News of the showdown arrived in a ready-for-Hollywood tweet: “Cuban and Venezuelan thugs, along with criminal groups, are arriving at my house.”
That’s what retired Army General Ángel Vivas posted at 8:53 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 23, from his home in the Caracas suburb of Prados del Este. During a live broadcast on national television the previous day, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had called for Vivas’s arrest, blaming him for the death of a motorcyclist in Caracas. The biker had collided with a steel cable stretched across a street during a protest. “I have ordered the detention of the general who called for the collection of the cables and who trained these fascists, Ángel Vivas. Get him and bring him in,” Maduro said. “Murderer!”
Vivas was working outside in his garden when his wife let him know the president was on T.V. calling for his arrest. The 57-year-old prayed, he later said, and then decided to resist. He sat down at the computer and wrote, “This genocidal dictatorship wants me to surrender and hand me over to Fidel Castro. I WILL NOT SURRENDER!”
Five weeks later, he still hasn’t.
Snipers patrol his roof, and hundreds of civilians have helped him sustain the standoff. Although President Maduro claimed in last week’s New York Times to be leading a participatory democracy, in Venezuela political dissent is punished harshly, and Vivas’s caudillo-style rebellion has been one of the few successful stands against police repression during the country’s recent weeks of unrest.
On Feb. 23, a squad of 30 black-clad military intelligence officers arrived outside Vivas’s house on motorcycles and in police cars. The general emerged on the roof of his gate, wearing a flak jacket and carrying a semi-automatic rifle and pistol, an ammo-belt slung around one shoulder. He started to shout. “The only way I will be taken is in a body bag,” he said. His neighbors cheered and threw rocks at the officers. “Dammed traitors,” General Vivas said, cursing Maduro, “they’ve taken this beautiful patriotism in a terrible direction.”
After Vivas tweeted about the cops’ arrival to his 307,000 followers, a crowd rallied to his defense. By midday on the Avenida el Paseo—where the general lives, just a few blocks from the Chinese embassy—people gathered around barricades, blocking the street to protest the general’s arrest. The National Guard shot tear gas bombs into the crowd, although it didn’t do much beside add to the general chaos; the blockades remained in place. Mercedes Contreras, General Vivas’s lawyer, said the state forces didn’t have an arrest warrant. “He’s been up all night,” she told the men outside the general’s house, “there’s no telling what he’ll do.” Eventually, the National Guard departed. The general remained.
Vivas is well-known for independent political views. In 2007, he refused the late Hugo Chávez’s orders to have his troops recite the Cuban motto, “Fatherland, socialism, or death.” This led directly to Vivas’s resignation as head of the Defense Ministry’s engineering department, and he has since been outspoken in criticizing the government. He’s been particularly critical of Cuba’s influence in the country, which he regards as treasonous. As mass protests against Maduro’s government spread in early February, Vivas posted videos on YouTube encouraging members of the army not to fire at protesters and offering practical advice on how to construct barricades. (This was the alleged “training” that prompted Maduro’s call for Vivas’s arrest). His blog is here.
Despite the General’s active social media presence, the opposition remains largely untrained and unarmed. María Corina Machado, a member of the opposition and former presidential candidate, told the Brazilian Senate last week: “It’s not true that there is a civil war going on in Venezuela at the moment. What is going on is a war against civilians, waged by a small group in control of the Venezuelan state.” Machado was just dismissed from her position as a congresswoman in the country’s National Assembly because she had criticized government policies at a recent Organization of American States meeting after Panama invited her to take its ambassador’s seat. This is not the first time Machado has openly tangled with Chavistas, as Venezuela’s ruling party members are known; last year she was physically attacked by a Chavista member of the National Assembly during a plenary session, suffering five facial fractures.
Machado isn’t the only political activist to be punished. On Mar. 24, three generals were detained for “conspiring against the government” and accused of planning a coup, according to press reports. No details apart from their names have been released and the generals have denied the charges. Daniel Ceballos, mayor of San Cristobal, a hotbed of anti-government protest, was arrested last month in a hotel in the capital by agents of Venezuela’s intelligence service. Maduro accused Ceballos of “whipping up unrest to carry out a coup” after Ceballos told El Universal, the country’s leading paper, that in his opinion police and soldiers have used excessive force against protesters.
Enzo Scarano is mayor of San Diego, a city of about 200,000 in Venezuela’s north, and is a member of the opposition party, Popular Will. Scarano was sentenced to 10 months in prison for not clearing protesters’ barricades quickly enough.
And Leopoldo Lopez, a primary opposition leader, was arrested in the early days of protests and jailed for 45 days before finally being charged last week with arson and conspiracy.
The backdrop to the protests—and the state’s corresponding repression—is a staggering economic crisis. The country’s main source of income comes from oil, the production of which is overseen by state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela. Petróleos’ output has shrunk from 3.3 million barrels a day in 1998 to 2.3 million barrels today, despite managing the world’s largest oil reserve. Venezuela’s foreign debt is now over $200 billion dollars, and the inflation rate, which rose steadily under Chávez, is approaching a dizzying 57 percent. (Despite the foreign debt, the regime still gives away the equivalent of $12 billion dollars a year to Cuba.) The economic insecurity has led to the unrest. Last year a Venezuelan was murdered every 20 minutes, and 98 percent of murders were never resolved in a court of law. That translates into 25,000 civilian deaths, almost three times the number of Americans killed in the Iraq War.
Despite the mass protests, the opposition has struggled to gain traction amid internal power struggles. Still, popular opinion may be shifting. A survey published this week by the Instituto Venezolano de Analisis de Datos found that since October, the number of people who identify as Chavistas has fallen from 42 percent to 33 percent. Fifty-five percent of Venezuelans, according to the survey, now think Maduro’s government isn’t democratic. Most striking, 53.4 percent think Maduro should resign.
With the opposition mostly unarmed, regime change may depend on the loyalty of the country’s military. Venezuela’s history is rife with examples of the military’s political influence—Chávez himself led an unsuccessful coup in 1992 and survived a coup attempt a decade later. Maduro has continued Chávez’s tradition of maintaining the military’s privileges, with ample salaries and special funds for the armed forces’ education, recreation, and social security. With seven senior cabinet ministers, 10 junior ones, and 11 state governors drawn from the armed forces, Maduro’s government has been able to maintain close ties.
That’s why General Vivas offers the opposition hope. If public sentiment is indeed starting to turn against Maduro, more military officials could conceivably break ranks.