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Latin America

Venezuela on edge ahead of September 1 protests

Facing a massive demonstration to demand a presidential recall vote, the government has detained members of the opposition and a team of foreign journalists were blocked from entering the country.
30 Ago 2016 – 06:08 PM EDT
Venezuela's opposition is planning a major demonstration in Caracas on Sept. 1. Crédito: Juan Barreto / Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela - On Monday night, every Venezuelan TV channel and radio station broadcast what appeared to be a violent action movie, complete with weapons, shootings and blood-soaked people sprawled on the pavement.

But it wasn’t fiction. The images were from a Chavista documentary called " Llaguno Bridge: Keys to a Massacre," which explores the events of April 11, 2002, when a huge opposition march in the capital Caracas ended in a military coup that briefly overthrew then President Hugo Chávez for several hours.

In what appeared to be a warning of sorts, the Venezuelan government ordered the media to show the documentary two days before a major protest in Caracas organized by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of opposition parties.

The so-called "taking of Caracas" on September 1 plans to demand a recall referendum vote this year to oust President Nicolás Maduro, amid the country's political and economic crisis, which has caused inflation, food shortages and high levels of violent crime.

But the socialist government claims the September 1 march is a sequel to the demonstration that took place 14 years ago. And as the country prepares for the protests, the government is cracking down on the opposition and circulating a new round of conspiracy theories about U.S. intervention in the South American nation.

Opposition leaders in the crosshairs

Yon Goicoechea, a leader from the opposition Popular Will party and a former student activist, disappeared Monday morning.

His kidnapping was announced by David Smolansky, the mayor of El Hatillo, a municipality of Caracas, on Twitter: "[He] was kidnapped at 9:30 a.m. by an armed group. He's missing!"

Some suspect that Goicoechea, who lead student protests in 2007 against the Chavista government, was taken by state security agents, but no one knows exactly why he was taken or to where. Nine hours after he went missing, Diosdado Cabello, first vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), revealed Goicoechea's whereabouts during a rally in western Venezuela.

"Today a man named Yon Goicoechea was detained and cords used for detonating explosives were found in his possession," said Cabello. “That man was trained by the U.S. empire for years."

Ahead of the protest, other opposition leaders were also targeted - largely those from the Popular Will party, whose founder Leopoldo López has been in prison for more than two years and faces a nearly 14-year sentence. He stands accused of a host of crimes, including conspiring to overthrow the government, stemming from his involvement in 2014 anti-government protests.

On Saturday, agents from the federal government's Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) took custody of former San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, taking him from his Caracas home -- where he's under house arrest -- to a prison. They transported him by ambulance, claiming it was to a medical exam. Along with López, Ceballos is accused of trying to overthrow the government during the 2014 protests.

Interior Minister Néstor Luis Reverol justified the incident, claiming Ceballos was planning to flee and that the government's intelligence agencies are working to "detect and neutralize" criminal elements. Reverol has been charged with drug trafficking in a federal court in New York.

And other mayors also had problems with authorities this week: Maturín Mayor Warner Jiménez, from northeastern Venezuela’s Monagas state, was detained by Sebin officials early Monday. Mario Briceño Iragorry Mayor Delson Guarate, from Aragua state, on the northern coast, said his mother's home was searched.

Plus, four other jailed Popular Will leaders were transferred to prison in recent days. Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel, arrested in June while collecting signatures for the presidential recall, were sent to a facility that’s known as being highly dangerous.

What happens now?

Right now, Venezuela is a hotbed of rumors, and the government has been forced to address some of them. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López denied that he had ordered authorities to come up with a list of "individuals and organizations identified as enemies of the revolutionary process." On Twitter, he said "desperation, intrigue and hatred” are “the anti-values of peace."

But the government is not hiding efforts to quash the protest. Cabello, a high-ranking member of the ruling party, demanded party militants block protesters traveling from the countryside to Caracas to participate in the demonstration, while Daniel Aponte, head of government of the Capital District, announced that he wouldn't let the opposition protest in the area under his jurisdiction. "We have political power and we're not going to let anyone take it away," he said.

The media, which has faced censorship and government takeovers in recent years, has also been targeted.

The National Union of Press Workers reported that Al Jazeera journalists who came from Argentina to cover the September 1 protests were arrested at the airport and would be deported to Colombia. Meanwhile, the headquarters of El Nacional newspaper in eastern Caracas was attacked early Tuesday, when attackers threw flaming excrement and Molotov cocktails at the building. They also left a pamphlet accusing the paper's editor Miguel Henrique Otero of being a "conspirator against the people and the Bolivarian revolution."

The government has also suggested that the United States is taking part in planning the protest. In a statement Monday, the Venezuelan foreign ministry accused the United States of planning a coup during the September 1 protests "in collusion with the opposition and the international anti-democratic right." Plus, the National Institute of Civil Aviation has prohibited "private aircraft," including drones, from entering Venezuelan airspace through September 5. The U.S. government has repeatedly denied Venezuelan government claims that it's working with the opposition to overthrow Maduro. On Sunday, the State Department released a statement criticizing Ceballos' imprisonment. "The basic underpinnings of the rule of law in Venezuela have degraded to an alarming degree," it said.

The PSUV plans to hold a series of events throughout the country this week to defend the "Chavista revolution." But some in the opposition fear the government will instigate conflict to convince people of an alleged coup.

"A regime without leadership, ideas, proposals and especially without the people needs violence," said Jesús Torrealba, executive secretary of opposition coalition group MUD. "If it can't achieve violence, it's capable of producing it."

Meanwhile, Cabello warned that more political detentions could be expected ahead of the protests. "Our proposal will always be peace, but sometimes we have to fight for it," he said.

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