Venezuela is aflame with the fires of rebellion after President Nicolás Maduro arrested opposition leader Leopoldo López and sent communist Cuban forces to assault young, unarmed protesters. Nowhere has there been more rebellion than the western state of Táchira, however, where protesters beheaded a statue of Chávez today.
Táchira, located on the border with Colombia and home to nine universities, is the first state in which the governor, himself a Chavista, turned on Maduro. Governor José Gregorio Vielma Mora said in a speech earlier this week that he disagreed with the arrest of Popular Will Party leader López and that he was “not a part of the regime,” though he later tried to make amends on Twitter with the Chavistas his comments upset.
His comments came after a series of human rights abuses in the capital city of San Cristóbal, where Maduro shut off electricity and the internet temporarily, asserting martial law in the region, leading to some of the most violent images of National Guard attacks on civilians surfacing there. The oversized population of students, proximity to the free and prosperous nation of Colombia, and excessive use of force has made Táchira the heart of the opposition movement in Venezuela.
The civilians, it seems, have had enough. The giant bust of Hugo Chávez that made its home in the state was found decapitated by students today, with the moving images distributed throughout Twitter. The students deliberately decided to cut off its head, rather than topple it completely, and spread the image through social media. “The statues of Chávez are beginning to fall,” posted the first; it is unknown who committed the deed. The image was first published by the media in Argentine website Infobae:
Some neighborhoods of San Cristóbal have been successful in expelling the Venezuelan military from their area. Through sheer numbers, unarmed civilians chanted, “This government will fall!” and banged on pots and pans while marching towards National Guard soldiers until the military had to retreat from their neighborhood. Despite the lack of internet in the city, residents managed to obtain video and post to YouTube:
It is not just civilians that have taken up the cause against Maduro. In one of the more bizarre and compelling narratives of the recent protests in the country, retired General Ángel Vivas, an opponent of the Maduro regime, became the second major leader Maduro has called for an arrest of, despite the lack of a warrant. Maduro accuses Vivas of encouraging protesters to use barbed wire against the unofficial armed Chavista gangs that patrol the streets, who have taken the lives of at least 10 people since this latest string of protests.
Unlike López, Vivas has decided not to go peacefully. The general has locked himself in his home in the state of Miranda (whose governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, ran against Maduro in the last presidential elections) and refuses to come out or give in his weapons, which as a soldier he possesses legally (private gun ownership in Venezuela is illegal). His neighbors are protecting him from any police inquiry. Vivas was born and raised in San Cristóbal, however, and stands in solidarity with those protesting the regime there. Maduro has come out publicly against Vivas as a “crazy” who is only rivaled in his madness by U.S. Senator Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), while Vivas has insisted that he is merely defending his rights as a citizen as given to him by the Venezuelan Constitution.
In an exclusive interview with Spanish newspaper ABC, Vivas declared that he believed the arrest order to be an order from the Castro regime in Cuba, and that he had no intentions of complying with it. His opposition to the government began in 2007, when he called for the removal of the Marxist phrase “nation, socialism, or death” from the military’s official slogan. He asserted that “they accuse me of fomenting disturbances because I criticize the government on Twitter,” despite the fact that he explicitly called for peaceful protest.
“I will not turn myself in because turning myself in is to say the President of the Republic is correct, and that is to surrender,” he told the paper. “Maduro is a puppet and pawn of Fidel Castro. If I hand myself in, I know they will murder me. I know they will exterminate me in jail– with this government I have no guarantees over my physical integrity or my right to a legitimate defense or judicial security.” He also claimed that the guards committing the violent acts on students could be tried for genocide.
Protests continue throughout the week in all of Venezuela, though media are advised to best continue following the proceedings in Táchira, as they become increasingly delicate.