1S: the Great Storming of Caracas against Maduro

Venezuelans demanding a referendum on the government of Nicolas Maduro are "marching" on Caracas. Representatives of 20 indigenous ethnic groups took off on foot for a 700 km journey from the state of Amazonas, along with dozens of civil organizations from other cities. A priest, Lenin Bastides, is walking the distance to support the demand for a date for the referendum, which is provided for by the Constitution. If the National Guard continues to block him, he will go on a hunger strike.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro wipes his face while he speaks during a pro-government rally in Caracas, Venezuela August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

 

The rally, convened on 1 September by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), one of the parties in the opposition, is gathering far more support (34%) than the 10% traditionally willing to take to the streets.

Support for Chavismo has collapsed in recent months, according to Keller & Asociados, down to 11.6% in July 2016, from 72% in 2005 and 50% in 2012.

The picture is complex, said Datincorp director, Jesús Seguías. "Chavismo, as disoriented and divided as it might be, can still count on a strong force of coercion: a party with 4 million militants, organized and aggressive in the economic, political, ideological and military spheres, and with the support of all public institutions except the Congress; it holds control of the Armed Forces, the militias and a large number of armed and militarily trained local units, as well as trade unions and most local governments".

Three negative world records explain the reason for the plummeting of the popularity of the president: security, quality of services and hunger: something which is inexplicable after 16 years of governments "for the people." Food shortages have resulted from explicit economic strategies that crippled local production amid mushrooming corruption, and are now showing their most inhumane effects.

A thousand children have been diagnosed as critically undernourished in only three municipalities in the Zulia region in two months. One five year old girl weighed only five pounds. This is happening in the country that holds the largest oil reserves in the world.

The prices of the few products still available are literally prohibitive. A package of sanitary pads (when available) costs 25% of the minimum wage, a 270g jar of mayonnaise as much as 73%. To buy a basic monthly food basket families need 10 minimum wages. According to the think tank Prodavinci, inflation year over year has now skyrocketed to 969.9%, implying that it will exceed 1000% at the end of 2016.

The other record, violence, is related to hunger. In Caracas, the most violent city in the world, an elderly person can be stabbed for food and a cylinder of gas, and women shot to death to steal their cars. The morgue of Caracas recorded 535 violent deaths in a month, topping the records of the last three years. "A war" is unfolding in Caracas, people say.

This is the backdrop against which the "great storming on Caracas", as Jesús "Chuo" Torrealba, the secretary of MUD, calls the protest march, is being organized. "The September 1 demonstration will be the first of its kind in Venezuela." Chavista power strongholds have everything to lose from this massive and peaceful rally.

Firstly, because it would make apparent, nationally and internationally, that the Electoral Commission and the government need to grant the referendum. "Opposing it is like admitting that the people are not running this government any longer," said Seguías. A consequent collapse of the regime would imply a loss of power in critical power centers, including PDVSA, the state oil company.

In any event, change is closing in on the government. In the case of PDVSA, in a probe over corruption and mishandling of oil revenues (95% of the national economy), the Congress involved international bodies, including the Institute for Governance in Basel, the Initiative for the Recovery of Stolen Assets of the United Nations, and the World Bank.

To discourage participation on 1 September, the government camp has been intimidating supporters in the last few days. "We will respond bluntly to any violent action during the march," said the Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino, who is supposed to defend democratic rights impartially. If barricades are set up, "Chavismo will be ready on the streets," threatened one PSUV MP.

The former mayor of San Cristobal, Daniel Ceballos, under house arrest on health grounds on charges of anti-government protest in 2014 (the death toll was then 43 people), was forcedly transferred to prison one night last week. "We call for his immediate release," said the spokesman for the US State Department, John Kirby.

Two Ecuadorian presidential candidates who were visiting jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López were pushed into on a car by Sebin agents (the Secret Service), and put on a flight back to Ecuador.

If these intimidations backfired, by drawing international attention to Venezuela, others spread fear, like the fake email in which opposition leaders were supposed to be looking forward to "blood flowing on the streets", or yet another arrest of a mayor, Warner Jiménez.

Harassment of independent media, which goes well beyond censorship with grenades, shootings, robberies and illegal arrests of journalists, ranked Venezuela 139 out of 180 countries for freedom of the press, according to Reporters without Borders.

Torrealba called on Venezuelans to "avoid provocations that can lead to the violence the regime is seeking."

As if confirming fears and the closing in of change, some top Chavista officials have sent their families abroad, some as far as to Australia, like Jorge Rodríguez, the mayor of Caracas — most Latin American countries no longer being deemed safe any more for chavistas, against a risk of extradition should events precipitate change.

Seguías' take is that "in order not to lose power Chávez would have been able to turn things around, but Maduro is an incompetent."

@GuiomarParada

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