Maduro and Venezuela in an Impasse
The disturbing image of a man being burned alive is but the most recent evidence of violence and intolerance that the conflict in Venezuela has generated, particularly during the past six to eight weeks.
A young man, Orlando José Figuera, 21, was beaten, stabbed, doused in gasoline and lit on fire on May 20 amid an anti-government demonstration, after being accused by some in the crowd of being a chavista, indicating someone who supports the government. In a video published on various social media outlets, the young man is shown being attacked by several hooded demonstrators before being set ablaze by a man wielding a lighter.
The violent incident took place near Altamira Plaza in Caracas, a stronghold for demonstrators opposing the government, who periodically draw back when law enforcement units evict them with tear gas and water cannons.
However, despite repeated calls from opposition leaders for peaceful demonstrations against the government, protests regularly end up with the hooded demonstrators throwing incendiary bombs at law enforcement units and the National Guard, who in turn repel them using water cannons and tear gas. The opposition, which has coalesced into an alliance under the Mesa de Unidad Democrática, has been very critical of the alleged excessive use of force against demonstrators.
In two cases, law enforcement officials have been arrested and accused of the death of demonstrators.
The administration of President Nicolás Maduro, for its part, consistently justifies the actions of the Police and National Guard and accuses the opposition of staging “terrorist attacks” during demonstrations to promote a coup.
Tareck William Saab, who holds the title of People’s Defender, was recently the object of demonstrations from the opposition after being accused of collusion with the Maduro administration. The office of the People’s Defender has the responsibility of promoting, safeguarding and defending human rights in Venezuela.
Saab has consistently denied the accusation and denounced that there is “a hidden agenda” behind the demonstrations against him, but has not elaborated on the subject or presented any evidence.
In the meantime, the administration continues to denounce the demonstrators as “agents of capitalism under the orders of U.S. intelligence agencies” and accuses the opposition of promoting a disruption of the constitutional order.
The army’s role
Amid the exchange is the National Bolivarian Army, which has been watching the country’s political crisis from a dugout. In a country that has seen three attempted coups in the past three decades, it is only natural for many to look in their direction.
But Venezuela’s Army cannot necessarily be considered an impartial witness in the Venezuelan process.
Of the 29 cabinet members in President Nicolás Maduro administration, one-third (10) are members or former members of the military. For instance, since last September, when the economic crisis worsened, army officers have been put in charge of the distribution of food and personal hygiene products to the public.
Even though the relation between the military and the civilian government has been a constant throughout Venezuela’s most recent history, particularly since the late President Hugo Chávez reinstated political rights to the military in 1999.
Nonetheless, for Simón Bolivar University Prof. Hernán Castillo, the current relation is extremely close.
Despite the fact that the armed forces should be a nonpolitical entity, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino is reported to end all his communications with “Chávez lives, the fatherland goes on. Independence and a socialist fatherland.”
“Never before have we seen so much military presence in our society,” Castillo said during an interview with the BBC.
For retired Army Gen. Clíver Alcalá, the increasing presence of the military in civilian affairs is a sign of the weakening of Maduro’s leadership among civilians.
“The president now depends even more on the military because he has been losing political support among civilians. He has turned to the military seeking that support,” Alcalá said to the BBC.
While the administration keeps denouncing the threat of a coup, for Alcalá, there is no need for a coup just to enforce the Venezuelan Constitution. But observers note that circumventing the constitution is precisely what both sides have been trying to do.