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The New York Times

They defended the revolution in Venezuela. Now they are his victims

IN AN EFFORT TO FINISH CONSOLIDATING HIS POWER, NICOLÁS MADURO REPRESSES THE LEFT ACTIVISTS WHO ONCE SUPPORTED HIM AND HAVE NOW BEGAN TO RAISE THE SPEECH AGAINST CORRUPTION AND THE FAVORITISM OF HIS GOVERNMENT. GÜIRIA, Venezuela – The host of The People in Combat, a popular radio show, had always praised Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, even as millions of citizens were sinking into misery under the rule of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. But this summer, when a gasoline shortage paralyzed his remote fishing village, he deviated from the party line. On his show, announcer José Carmelo Bislick, a lifelong socialist, accused local party leaders of having benefited from his access to fuel, leaving most people standing in lines for days at empty gas stations. Only a few weeks have passed since the complaint when, on the night of August 17, four masked and armed men broke into Bislick’s house and told him that he “ate the light,” a phrase that indicates that someone has run a traffic light in red. They then beat him and dragged him away in front of his family. Hours later they found him dead with gunshot wounds, and wearing his favorite Che Guevara shirt. Bislick’s murderers are still at large in that city of 30,000 inhabitants, where everyone knew him and knew that he had dedicated his life to the Bolivarian revolution. The socialist mayor of the town never spoke of the murder or visited his relatives, who said his death was politically motivated. “Is reporting so ugly as to cost a man his life who only sought social welfare?” Asks Rosmery Bislick, the announcer’s sister. Bislick’s death appears to be part of a wave of repression against left-wing activists marginalized by Maduro, who appears determined to consolidate his power in the December parliamentary elections. The vote, boycotted by the opposition and denounced by human rights groups, could bring what used to be one of Latin America’s most established democracies to the brink of a one-party state. Having dismantled political parties that opposed his version of socialism, Maduro has targeted his security apparatus at disillusioned ideological allies, repeating the path traveled by left-wing autocrats from the Soviet Union to Cuba. Maduro’s office did not respond to a request for comment. “Whoever makes a criticism first puts you on the side of right-wing opposition parties, they call you a traitor,” said Ares Di Fazio, a former urban guerrilla and leader of the far-left Tupamaros Party, which was dismantled by the government in August after have expressed their discontent. Security forces have cracked down on traditional government supporters who in recent months flooded the streets of provincial cities to denounce the collapse of public services. Officials who denounce corruption are accused of sabotage. Members of the ruling electoral alliance who decided to run as independents are disqualified. Those who persevere are harassed by the police or accused of spurious crimes. In part, the domestic repression is the result of Maduro’s decision to abandon the wealth redistribution policies of his late predecessor Hugo Chávez, in favor of what amounts to crony capitalism to survive the tightening of US sanctions. The change effectively legalized the black market economy in Venezuela, sanctifying widespread corruption and allowing Maduro to maintain the loyalty of the military and business elites who benefit from the new economic order. The result has been a jarring chasm between official rhetoric, which blames the nation’s collapse on US government sanctions, and the extravagant lives of ruling elites in supermarkets and luxury car showrooms. “There is a blockade for some and still lifes for others,” said Oswaldo Rivero, a prominent left-wing activist and national television presenter, in reference to the stores where imported luxury products are sold, who for years promoted attacks on the opposition from his programme. To those who question that, “they turn firewood,” said Rivero, who says they now call him a traitor and have threatened him on social media for speaking out against corruption. For the past two decades, left-wing parties represented by activists like Rivero had helped Chávez, and later Maduro, to stay in power. Those political movements, some of which date back to Cold War-era insurrections, campaigned for Maduro’s candidates, mobilized supporters for government rallies, and at times harassed opposition protesters. His message of radical change resonated with force in the shantytowns and rural settlements of Venezuela fed up with entrenched inequality. But these allies became increasingly disillusioned with Maduro’s authoritarianism and corruption. This year, for the first time, they decided to present their own candidates to the assembly. Maduro responded quickly to the challenge. In August, judges of the Supreme Court of Justice installed Maduro loyalists in the leadership of the Tupamaros and three other small dissident parties. Police detained Tupamaros chief José Pinto on unsubstantiated murder charges, harassed leaders of the Communist Party of Venezuela, and briefly detained a 73-year-old veteran dissident, Rafael Uzcátegui, accused of having visited a brothel. All the defendants have described the cases as a political persecution. Uzcátegui claims that 37 members of his party, Patria para Todos, have been arrested for campaigning against the government in the upcoming elections. Four of them simply painted a public wall with the words “Living Wage Now,” a plea to increase the monthly minimum wage to $ 2. “The government is not afraid of the right,” said Uzcátegui. He