By Humberto Márquez
CARACAS, Venezuela, Monday February 4, 2019 (IPS) – The protests in Venezuela demanding an end to the presidency of Nicolás Maduro in the last 10 days of January, whose soundtrack was the sound of banging on pots and pans in working-class neighbourhoods, had a high human cost: more than 40 deaths, dozens wounded and about a thousand detainees, including 100 women and 90 children under 18.
In Catia, a working-class neighbourhood west of Caracas, a number of young people were shot dead between January 21-25, while National Police and military National Guard commandos demolished improvised roadblocks and barricades made with trash, managing to quash the protests.
“They managed to do it. The local residents say that in the streets where several of these boys fell, silence and solitude have prevailed after 6 p.m.
The pots and pans have not returned,” sociologist Rafael Uzcátegui, head of Provea, an organisation that has been recording human rights violations in the country for decades, told IPS.
These protests have two special elements: they are taking place in neighbourhoods and sectors that until recently formed part of the government’s social base, reflecting the anger felt by the poor in the face of the country’s socioeconomic collapse, which has turned their protests into “mini-Caracazos,” recalling the violent protests given that name in February 1989, which resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Furthermore, they have been submerged in the institutional crisis that has had the country in its grip since January and which has put Venezuela at the forefront of world geopolitics, with a struggle for power that is also playing out between the governments of the United States and other countries of the Americas and European countries, on the one hand, and China, Russia and Turkey, on the other.
Maduro, 56, who governed the country from 2013 to 2019, was sworn in on January 10 for a second term after winning an election in May 2018, the results of which were not recognised by the legislature or by most of the opposition or the governments of the Americas and Europe.
The election was called outside the legal timeframe by a National Constituent Assembly composed solely of government supporters, the electoral authority banned the main opposition parties and leaders, and a cloud of irregularities enveloped the campaign and the voting day itself, according to complaints from local and international organisations.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly refused to recognise Maduro’s re-election and the president of the legislature, Juan Guaidó, 35, declared himself acting president on January 23, before a crowd in Caracas, while mass opposition demonstrations were held in some 50 cities.
Since January 21, when 27 members of the National Guard mutinied in a barracks in the neighborhood of Cotiza, north of Caracas, refusing to recognise the re-election of Maduro, “cacerolazos” – pots-and-pans protests – spread, and groups of local residents in poor neighborhoods of the capital and cities in the provinces improvised barricades and clashed with the security forces and irregular civil groups of sympathisers of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
Looting of shops also broke out in several cities in the provinces.
“On January 23 alone, 696 people were arrested – the largest number in a single day of protests in 20 years,” lawyer Alfredo Romero, director of the Penal Forum, an organisation that follows the question of those detained for political or social reasons, told IPS.
The Forum counted 12,480 arbitrary detentions from February 2014 – the year of the first mass protests against Maduro – to October 2018, classifying 1,551 people as political prisoners, of whom 236 were still in prison when the report was produced. The list has now grown with those arrested so far this year.
Since Maduro first took office in 2013, Provea and other human rights groups have reported that at least 250 people have died in street protests.
Romero said the state uses a “revolving door” strategy: when political detainees are released, usually on parole, another group is arrested for similar reasons.
In January, “the order the security forces received was to arrest protesters. It is clear that the government decided to assume the cost of stopping the protest in the poorer areas, which in the past were ‘Chavista’ but have now turned against Chavismo,” he said.
Chavismo was the political movement of Hugo Chavez, president from 1999 until his death in 2013.
For two decades, the urban poor and working-class supported Chavismo, but they have now increasingly turned against Maduro, exasperated by the high food prices, the collapse of services such as water, electricity, health and transport, and the increasingly acute shortage of medicines or cooking gas.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in Geneva on January 29 that “just over 40 people have been killed” and of these “at least 26 were allegedly shot dead by security forces or pro-government armed groups during the demonstrations.”
Provea contends that at least eight people were killed in extrajudicial executions in Caracas and two provincial cities when members of the National Police’s elite FAES squad entered their homes.
“FAES receives training for lethal action, against extortion or kidnapping. It is not trained to handle public order situations. Its codes and weapons, which are highly lethal, are not in proportion to the rules of proportional and gradual use of force applicable in situations of popular protest,” said Uzcátegui.
The arrests, which included 100 women and at least 90 children and adolescents, “have been carried out in indiscriminate sweeps, to spread fear and discourage protests,” Romero said.
One such case is that of Jickson Rodriguez, 14, who is epileptic as a result of an old head injury.
He and his young friends were banging on pots and pans near his family’s barbershop on the night of January 22 in Villa Bahia, which is located in Puerto Ordaz, an industrial city on the banks of the Orinoco River, 500 kilometres southeast of Caracas, when National Guard units captured him and six others and took him to a barracks that guards a steel plant.
“Since I wasn’t crying, I was the one who received the most blows. I told the guards, ‘Why are you beating us when we’ve already been arrested?’ and they slapped me. They gave me blows to the head. I told them ‘you can’t hit me on the head, I have epilepsy, and they told me: ‘Shut up, you’re a detainee’,” he told his family and journalists a few days later.
“I found him, handcuffed, after searching for him in various places where they were holding people, the afternoon of the following day,” his mother Rosmelys Guilarte, 39, a hairdresser who also has three daughters, told IPS. “He was beaten on the soles of his feet, so there would be no visible bruises. He had a convulsion while he was in detention, which is why he was handed over to me two days later.”
Jickson “was accused by the judicial police of participating in looting that took place miles from where we were banging on pots and pans that night – something that was impossible. He has orders to report to the authorities every 30 days. I try to get him to rest a lot, this has been really hard on him,” she said from her home.
For Uzcátegui, “the government’s strategy has three components: repression in the face of the discontent shared by most of the population, betting that the current political conflict will wane, and attempts to limit the visibility of the crisis by going after the media and journalists.”