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Bolivarian Circles spark debate
Mike Ceaser
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Do Chávez supporters engage in harassment or public service?

Venezuelans continue hashing over the violent events of mid-April, when President Hugo Chávez was deposed for 48 hours.

Among the most powerful images were videos broadcast on local TV stations showing men dressed in red uniforms shooting from rooftops at anti-Chávez protesters below (LP, April 22, 2002).

The red uniform is a symbol of militant neighborhood organizations called the "Boliviarian Circles," which are organized and funded by Chávez. After the president’s quick return to power, members of the circles cruised Caracas, the capital, on motorcycles, honking horns, carrying signs and shouting their support for Chávez.

The image of uniformed men, however, does not tell the whole story. There are middle-aged women in the circles, supporting the president through social projects and other works of charity as well.

"If someone needs a prosthesis, we get it for them," said Miriam Sierra, a silver-haired homemaker of 47 who heads a Bolivarian Circle of 150 women in a lower-income neighborhood. "We work with prisoners so that they don’t return to crime."

The Bolivarian Circles were organized soon after Chávez’s 1998 election as an expression of his philosophy of social cooperation and empowerment of poor people. Since the street protests that left some 50 people dead and hundreds wounded, however, some Venezuelans view them as violent organizations marked by lawlessness, favoritism and a Chávez personality cult.

The contradictory images of the circles also reflect the rivalry among anti- and pro-Chávez supporters, who have divided the country in two antagonistic factions with different priorities and different outlooks for Venezuela’s future.

Chávez defended the groups at an April 22 press conference. A month earlier he announced that he was earmarking US$140 million for the circles.

"The Bolivarian Circles are social organizations that cooperate with the community," he said. "They are not armed groups, and if some have made mistakes, they will be punished."

Five days earlier, a furious Mayor Alfredo Peña of Caracas, who is probably Chávez’s most prominent political opponent, told reporters that members of Bolivarian Circles, wielding pistols, machine guns and grenades, had invaded his office on April 15, after Chávez’s return to power.

"There were 40 armed men wearing bulletproof vests and yelling, ‘Long live Chávez!’" Peña said. "They identified themselves as members of Bolivarian Circles."

Peña showed photographs of walls and windows with bullet holes that he said were left by the attackers.

"Chávez himself has said that he is the ultimate leader of the circles," Peña said.

According to social scientist Mercedes Pulido, who served as minister of the family from 1983-87, the circles’ members are motivated by an almost religious dedication to Chávez’ philosophy, confrontation with the wealthy and a newfound sense of self worth.

"There are two types of Bolivarian Circles," she said. "One type is a grassroots organization that does community development, organizing and public service."

When Chávez mentions the circles in his speeches, those are the examples he cites.

A group of middle-aged women seated around a restaurant table in downtown Caracas fit Chávez’s description. Each carried in her purse or pocket a small copy of Venezuela’s two-year-old constitution and professed her loyalty to the president. From their talk, it was clear that Chávez has energized and given a forgotten sector of society a new sense of importance.

"It is the first time that [the government] has paid attention to us. With President Chávez’s government, the people matter," said 51-year-old Rosa Sala.

Pulido, however, called these groups "the mask," adding that other circle members, trained by Libyans and Cubans and provided with new motorcycles, have been sent out to disrupt opposition meetings and may have been used to harass and intimidate reporters.

On April 13, in the midst of the coup, groups of honking, shouting motorcyclists surrounded Caracas television stations, which Chávez has often accused of being hostile to his government.

"Their goal is to put fear into the population," Pulido said.

Circle members, however, consider their actions justified.

Ninoska Lazo, a 57-year-old lawyer, was in a group of Chávez supporters who gathered on motorcycles on the evening of April 13, throwing rocks at an independent television station that had ignored the huge pro-Chávez demonstrations that day.

"They were telling lies all day," she said of the station. "We went to tell our truth."

By Pulido’s estimate, there are about 30,000 trained Bolivarian Circle members across Venezuela. Many more sympathizers turn out for rallies, however, and almost one-quarter of the nation’s 350 mayors support the organization.

The controversy over the circles’ role is part of an intensifying debate over how the country should respond to the human rights abuses that occurred during the opposition protests that helped force Chávez from power and the pro-Chávez demonstrations that compelled the military to release him and permit his return to the presidency.

About 50 people were reported killed, government officials were arrested, often without a court order, and searches illegally carried out.

Chávez has acknowledged that his supporters carried arms during the demonstrations, but said that the same was true of his opponents, whom he accused of planning to storm the presidential palace.

Many Venezuelans from both sides of the debate have been calling for a truth commission to examine the events (LP, May 6, 2002), but critics of the government worry that such a panel would be stacked with Chávez loyalists.

Government opponents have demanded that the Bolivarian Circles be disbanded, but Chávez has made no move in that direction, saying instead that the groups would be strengthened.

Meanwhile, the circles continue to be a major point of contention. Some observers believe that Chávez is determined to back them because the military is divided in its support for him. At the same time, the possibility that the circles could become a "parallel army" is a source of discontent in the military.



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