Pro-government marchers flood Venezuela’s capital amid right-wing violence, coup threats

The Chavista march in Caracas on April 19 was one of the biggest in years. Photo by Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis.Photo by Reagan Des Vignes/Telesur
April 22, 2017

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of the capital on April 19 in huge pro-government rallies marking the country’s independence day. 

Thousands of right-wing opposition also took to the streets in often violent protests. The day after the large pro- and anti-government marches, more right-wing violence broke out. The government accused opposition protesters of attacking public institutions, including a maternity hospital, on April 20. Ten people were also confirmed dead after a riot in Caracas.

On April 19, thousands of red-clad supporters of President Nicolas Maduro mobilised in four separate marches that culminated in a mass rally along Bolivar Avenue in downtown Caracas.

“I am here to support the Revolution … because I love my country,” one marcher told Venezuelanalysis.com. “I’m a Chavista in the flesh and I support Chavez and Maduro.

“I want that to be heard in the US, Europe and the rest of the world so they can’t say this is a show, that we don’t have numbers, that we’re paid to be here. No, this is real.”

The pro-government demonstration comes on the heels of a series of statements released by the US State Department and 11 neighbouring countries warning the Maduro administration to “ensure the right to peaceful protest”.

Interventionist

Caracas has blasted the communiques as “interventionist”, calling into question the moral and legal authority of Washington and its regional allies to intercede in internal Venezuelan affairs.

Many present at the April 19 pro-revolution march likewise expressed their categorical rejection of foreign interference “Here we are at the largest anti-imperialist march in Venezuelan history,” Jesus Pinto, national secretary general for the Tupamaros National Revolutionary Movement, insisted.

“The US empire has done much harm and we have right-wing opposition sectors that seek the ouster of the legitimately elected government. [But] here we are in the streets, ready to give everything including our lives to prevent US boots from touching our soil.”

The strong anti-interventionist sentiment has been reflected in a recent poll by independent pollster Hinterlaces, which found that 76%of Venezuelans oppose international intervention to remove President Maduro.

Meanwhile, thousands of opposition protesters marched from the Plaza Francia in the wealthy eastern Caracas municipality of Chacao towards the National Ombudsman’s office downtown. The march took place despite lacking the necessary permit from pro-government El Libertador Mayor Jorge Rodriguez. 

The government has consistently denied permission for opposition supporters to march to Caracas' western municipality of El Libertador since a short-lived opposition-led coup in 2002.

The coup, in which President Hugo Chavez was kidnapped by the military and the head of the Chamber of Commerce installed as in his place, was triggered by an anti-government march diverted towards Miraflores Presidential Palace that left 19 dead by opposition sniper-fire. A popular uprising of the poor restored Chavez within two days.

The opposition march on April 19 was called by the right-wing opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, which includes forces behind the 2002 coup.

The MUD has presented the government with a hodgepodge of demands, ranging from holding postponed regional elections and allowing humanitarian aid, to removing Supreme Court justices and convening snap presidential elections one year ahead of schedule.

Clashes with authorities later ensued as opposition demonstrators took over the Francisco Fajardo Highway in an effort to reach the more pro-government western section of the capital.

Some opposition supporters called on the international community to help secure a “change of government” in the South American country.

Lawyer Carlos Alberto Galeano, who took part in the opposition march, told venezuelanalysis.com:  “What I want is for today’s march to be forceful so the international community sees that we have to get rid of these people [the Maduro administration] because these people are not going to go peacefully.

“Let the international community force elections so there is a change of government for the wellbeing of the people.”

Deadly and destructive violence

According to Venezuela’s Public Prosecution, 312 people were detained during the opposition protests. The protests again featured masked demonstrators erecting roadblocks, damage to public institutions, and deadly attacks on state security personnel and bystanders.

National Ombudsman Tarek William Saab confirmed that National Guard sergeant Neumar Jose Sanclemente was killed by a sniper on the April 19,  “in the middle of violent protests in Las Salias municipality” in Miranda state.

The killing brings the total number of dead in the recent weeks’ anti-government protests to seven, including two demonstrators killed by police and two bystanders shot dead by armed protesters.  

