence] be­cause he is an op­po­nent,” said Ms. Cha­con. “But no, it’s not the gov­er­nor; it’s the peo­ple. It’s we res­i­dents who are tired of so much un­cer­tainty.”

That things are un­likely to calm down any­time soon was un­der­lined by a dozen na­tional guards­men who, heav­ily armed and in riot gear, clam­ored around a truck out­side the Guaicaipuro metro sta­tion in down­town Los Teques. Stone-faced, they would not say if they had any sym­pa­thy for their fel­low cit­i­zens who vow to keep protest­ing.

“I took part in the march we had in Los Teques a few days ago be­cause … I feel that by go­ing to demon­stra­tions, I can change the coun­try,” said Mr. Pena, the stu­dent. “Ev­ery time we see more po­lice, more ar­mored vehicles. I per­son­ally feel more in­se­cure with the po­lice than with the very pro­test­ers.”


VOICES OF OP­PO­SI­TION: Many Venezue­lans blame Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment for hunger and vi­o­lent crime that has brought them to the break­ing point.


In an omi­nous move as ten­sions rise in Venezuela, Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro on Mon­day an­nounced plans to ex­pand the num­ber of civil­ians in­volved in the Bo­li­var­ian mili­tias from 100,000 to 500,000 and pro­vide each mem­ber with a gun.

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