By Christina Hoag
When Carmen Zambrano got the call to hurry to the presidential palace to defend President Hugo Chávez from 200,000 opponents on Apr. 11, the 45-year-old municipal tax inspector donned her red beret and T-shirt and rounded up fellow Chávez supporters, as she had done on countless occasions. But unlike previous demonstrations, this one turned into a bloodbath. Seventeen people were shot to death by police and sharpshooters of unknown affiliation, and more than 220 were wounded.
Zambrano, frightened but ever loyal, stayed through it all. "The cops were shooting at us, so we hit the ground," she recalls in her raspy voice, sitting in her dank home in the east Caracas barrio of El Alcabala as a passing bus belches a plume of exhaust through her front door. "There was blood everywhere. We put candles and flowers next to all the dead." During the night, the military high command announced that the populist President had resigned and was under arrest. Zambrano burst into sobs.
But two days later, as questions increased over whether Chávez had actually quit or been ousted, fury replaced mourning. The slight, wiry single mother of four again gathered her cohorts and hit the streets. "We knew he hadn't resigned," she says. "This country turned momentarily into a dictatorship." Yelling "Chá-vez! Chá-vez!," she and her group eventually joined thousands of others outside Miraflores Palace, where the President was restored to power in the wee hours of Apr. 14 in an astonishing counter-coup. Exhausted but exultant, Zambrano returned home around 5 a.m. "This is the struggle of the people," she crows.
She should know. Zambrano is the leader of one of Chávez' controversial Bolivarian Circles, a grassroots network of neighborhood groups designed to shore up his leftist "peaceful revolution" through community good works. The circles are named for Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolívar, whose image Chávez has co-opted as the icon for his political platform, a hodgepodge of nationalistic populism.
But many Chávez opponents charge that the circles are little more than intimidation groups--and they unquestionably played a key role in the April upheaval. The opposition believes that the government has armed the circles and trained them in neighborhood spying in the manner of Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution--although there's little evidence to back those claims. Opponents also allege that gun-happy circle members were the prime perpetrators of the Apr. 11 massacre. "They are presidential gangs," avers Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña.
Whatever they are, there are a lot of them. In the past six months, the government--whose popularity has been declining sharply as sweeping change has failed to materialize--has organized over 70,000 circles, each with 7 to 15 members. Most are found in teeming slums like Zambrano's that are Chávez bastions, and where some 60% of the city's 5 million population lives. El Alcabala, which means "checkpoint," sits at the foot of a hill in the poverty-plagued district of Petare. The hill, like many that ring the valley of Caracas, is packed with jerry-built brick and cement homes, often improbably stacked as many as five on top of one another, accessible by means of a warren of alleys.
Life is hard in these barrios. There are no services such as telephones, running water, or garbage pickup. Street lights are lightbulbs strung overhead. Men in tank tops lean against walls, chugging beer from long-neck bottles. Women cluster in doorways smoking, while grimy-faced kids, clothed in fraying, stained garments, scamper amidst the rubbish and mangy dogs. Crime is a constant threat--pedestrians risk being held up for any bag or package, no matter how paltry its contents.
"Everyone here is needy in some way," says Maritza Castro, a housewife of 49. She is a neighbor of Zambrano's who formed her own Bolivarian Circle in El Alcabala after the government gave her a house in an outlying suburb that she lets her son and his family use. She prefers to stay in the barrio, even with the open wastewater drain that she must step over to enter her front door.
Zambrano and Castro take umbrage at accusations that the circles are made up of armed thugs but say they will "peacefully" defend the revolution to the hilt. The circle members' main tasks range from helping microcredit applicants fill out forms at state-owned banks to steering the elderly through queues to obtain free medicine from the Health Ministry. "We're not officials, but we facilitate contact with the government agencies," says Zambrano, who takes letters requesting aid to Chávez' public events to give to the President or an aide. "We get a little better access."
Another neighbor, Nora Mendoza, stops in to tell her story. Laid off from her job as a store clerk, she appealed to another circle for help. Thanks to that contact, she obtained $2,000 worth of bed linens and clothing to sell as a way of earning a living. The merchandise came from a shipment confiscated by customs, she says. "We never had any help like this," adds Mendoza, 35, now an avowed Chavista who also has formed her own Bolivarian Circle. "It's magnificent."
A few blocks away, 36-year-old taxi driver Manuel Barrera points to a newly cemented wall under an electricity post topped with a spaghetti tangle of cables that connect homes through illegal hookups. "I'm no Chavista," he confesses. "But I have to say that wall was crumbling for years until the circle went to the mayor's office. They got it fixed."
Chávez opponents say such cases are only the populist veneer of the circles, whose true aim is darker and was exposed during the bloody events of Apr. 11. "Weapons are being bought through the Nicaraguan Sandinista Front to arm members of the Bolivarian Circles and create a parallel armed force to defend the regime," ex-presidential candidate Francisco Arias told the press last month. Like others who have made similar allegations, he did not present any proof. Others have charged that circle members are being trained in marksmanship using the Caracas police force's firing ranges, or that they are fronts for Colombian guerrillas.
The recent events may have given the opposition some evidence to link Chavistas with violence. On Apr. 11, a television camera captured Caracas City Councilman Richard Peñalver, a member of Chávez' Fifth Republic Movement party, amongst other men firing automatic handguns from an overpass onto the opposition marchers below. Peñalver has since gone into hiding. The following day, police discovered caches of firearms in slum areas, but they announced no immediate link to the Bolivarian Circles.
Freddy Bernal, mayor of Caracas' Libertador District and national coordinator of the circles, says if there are armed circle members, it is their own doing. "I can't deny that some people belonging to the Bolivarian Circles have deviated from the spirit of the circles and carried arms," he says. "There has to be an investigation to establish responsibility. On both sides, there were extremists."
Chávez denies that the circles are armed groups but has admitted that they receive government funding for community projects. "Any member caught carrying weapons will be kicked out," he told an Apr. 15 news conference. Chávez has vowed an impartial investigation into the killings and the source of the weapons.
Whether or not the weapons allegations are true, the circles have succeeded in building a network among Chávez' hard-core supporters, which is something the President badly needs to boost his popularity. "They're organizing themselves like any political party," says Janet Kelly, public policy director at the Institute for Higher Administration Studies in Caracas. "It's the state funding that worries me."
In El Alcabala, people don't worry about such niceties. Says Castro: "This is the oil money that is ours as Venezuelans, that used to be stolen by the politicians." What matters is that they see tangible improvements in their abysmal quality of life, a fact that Chávez knows perfectly well. If the circles can help him win back disillusioned former supporters by performing small services around the barrios--and provide a show of strength in the streets to boot--you can bet he'll do all he can to keep them going.
Hoag writes about politics and economics from Caracas.
Edited by Harry Maurer