Venezuelan Protests Simmer, But The 'Resistance' Is Still Alive
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The U.S. considers Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, a dictator. And it has already imposed three rounds of targeted sanctions against him and those close to him. Now Vice President Mike Pence says more will be coming.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: And you may be assured, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the United States of America will continue to bring the full measure of American economic and diplomatic power to bear until democracy is restored in Venezuela.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Pence was speaking yesterday in Florida to a group of Venezuelan exiles. Trump earlier this month even threatened the possibility of military action against the regime. But Pence now says the White House is confident they can achieve a peaceable solution.
CHANG: Meanwhile in Venezuela, Maduro is rapidly consolidating his authoritarian rule. And while large street protests against the ruling Socialist Party in Caracas and elsewhere have simmered down, resistance continues on a smaller scale. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Two young men are trying to bring a city to a halt. They're doing so with a couple of bags of trash and some branches. They've placed these across the road to block the traffic.
CATIRE: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: That's a man called Catire. He asked NPR to withhold his full name because of fears for his safety.
CATIRE: (Through interpreter) The idea is to do barricades all the time until the situation is completely resolved.
REEVES: Do the police or National Guard try and stop you?
REEVES: Catire says he builds barricades like this all the time.
Tell me what - you've been doing this pretty much every day for four months?
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Spanish).
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UNIDENTIFIED INTERPETER: He says those are the National Guards.
REEVES: The security forces turn up. That's the cue for everyone to clear off. These two don't want to suffer the same fate as many of their fellow protesters.
CATIRE: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPETER: They have friends that have been three months in jail.
CATIRE: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPETER: They get out - like, they're really skinny and they're really unhealthy.
REEVES: A few blocks away, there's another barricade. It's even smaller. A woman has stretched a piece of rope across the road. She stands beside this and vents against Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro. These impromptu road blocks are what remains of the street protests in Venezuela right now. It's a far cry from these scenes just a few weeks ago...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).
REEVES: ...When huge crowds took to the streets almost every day to demand an end to Maduro's rule. Those crowds failed to stop Maduro creating a new legislature that he and the ruling Socialist Party entirely control. That body, the Constituent Assembly, has declared itself more powerful than all other government branches, nullifying Venezuela's Congress, which the opposition won by a landslide in 2015.
Maduro's systematically grinding down his opponents by jailing opposition mayors and threatening to imprison opposition leaders who organize protests. The opposition parties seem in disarray.
GEOFF RAMSEY: They're in a very difficult position right now.
REEVES: Geoff Ramsey is from The Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy organization on human rights. He's speaking with NPR via Skype.
RAMSEY: There was a lot of hope that, you know, this increasing street pressure would halt the creation of this illegitimate Constituent Assembly, and we didn't see that. And so I think what we're seeing right now is the opposition is trying to, you know, gather its energy and figure out a way to oppose the government on a more long-term basis.
REEVES: Thousands were injured or arrested during Venezuela's four months of mass protests. A United Nations human rights investigation found 73 people were killed by government forces or armed pro-government civilians called colectivos. These forces sometimes fired buckshot, marbles and nuts and bolts at protesters, said the U.N. They seemed intent on completely crushing dissent. That plan hasn't worked.
ORLANDO: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: Orlando is a student in his early 20s. He requested NPR to withhold his full name for his safety. He's a member of what's known as Venezuela's Resistance. They're mostly young Venezuelans who are in the front line of the mass protests. Day after day, Orlando was out there in a mask battling the police and National Guard amid tear gas and rubber bullets. He went through the terrifying experience of being arrested.
ORLANDO: (Through interpreter) They used psychological terror tactics saying they'd kill us, they'd beat us, that we would never be released.
REEVES: Orlando says when he was released a couple of days later, he went back to the front line. He thinks it's crucial to keep pressure on Maduro, so he and his friends intend to carry on with the fight in the streets.
ORLANDO: (Through interpreter) If we're not on the streets, we won't regain democracy and freedom.
REEVES: Orlando says the Resistance was closely linked to Venezuela's coalition of opposition parties. Now there's a rift. The Resistance is upset that opposition leaders allowed the mass protest movement to subside, he says.
ORLANDO: (Through interpreter) The youth of the Resistance don't agree with the political lines the opposition leaders are taking.
REEVES: Resistance members are especially unhappy that opposition political leaders decided to participate in Venezuela's gubernatorial elections in October. Many see this as endorsing electoral authorities that are proven to be corrupt. Ramsey of The Washington Office on Latin America says that decision was a tough call.
RAMSEY: I think there's no question this is hugely controversial. And you can understand why. I mean, why risk legitimizing an authoritarian government? I think that the opposition is hoping to use this as an opportunity to show that they're open to confronting the government on its own terms, you know, even in elections that are stacked against them.
REEVES: Ramsey's worried disaffected young Venezuelans could now resort to far more violent methods of protest. Orlando says the Resistance is certainly thinking along those lines.
ORLANDO: (Through interpreter) We believe sooner or later, there'll be a civil war. It's clear to us that if we are to get our freedom back, this'll sound crude, but blood has to be shed.
REEVES: Orlando was once a soldier in Venezuela's army but quit because he opposed the government. He says he'd be happy to pick up a gun again to fight to free his country from dictatorship. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.