Who Is Killing Venezuela’s Protesters?
New evidence suggests that Chávez recruited today’s political militia from among the army.
Masked and armed “chavista” thugs on motorcycles—and not the police or the National Guard—have inflicted the most serious damage on antigovernment protesters in Venezuela, according to eyewitness accounts. The death toll since Feb. 12 is now at least 34, with many more serious injuries.
President Nicolás Maduro blames the violence on the political opposition, the U.S. and even on former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Mr. Maduro’s supporters are in the streets, he says, only to lend support for the elected government.
?This has always seemed unlikely. It is even harder to believe in light of new evidence I obtained last week. Six documents stamped with the seal of the Venezuelan army show clearly that as far back as December 2001, agents of then-President Hugo Chávez —Mr. Maduro’s mentor—sought to build a paramilitary. What is more, the recruitment efforts targeted military bases in order to incorporate army personnel into this nonuniformed militia. In other words, the Chávez government was looking for trained professionals who could handle weapons.
Miguel Rodríguez Torres, then a lieutenant colonel, was one of the recruiters, according to one document. Today Mr. Rodríguez is Venezuela’s minister of the interior, the cabinet post charged with state security. The interior ministry’s mission includes supporting “grass roots organizations.” That would include the country’s “Bolivarian Circles,” which are modeled on Castro’s “committees to defend the revolution.”
Ostensibly the Bolivarian Circles are civic-minded community groups. But chavista street violence is carried out by organized, trained and well-armed civilians, another aspect of the Cuban model. If they aim their guns well, now we know why.
In recent weeks, Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet have staunchly defended the democratic legitimacy of Maduro’s government. Do they think that governments that try to organize death squads qualify as democracies?
?The documents I have show that on Feb. 3, 2002, the commander of the Venezuelan Army Reserves wrote to the second in command of the army, Gen. José Félix Ruiz Guzmán, to inform him that Lt. Col. Rodríguez Torres and another lieutenant colonel had visited his headquarters in December. The visiting officers requested that the army reserves provide personnel for indoctrination in the Bolivarian Circles so as to increase their ranks.
In his letter to the general, the army-reserves commander noted that since the Bolivarian Circles are “strictly political,” army involvement with them would contravene regulations. He requested guidance from headquarters. Gen. Ruiz Guzmán responded by citing Article 328 of the constitution, which forbids military involvement in politics: “The fulfillment of [the armed forces’] duties is to the exclusive service of the Nation and in no case to an individual or to politics.”
The documents suggest that Gen. Ruiz Guzmán was troubled by increasing attempts by Bolivarian activists already in uniform to recruit the rank and file. On Jan. 22, 2002, he had ordered the commander of Fort Tiuna (Caracas’s largest military installation) to take steps to keep buses carrying political activists from parking in the immediate vicinity of the fort. As then-president Chávez prepared to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his failed coup attempt, Gen. Ruiz Guzmán again addressed the subject of political activism on the base. On Feb. 1 he ordered the commanding officer at Fort Tiuna to restrict access of vehicles carrying nonmilitary personnel who were identifiable as supporters of any political party. He reminded his subordinate of their constitutional obligations to stay out of politics. ?
The documents show that Chávez had an active program early on to corrupt and politicize the military and to build a paramilitary within the Bolivarian Circles. The current minister of the interior was one of the ringmasters. Today organized snipers and gunmen on motorcycles roam the streets and kill with impunity. And we’re supposed to believe there is no link to the state?
This is one more reason to reject claims that Venezuela still qualifies as a democracy. The OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter of Sept. 11, 2001, states that “democracy is a way of life based on liberty and enhancement of economic, social, and cultural conditions.” Where are those conditions in Venezuela today?
President Bachelet has said that Chile will “never support any movement that violently wants to topple a democratically elected government.” A fine sentiment. But to say that Mr. Maduro is democratically elected is preposterous. It has been many years since Venezuela held fair elections, in which candidates have access to airwaves and the electoral tribunal is independent. Yet even if Mr. Maduro did win a majority of the votes cast, democracy requires tolerance, pluralism, minority protections, free speech and the right to assemble.
Any government that unleashes brown shirts to indiscriminately kill in order to sow terror among its opponents does not qualify as a democracy. Perhaps Mr. Insulza and Ms. Bachelet will meditate on that reality.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com??