Last Thursday, Sebastián Scirpatempo received news in Miami that his older cousin and childhood role model, Gruseny Antonio "Tony" Canelón, died in the university hospital after getting shot at point-blank range by National Guardsmen during an anti-government protest.
Canelón had fought for his life for 30 hours, and even managed to send a short Whatsapp audio message to a friend pleading for help: "
I've been taken prisoner in the military hospital. I've been shot, injured. Help me, please!"
Canelón died the following day, on April 13. He was 32.
Had Scirpatempo not fled Venezuela with his mother three months ago, he says he most likely would be been alongside his cousin at last week's protest in their hometown of Cabudare, 220 miles west of Caracas. "Instead of one death, there would have been two," says Scirpatempo's mother, Danelly Pedroza, who raised the two boys like brothers.
In fact, there have been six deaths—the youngest aged 13—in two weeks of violent protests, which have left hundreds of Venezuelans injured and led to 461 arrests. As the opposition and pro-government forces gear up for today's "the mother of all protests," many fear that number of casualties about to uptick once again—possibly in the next few hours as President Nicolas Maduro increasingly finds himself cornered by mounting discontent.
Another 19-year-old protestor, Carlos Jose Moreno, died Wednesday, apparently shot in the head.
"The government is becoming less interested in containing its own violence," says Venezuela analyst Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College. "With each passing day, we see state security forces resorting to more repressive tactics. It's almost as if the government does not care anymore about their violence being displayed on the media. If these coercive tactics continue, it's hard to predict how protesters will respond."
While the increasingly erratic behavior of Maduro's regime has made it impossible to predict anything in Venezuela, all the warning signs ahead of today's scheduled protest point to trouble.
"Maduro's attitude in advance of the April 19 opposition protest — saying he would arm militias, organizing pro-government rallies at the same time, and calling demonstrators "terrorists" — is hugely irresponsible," says José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "In a country where security forces have brutally repressed anti-government demonstrations, pro-government armed gangs have attacked demonstrators, and the justice system has jailed opponents on trumped up charges, the government's bully attitude is a recipe for disaster."
Maduro gave the latest sign of apparent political paranoia on Tuesday night by going on state television and announcing that his government had foiled an alleged coup plot led by a retired Venezuelan military officer. Maduro said military intelligence will be going after after all civilian and military coup-plotters, including those "who have been captured or fled to Colombia." The government has pointed to plots in the past, without providing proof.
The international community, under the reinvigorated leadership of the Organization of American States (OAS), is urging calm and trying to coax Maduro back from the ledge.
On Tuesday, Argentina, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay signed a joint communique calling on the Venezuelan government to guarantee its people the constitutional right to peaceful protest and "impede any action of violence against protesters." The 11 countries are also urgiing Venezuelan protesters to demonstrate peacefully, and for the government to finally set a date for elections "to allow for a solution to the serious crisis that faces Venezuela and worries the region."
As for the thousands of Venezuelans who have already left their country, they continue to support the cause from abroad, stay active on social media, and try to raise international awareness so that young Venezuelans like Canelón don't have to keep dying at the hands of the Maduro government.
"He can't be forgotten. This can't just be one more death under the Maduro regime," says his cousin Scirpatempo, who plans to join one of the Venezuela solidarity protests today in Miami. "Tony fought for his ideals and for the reconstruction of Venezuela. We have to continue that struggle so his death wasn't in vain. This can't go on forever."