Venezuelan troops fanned out across the capital, Caracas, and other major cities on Thursday after President Nicolás Maduro ordered a military clampdown against deadly unrest that he warned was part of a “fascist” coup plot.
Piles of burning rubbish sat smoking along Caracas’ main avenue as troops moved to secure the city following an outbreak of street violence that left three dead on Wednesday. Armed soldiers surrounded government buildings and diverted traffic, while riot troops guarded entrances to the shuttered subway system as residents picked their way through broken glass.
Mr Maduro ordered the arrest of a top opposition leader and a former military chief as he claimed “fascist” forces financed from the United States were plotting against his government. He claimed the civil unrest was part of a plan by “far right” opponents “to bring us to a dog fight, set our people at war, one against another”.
“There will be no coup d’etat in Venezuela, you can rest assured,” he vowed, warning that anyone who perpetrated acts of violence or protested without permission would be arrested.
On Wednesday, the visceral political and class hatreds that have riven Venezuelan society were on full display.
Three people were shot dead and dozens injured when long-brewing anger over the country’s deepening economic and security woes erupted into violence during rival protests by government supporters and opponents.
Troops used tear gas to disperse protesters as government buildings were vandalised and cars torched. Some opposition protesters, many masking their faces, hurled stones and burned tyres in the streets.
Meanwhile pro-government demonstrators, dressed in the revolutionary red, chanted slogans backing Mr Maduro’s “economic war” against the private interests he blames for the country’s financial woes.
At one point unidentified assailants fired into a crowd of demonstrators outside the attorney-general’s office.
On Thursday the two sides swapped accusations of blame for the violence.
Under the slogan “The Exit”, meaning the departure of Mr Maduro from power, hardline opposition groups have for the last fortnight been staging protests over the country’s searing crime, corruption, rampant inflation and shortages of basic goods.
But Leopoldo López, the opposition leader now in hiding from an arrest warrant on charges of homicide and conspiracy, said the government had instigated the bloodshed in order to discredit his peaceful movement.
The opposition blames armed pro-government militant groups known as “colectivos” for attacking their marches. Several times during Wednesday’s rally the cry went up: “The colectivos are coming!”, sending some demonstrators running for safety. One of those killed was a well-known colectivo leader from “January 23”, an impoverished hillside barrio in Caracas that is a key revolutionary stronghold.
The unrest bears ominous similarities to events leading up to the 11 April 2002 coup which briefly unseated Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro’s predecessor and the firebrand architect of the 15-year-old leftist revolution in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves.
Then, mass protests rapidly escalated into an overthrow of the government after shots were fired from a Caracas bridge into groups of pro and government protesters near Miraflores Palace, killing 19 people. The shootings were quickly blamed on Chávez supporters by the opposition media, though the Chavistas later disputed that version, claiming unidentified snipers had fired on protesters to create a pretext for the government’s overthrow. Whatever the truth, for a few days that the coup lasted, it worked.
The echoes of 2002 have not been lost on Mr Maduro, who raised the spectre of the coup in his televised address. A similar plot was now underway, he said, explaining that “the two (opposition protesters) have shots to the head the same as the 11th of April, snipers assassinated Venezuelans to justify a coup d’etat. Today a plan was activated with the same characteristics, but in the Venezuela of today they couldn’t do what they did to the people of Venezuela 11 years ago”.
A group of some 200 to 300 opposition protesters had reached the gates of Miraflores Palace, he claimed.
There were fears of further confrontations on Thursday after cabinet ministers called for a fresh pro-government protest in Caracas and Mr López vowed the opposition would continue to take to the streets. “We won’t retreat and we can’t retreat because this is about our future, about our children, about millions of people,” he told Reuters after the killings.
In the Chacao district of Caracas, the scene of some of the worst violence, José Bolívar, a 52-year-old construction worker, said he feared what was to come. “Every man for himself is the situation here in Venezuela. No one knows what is going to happen, so we have to prepare for the worst,” he told The Telegraph.