Maduro Replaces Venezuela's Military Chiefs After Shooting

  • Top members of president’s government call for restraint
  • Viral images of soldiers firing at protesters spur outrage

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro shook up his military leadership Tuesday after images of soldiers firing on anti-government demonstrators in Caracas a day earlier provoked a massive outcry across the country’s bitter political divide.

During a two-hour televised address Tuesday, Maduro named new commanders for the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard, but did not address Monday’s protests that left a teenager dead and four wounded by gunfire. Two members of the National Guard were arrested in connection with the shootings.

An initial probe of Monday’s shootings indicated “misuse and disproportionate use of force,” Interior Minister Nestor Reverol wrote on Twitter late Monday, adding that the investigation was still underway. His comments represent a rare display of official condemnation, and were echoed by other top members of Maduro’s administration who urged restraint in anti-government protests that have left over 70 dead and thousands injured and jailed.

Rocio San Miguel, president of Control Ciudadano, a citizen watchdog group, says that the rebuke by Reverol was an effort at controlling damage for an increasingly discredited armed forces. The abuses “were so evident that he is looking to maintain the bare maintain minimum sense of law.”

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Earlier Tuesday opposition lawmakers protested outside a National Guard base in western Caracas. “What you did yesterday was murder!” congressman Tomas Guanipa yelled outside the barracks’ gate. “You cannot keep serving as a bodyguard for those who are against the Constitution."

Daily Protests

Since early April, Venezuelans have taken to the capital’s streets and other major cities almost daily, denouncing Maduro for wrecking the economy and what they say are his efforts to install a dictatorship. Reports alleging excessive use of tear gas, illegal raids, torture and lethal force are rife.

The heavy-handed response and Maduro’s efforts to rewrite the South American nation’s constitution have fueled divisions within the ruling socialist party’s ranks. Most prominently, the country’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a long-time loyalist to the late Hugo Chavez, has become a vocal critic of the crackdown on dissent, launching a raft investigations into alleged state abuses.

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On Tuesday, Venezuela’s top court accepted a request filed by a pro-government lawmaker to find “serious fault” with Ortega Diaz’s actions and determine if she should stand trial. The infighting has only emboldened Maduro’s opponents, who called on the military to uphold the Constitution.

“All of Venezuela must stand up to rescue democracy,” Julio Borges, head of the National Assembly, said at news conference, vowing another wave of protests was soon on their way.

Still, Maduro’s shakeup of his commanders could help the nation’s military, long seen as the South American nation’s major power broker, remain above the escalating political fray.

The government’s moves are more about saving face rather than preventing a potential break in ranks. “It’s not about order, it’s about shame,” said San Miguel.

— With assistance by Noris Soto, and Fabiola Zerpa

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