fears the left, he said, “because they know we tell the truth to people.” Isabel Granado, a 32-year-old Communist Party activist, decided to run for the National Assembly against the government in the December elections because she said it had stopped representing the country’s poor. Two years ago, she and two dozen other farmers from her village of El Vigía, located in the Andean foothills, decided to seize a plot of land that, she said, authorities had declared inactive since 2010. They called their group of farmers. “The mighty hand of God”, and they began to cultivate small plots to feed their families. For a long time, the government had backed these invasions to win rural support and try to reduce inequality. Suddenly, on September 24, Granado said that a squad of special operations police, with officers dressed in black, broke into her home, knocked her 9-year-old daughter to the ground and threatened to beat the activist in front of the girl if she didn’t go with them. They took her to a police station and charged her with illegal occupation of land and theft of cattle, a charge that Granado denied. The following day she was released for lack of evidence, but she was arrested again two days later, this time by a group of heavily armed military commandos. Granado said that during the time she was in custody, she was handcuffed, threatened with false charges of possession of illicit drugs and told that she would be executed. It was not a vain threat in a country where United Nations investigators have implicated Maduro’s Special Action Forces, known as FAES, in thousands of extrajudicial executions in poor neighborhoods over the past few years. “I was really too scared, because apart from being a social fighter, I’m also a mother,” said Granado. “The only thing I could think about was my children.” Granado said that the timing, brutality and arbitrary nature of the arrests show that local authorities are trying to get him to abandon his congressional run. He said he lives in constant fear, frequently changing his address in a network of safe houses. But he said he will continue his election campaign. “The support of the people for us is what hurts them the most,” he said, referring to the government. After a tense calm brought on by the pandemic, popular discontent with the Maduro government erupted into more than a thousand sudden protests in September. Unlike earlier waves of unrest, the latest demonstrations were concentrated in poor rural states, which have long formed the basis of the ruling party. The protesters, many of them long-time government supporters, demanded food, fuel and electricity and not political change, according to interviews in four affected villages. Maduro responded to the discontent of those socialist enclaves with the same repression that he applies to opponents. More than 200 protesters were arrested in the rural riots in September, and one person was shot dead by security forces, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a nonprofit group that records the riots. “What they are doing smells a lot of dictatorship to us,” said Edito Hidalgo, a veteran Tupamaro activist who led a protest in the western town of Urachiche in September. “It seems something like ‘I have the power and I’m not going to let go.’ Urachiche, a tight-knit farming community, had overwhelmingly voted for socialist candidates since the Chávez government first assumed power in 1999 promising to rule for the people. “This is a revolutionary town,” said Hidalgo, who proudly recounted Che Guevara’s brief stop in Urachiche in 1962. After enduring the economic crisis for seven years, the city finally raised its voice in September. Thousands of residents marched peacefully that month to the city hall singing the national anthem to deliver a proposal to the mayor to improve the city’s food supply and fuel distribution. Suddenly, a band appeared from the crowd with traditional cuatros and maracas, ending the rally with an impromptu concert, Hidalgo said. “The act ended and each one went home without throwing a stone.” A few days later, the FAES police stopped in front of Hidalgo’s house, looking for him. Alerted by his wife, he fled the town and spent two weeks in hiding, while the police and military patrols harassed his neighborhood. “It seems that they decided” that they should get rid of Edito Hidalgo “because he is revolutionizing the people,” he said. According to polls, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela has the support of only one in ten Venezuelans. Meanwhile in Güiria, the family of Bislick, the socialist radio host, still awaits justice. After the gunmen dragged Bislick from the home, his family ran directly to the police station; his car, like most of the city, ran out of gas. Rather than launch an immediate search in the small town, officers spent two hours writing down the details, relatives said. Desperate they ran to the local headquarters of the ruling party, where Bislick had worked for two decades, to ask for fuel in order to continue the search. But they denied it. Finally, a neighbor found Bislick’s body in some bushes. Bislick’s allegations of local corruption had become so popular that residents blared his program on their car speakers during blackouts, said his radio colleague, José Alberto Frontén. “We had a heavy hand in the program and we knew we were hitting where it is,” Frontén said. “But we never saw that blow coming.” Isayen Herrera reported from Güiria; Anatoly Kurmanaev, from Caracas; Tibisay Romero, from Urachiche, Venezuela, and Sheyla Urdaneta, from Cabimas, Venezuela. Nayrobis Rodríguez contributed reports from Cumaná, Venezuela. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2020 The New York Times Company

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