Maduro has responded to the violence by ordering the deployment of the Bolivarian militia, a popular force made up of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, as part of nationwide civil-military drills to safeguard national security known as Plan Zamora.

The Public Prosecutor's office has indicated that a total of 62 people were wounded at protests across the country on April 19. 

The day’s mobilisations also included widespread attacks on public institutions by opposition demonstrators.

In Chacao, the administrative headquarters of Venezuela’s consumer protection agency, the National Superintendence of Socioeconomic Rights (SUNDDE), was besieged by 50 to 60 masked protesters hurling stones and other blunt objects. Security camera footage shows the demonstrators breaking into the building and stealing computers, keyboards, and other office items.

SUNDDE head William Contreras called the attack a “planned action” and accused Chacao opposition Mayor Ramon Muchacho of being responsible for the incident. Contreras noted that the Chacao police module is only “50 meters” from the building, yet the local force “simply did not respond to these groups’ actions”.

“I want to point out the Chacao mayor’s direct responsibility, since it’s his municipality where this destruction of public institutions is occurring,” he said on state television.

Elsewhere in Chacao, masked protesters tried to break into the General Francisco Miranda Airbase in La Carlota, destroying part of the installation's fences.

Nearby in Chacao’s Altamira neighbourhood, demonstrators set fire to the emblematic British Tower, which houses several government entities, including the National Statistics Institute.

The municipality of San Antonio de los Altos also registered widespread unrest on April 19 as opposition demonstrators blocked roads with burning barricades and destroyed public property.

In the far-west city of Maracaibo, a Ministry of Housing office was hit with robberies and property destruction by alleged protesters.

The incidents are the latest in a series of violent attacks on government institutions and public property in recent weeks. This includes the April 8 assault on a Supreme Court administrative office in Chacao, which was reportedly planned by leaders from the right-wing First Justice party.

Appeals to military

The day before the April 19 demonstrations, opposition spokespeople called on Venezuela’s Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) to “demonstrate that it stands on the side of the constitution and the people”.

“You should be part of the solution to the difficulties facing the country,” declared National Assembly President Julio Borges, who insisted the statement was not a call to rebellion. “Behind those shields are men who do not agree with is happening and want change.”

On April 18, a video of four soldiers publicly calling for a military rebellion against Maduro went viral on social media. The four army officials have since been detained and charged by military authorities. 

Borges' declaration was condemned by Maduro, who called on the National Assembly head to be prosecuted for inciting mutiny.  

“When [Borges] calls openly for a coup, for a division in the Armed Forces … for not recognising its commanders … and its commander-in-chief, this is a crime that is clearly categorized in the country’s penal codes … as a call for a coup d’etat,” Maduro said.

In response to opposition calls on the military, as well as a US State Department communique, Maduro ordered the activation of “Plan Zamora”. This featured civil-military exercises across the country on April 19 to guard against the threat of a coup.

As part of the plan, 100,000 members of the Bolivarian Militia assist in internal security efforts.

In commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the militia’s launch, Maduro announced on April 21 the body’s expansion to 500,000 personnel, as well as the provision of “one rifle for each militia member”.

National Assembly defies Ombudsman

This latest round of the tense government-opposition standoff was triggered by a pair of March 29 Supreme Court (TSJ) decisions that temporarily authorised the judiciary to assume certain legislative responsibilities. The rulings were denounced as unconstitutional by the country’s Attorney-General and promptly partially annulled on April 1.

Despite the reversal, the MUD has accused the government of committing a “coup d’etat”. It convened ongoing protests, demanding initially the dismissal of the justices and subsequently radicalising its program to include “general elections”. 

On April 18, the opposition-held National Assembly approved a resolution to select new TSJ justices — notwithstanding the fact that unseating of the sitting magistrates must be approved by the national ombudsman, who declared on April 6 that there was no grounds for the removal.

Nonetheless, the parliament moved ahead with the measure regardless, accusing Saab of “complicity with the crimes of the [TSJ] justices”.

Opposition leaders have called for new, ongoing anti-government demonstrations.

[Abridged from Venezuelanalysis.com. Addition reporting by Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas and Ryan Mallett-Outtrim.]

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