- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
Ángel Vivas is a retired former general from Venezuela’s armed forces. He’s also, increasingly, a thorn in the regime’s side, first drawing ire as a blogger, then as an opposition Twitter star, and now as a modern day Lamarque.
Vivas has holed himself up in his Caracas home, which is currently under siege by authorities looking to arrest him over allegedly treasonous tweets. But a swelling crowd of his neighbors and supporters has interposed itself between the general and the police, blocking his arrest. The arrest was ordered on Saturday and, since that time, he has remained bunkered inside.
On Sunday, when Venezuelan authorities arrived at his house seeking entrance, the general shot off Tweets informing his over 200,000 followers that the government had cut off his telephone and that "Venezuelan and Cuban henchmen, alongside criminal groups," were currently surrounding his house. Twitter has become particularly important in opposition communications, given the country’s strong-arm censorship regulations. Soon after, the crowds began to arrive.
By Monday, Feb. 23, Vivas is still unbowed, and, decked out in a flak jacket with an assault rifle and pistol in hand, has repeatedly declared that he will not go quietly. He has given impassioned speeches from his balcony to the assembled crowds bellow, and they have in turn been tweeting messages of support and pictures of him with guns in hand.
Here’s why the government is after him: Last week, armed paramilitary groups of government supporters, known as colectivos, were cruising around the capital on motorcycles to terrorize, and often assault, student protesters. They operate under the protection of the Venezuelan National Guard, further upping the ante on violent crackdowns that have thus far led to eight deaths.
In response, on Friday, the general suggested via Twitter that the opposition make use of "guayas," the steel wire used in bike locks, to install tripwires on streets with protesters. The wires would knock cruising colectivistas off their mounts, thus preventing them from using the bikes to disperse the student protesters.
Someone apparently took his advice, and soon after, Elvis Rafael Durán de la Rosa (initially misidentified as Santiago Pedroza), was reported dead after allegedly being thrown from his vehicle by one of the tripwires. Edgardo Zuleta, captain of the Venezuelan National Guard, was quick to condemn the incident, stating that "a group of fascists, seeking only to destabilize, set up this tripwire … and have cost this young man his life." The authorities issued a warrant for Vivas’s arrest for his role in the death soon after.
Vivas is wildly popular within the opposition not only because he is a visible figure from the high echelons of the armed forces — usually a bastion of pro-government sentiment — but also because he hails from San Cristóbal, the city where this most recent wave of protests began. San Cristóbal role as the center of student protests has left it the most beleaguered spot in the country. The state has deliberately cut the city’s Internet access and electricity, as the national air force executes dramatic flyovers to intimidate the protesters.
Traditionally, the Revolution has taken a hard line on military leaders that publically support opposition parties and policies, or seem overly tentative in their support of the status quo. In 2007, Raul Baduel, a retired general and former defense minister, and the man responsible for restoring Chávez to power after the short-lived coup against him in 2002, dared to publically criticize what he saw as his former ally’s worrying turn towards "authoritarianism." Almost immediately, he was brought up on corruption and embezzlement charges, and was eventually sentenced to seven years in jail in what Human Rights Watch has deemed a "political persecution."
Vivas worked closely under Baduel during the latter’s ministership, and it is rumored that Baduel’s own downfall may have left Vivas sidelined by the administration afterwards. The government demands absolute loyalty from high ranking officers as a precaution against potential coups. Later, Vivas expressed his own misgivings about the politicization of the military under Chávez in the aftermath of Baduel’s defection. He resigned in protest against the adoption of the new military oath, "Socialism, Homeland or Death," among his men. Vivas is only 57.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro responded to this latest defiance by warning Vivas over state media, warning, "No matter how many guns you have, sooner or later, you will have justice." Meanwhile, reactions to Vivas’s Venezuelan standoff have varied, despite his considerable support among much of the opposition.
Andres Sosa is a Caracas entrepreneur who once ran a chain of Venezuelan radio stations, but has now lost all but one to the government’s seizures of private media. He argues that the government is taking advantage of Dúran de la Rosa’s death to neutralize Vivas and silence a vocal critic. "Here is a man who lost his brilliant military career because he opposed the Cubafication of the armed forces," Sosa said. "He is a hero who confronts the government’s tyranny!"
At the other side of the economic, if not political, spectrum is Williams Méndez, a chauffeur in the historically pro-Revolution town of La Victoria: "Maybe an old guy like him, this army man with those guns, is exactly what we need to fix this country’s many problems."
But Luis Arcía, Méndez’s neighbor, thinks differently: "Here we go again," he told me. "Venezuelans are always looking for a new hero or a new messiah. If they can find someone from the armed forces, that’s even better!"
"How little we’ve learned through this whole Chávez ordeal," he continued. "We don’t need a savior — we need a thousand saviors. We need a functional civil society, not just a new catalyst every week."
Vivas himself will apparently be interviewed on CNN Español tonight, and it should be fascinating to hear what this catalyst has to say.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.