Tensions High Ahead of Opposition ‘Taking of Caracas’

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz 

A street mobilization in Caracas called by the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition for September 1 is raising expectations among opposition followers, and alarm in the government.

The MUD is calling the mobilization the Takeover of Caracas (Toma de Caracas). Marchers will gather at 8:00am at seven separate meeting points, and then converge upon three main avenues of eastern Caracas: Av. Río de Janeiro, Av. Libertador, and the Av. Francisco de Miranda. The crowd will disperse by 2:00 pm according to organizers. The meeting points are in the eastern opposition-controlled part of the city and away from the downtown and western “Chavista” areas. Still, several government leaders have declared that the opposition is barred from marching in the Libertador Municipality, which includes the downtown and western part of the city.

The goal of the mobilization, according to MUD Secretary General Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba, is to pressure the National Electoral Council (CNE) into issuing a complete chronogram of the recall referendum against Maduro the opposition is pushing for. However, after the electoral ruling body CNE finally announced on August 29 that the signature drive for the referendum petition will take place between October 24 and 30, Torrealba said that the MUD would not call off the mobilization, as this march “will ensure citizens’ victory.”

According to opposition leader and mayor of the Sucre Municipality of Caracas, Carlos Ocaríz, the mobilization does not aim “to oust the government that day. It is a street action to show the world that Venezuelans are on a democratic path and demanding our rights.”

The government has a different interpretation of the opposition’s motives for the mobilization. President Maduro told supporters on August 27 that a coup d’état, supported by the United States, is in the making for September 1. “A plan for a fascist coup d’état is underway, directed from the United States with the aim of filling Venezuela with violence. We will not allow this, the people, in a civic-military union, will not allow this,” said Maduro. He also directly accused the MUD of being part of the coup plan: “The oligarchy, the so called MUD, has decided to break the rules of the game.”

For Maduro the opposition’s mobilization plan follows the same pattern as the April 11, 2002 coup against President Chávez. Prominent among the events leading up to that day’s coup featured a massive opposition march which ended in violent street clashes between opposition, government supporters, and police, in downtown Caracas.

To counter the Takeover of Caracas, Maduro has called his followers to permanently take to the streets form September 1 to December 31. He also called for a propaganda offensive including the TV broadcasting of documentaries showing the government’s version of the April 11 coup. Maduro says he especially wants the documentary by Ángel Palacios, Puente Llaguno: Claves de una Masacre, to be shared over social networks by his followers and to be shown on obligatory broadcast by all TV channels. “In the face of this new onslaught by the pitiyankees, of retaking the path of violence, of conspiracy, of the coup d’état, we will spread the truth, awake consciousness, and stand firm in the defense of the fatherland,” claimed Maduro. Government media says the documentary by Palacios as a film that shows how the “right-wing golpista network” carefully planned a massacre to justify a coup in 2002.  

But the government is also taking more concrete measures to thwart what it claims are violent opposition plans for September 1. According to Minister of Interior Nestor Reverol, more than 15,000 police and military officials have already been deployed around the country ahead of the march, and 12,000 are projected to be in Caracas for September 1. Police officials are receiving special training to search busses and cars for “guarimbero (street protester) materials,” which according to the minister includes powder and gasoline, as well as “political propaganda.” A ban on private aircraft and drone flights has also been issued for September 1.

Yet other measures include a crackdown on opposition figures, particularly those affiliated with the Voluntad Popular (VP) party, led by imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López. The former mayor of San Cristobal and leader of VP, Daniel Ceballos, who was serving house arrest according to the government for adding protesters during the 2014 opposition protests, was taken from his home at 3:00 am in the morning of August 26 by a group of intelligence police (SEBIN) officers.

Hours later the Ministry of Interior Justice and Peace issued a press release explaining that a tribunal had suspended Ceballos’s house arrest and ordered his immediate transfer to the San Juan de los Morros prison. “Our intelligence service has gathered criminal materials about his (Ceballos’s) escape plans and other plans to coordinate violent groups which would act on September 1. The evidence compiled will allow us to continue the investigations necessary to prevent, discover, and neutralize, any action that aims to destabilize our democratic system,” says the Ministry press release.

After the United States Department of State spokesman John Kirby expressed concern for the Ceballos incident, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister issued a statement claiming that Kirby’s declarations amounted to evidence that the US is behind an opposition coup plot for September 1. “The government of President Barack Hussein Obama, in its final days, is pushing for the instability of Venezuela and the region in order to legitimize imperialist plans against the peace and development of the people,” says the statement.

In the most serious incident so far, Jon Goicochea, another leader within the VP, was taken by armed men into a van the morning of August 29. Nothing was heard of the opposition figure for over 9 hours. Finally, in the afternoon, PSUV Congressman Diosdado Cabello declared that Goicochea was arrested by the SEBIN for forming part of a “terrorist plot” for September 1. Cabello said that the police had found detonating cords of the kind used to fabricate explosives in Goicochea’s car. Cabello also announced pro-government street mobilizations for September 1 to counter the “right-wingt threat.” Speaking from the city of Barina, Cabellos asked his followers to stop any bus carrying opposition militants passing through to Caracas on September 1. In later declarations, Cabello also accused the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) of “storing weapons for the opposition, and they know who they belong to,” he added.

A couple was also detained on August 29 in the state of Carabobo. The police claims that several assault rifles imitation air guns had been found in their car. Police CICPC chief Douglas Rico explained that the couple planned to pose as National Guards during the opposition march and fire the air guns at the crowd in an attempts to blame the military for violence. As part of the plot a second group, still at large according to Rico, would then shoot with real guns against the people. Relatives of the couple claim that they practice airsoft games and not part of any violent plot.

In August 30 the SEBIN also detained the leader of the opposition party Avanzada Progresista, Carlos Melo. He was detained in the area around the headquarters of the VP party.

In the afternoon of August 30 President Maduro directly accused Voluntad Popular of being behind a plan for a September 1 coup d’état. “Voluntad Popular is the party of golpista violence and it is planning a coup for September 1,” Maduro told a group of supporters.  

The opposition, meanwhile, is insisting that its intentions for September 1 are peaceful. Torrealba has instead accused the government of planning violence against the opposition marchers. “The government wants violence, it’s not our job to please the government,” the MUD’s Secretary said upon learning of the Ceballos incident.      

Several parallel events have been building momentum for the opposition protest. Media payed much attention last week to the pilgrimage style march to Carabobo of the catholic priest from the state of Anzoátegui, Lenin Bastidas, who is asking for “a recall referendum without violence.” A group of indigenous people marching from the state of Amazonas to Caracas to participate in the September 1 event has also received widespread media attention. Yet another group of opposition supporters from the Primero Justicia party that started marching from Anzoátegui, and plan to arrive in Caracas on September 1, are being closely monitored by the SEBIN.    

All of this friction has also drawn attention from international human rights organizations and regional observers. The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights issued a statement calling on officials to protect peaceful protesters, as well as “the safety of journalists who will cover this public demonstration.” Meanwhile, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who has been stridently critical of the Maduro administration, released a statement criticizing an alleged “worsening of repression and human rights violations” in the country. WOLA released a statement urging the Venezuelan government to “not only respect the rights of its citizens to participate in peaceful assembly, but also ensure their safety.”