Venezuela political assassinations target Chavistas as tensions mount

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Mass protests took place in Caracas against the assassination of pro-government figures following the murder of PSUV politician Robert Serra and his partner in 2014.

Despite the daily bombardment of shock headlines predicting Venezuela’s imminent demise, the international media have remained conspicuously silent on the surge of political assassinations that have targeted Venezuelan revolutionaries and community activists. At least 13 pro-government activists have been murdered since 2014, not including any of the 43 dead in the violent ‘La Salida’ street barricades earlier that year. This is part of a sinister campaign of intimidation, calculated in cold blood that aims to overthrow the Bolivarian revolutionary movement. Meanwhile, tensions are building over the recall referendum against socialist President Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition’s economic sabotage continues. Sam Mcgill reports.

Political assassinations

On 16 July, Cristobel Romero, an indigenous Yukpa chief of the Rio Piche community was assassinated by armed motorcyclists in Perija national park, Zulia state. Romero was a local trade union leader and land rights activist. Two weeks prior, Elizabeth Aguilera was gunned down in front of her house and burnt by suspected paramilitaries who uploaded images of her body to social media. Aguilera was the head of the local United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) chapter in Caracas who had been working with the government’s anti-crime operations to uproot paramilitary and criminal gangs in her neighbourhood. These brutal murders follow a string of assassinations in recent months.

Since the beginning of the year, seven pro-government political activists have been murdered. In January, Ricardo Duran, a Chavista journalist and PSUV press secretary was gunned down outside his home. A former anchor on the pro-Chavista VTV state television channel, Duran was credited with exposing the media manipulation around the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. There were four assassinations in March alone: Tulio Carrillo, a PSUV mayor in a Trujillo municipality was repeatedly shot outside his home; Cesar Vera, a pro-Chavista politician and long-time member of the radical Tupamaro movement was shot in the street in the border town of Tachira. He had been actively involved in fighting smuggling of Venezuelan goods and food into Colombia. Colombian paramilitaries are linked to his killing. Also in Tachira in March, two members of the National Bolivarian Police were mown down by a bus hijacked as part of violent protests by right-wing students from the local private university. The same month, Fritz Saint Louis, a Haitian-Venezuelan political leader and solidarity activist was shot dead at his home. Saint Louis founded the Venezuelan Solidarity Committee with Haiti; he was an international coordinator for the United Haitian Socialist Movement and a leading member of the PSUV. In May, retired army Major General Felix Velasquez was shot dead in his car in Caracas. Two policemen from the opposition municipality of Chacao were detained.

This surge in assassinations must be added to other high profile deaths in the last two years. Victims have included community council leader Dimas Gomez Chirinos and his son; Vargas state chief of intelligence Rafael Celestino Arteaga; friend of Hugo Chavez and former director of national intelligence Major Otaiza; PSUV National Assembly politician Robert Serra and his partner Maria Herrera. Meanwhile over 40 indigenous Yukpa activists have been killed in the last decade in their protracted struggle against cattle ranchers and mining corporations in the coal-rich grazing lands of Sierra de Perija.

Whilst many of the murders have been linked to Colombian paramilitaries, these are hired assassins for bigger players in the battlefield of Venezuela’s class war. Prominent opposition activists have close ties to paramilitary networks. In 2014 Lorent Gomez Saleh and Gabriel Valles, leaders of the suspiciously well-funded NGO ‘Operation Liberty’ were gaoled following the leak of plans to carry out a campaign of bombing and assassination. They had been operating with Colombian paramilitary networks and trained at a military college in Bogota, both were key leaders of the United Activist Youth of Venezuela which produces posters reading: ‘Venezuela needs you to kill a Chavista’. The links between opposition celebrity Maria Corina Machado and former Colombian President Alvaro are well documented.

Recall referendum

Tensions continue to build over the recall referendum launched by the right-wing opposition in an attempt to unseat President Nicolas Maduro. The opposition handed in a petition with 1.85 million signatures on 2 May. Each signature then had to be validated by the electoral council (CNE) with a corresponding fingerprint. The CNE was due to announce its findings on 26 July; however given reports that 300,000 signatures have been found to be void – belonging to underage, deceased or fictitious individuals – the CNE announced it needed more time and would meet on 1 August. In response, opposition leader Henrique Capriles staged a march on 27 July from the wealthy district of Bello Monte to the headquarters of the CNE which has been the focus of violent protests in recent months. This time the marchers found their way blocked by national police and dispersed. The opposition maintains the CNE is delaying the process deliberately to prevent the referendum from being held this year. If the referendum is not held before 10 January 2017, there will be no new elections: Maduro will simply be replaced by Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz until the end of the presidential term in 2019. The PSUV in return criticised the opposition for not initiating the referendum process earlier in the year, alleging that the opposition’s MUD coalition is seeking to use the inevitably lengthy process to generate destabilisation and unrest. Furthermore, the fraudulent signatures have resulted in 8,600 criminal and administrative lawsuits, prompting the PSUV to demand that the CNE suspend the MUD coalition for electoral fraud. As the Bolivarian grassroots mobilise to ‘defend the peace and the gains of the revolution’, it is clear that ultimately the battle over the referendum will be decided on the streets.

Economic sabotage

Counter-revolutionary pressure on Venezuela’s socialist government is coming from all quarters. Attacks on trucks distributing state-subsidised food have increased in the last three months with organised gangs wrecking vehicles and slashing tyres. The US congress has passed new sanctions against Venezuela in a fresh attempt to isolate the Bolivarian government, whilst Brazil is pushing to postpone Venezuela’s rotating presidency of Mercosur. When Venezuela tentatively re-opened its borders with Colombia for several short periods in July, prompting some 35,000 people to flock to shops there in a single weekend, the bourgeois international press gleefully published stories of ‘hungry Venezuelan mothers’ storming shops in Colombia when the border crossing was briefly re-opened. They have been less willing to publish the truth about the constant economic sabotage perpetrated by the opposition, the hoarding of essential products and the smuggling of cheap, state subsidised goods over the border to Colombia which are, in large part, the cause of the empty supermarket shelves in Venezuela.

Meanwhile the Bolivarian government is fighting back. It has handed over a recently-closed Kimberley Clarke factory to workers’ control and is providing funding to restart the production of nappies, toilet paper and sanitary products – some of the most sought-after goods in Colombian shops. In order to combat food shortages, the Venezuelan government is expanding its network of local committees for supply and production and has set up the new ‘Sovereign and Secure Supply Mission’ focusing on national production and supply of food and medicine outside the clutches of the private sector. The production and distribution of food and basic goods remain a decisive factor for Venezuela’s future. The class struggle is being waged on many fronts.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 252 August/September 2016