Pays de Gex, France, January 24, 2019 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Caracas and several other Venezuelan cities saw scenes of violence Wednesday night, with reports of explosions and gunfire in multiple locations.
Caracas resident Joel Linares told Venezuelanalysis that heavy clashes took place in the Jose Felix Ribas sector of Petare, the largest popular neighborhood of Caracas, with armed groups taking on different state security organs in close quarters. Local residents reported heavy gunfire and detonations, while a journalist for Colombian NTN24 reported that protesters launched a grenade under a bridge connecting Petare to Palo Verde in eastern Caracas.
There were likewise reports of barricades being set up, and clashes between armed groups and security forces in several neighborhoods of Caracas. Footage circulating on Twitter showed a group of masked youths hijacking and trying to take down a police truck in San Martin, which was later reportedly burned.
Graphic footage also appeared on social media showing a youth killed in the working class neighborhood of San Agustin, also in Caracas. The victim has been identified as 25-year-old Frank Correa, with local witnesses pointing the finger at FAES, the special forces of the Bolivarian National Police.
According to reports, clashes between protesters who set up barricades and security forces, who responded with water tanks, lasted into the early hours of Thursday. But it is unclear whether Correa’s death was related to these clashes or not.
Linares argues that there is a concerted effort to generate violence in popular neighborhoods, as opposed to the middle-class areas of Caracas where the "guarimba" protests mostly took place in 2014 and 2017.
“The goal is to have these mercenary commando types, backed by the right-wing, generating chaos in popular neighborhoods,” he told VA.
Clashes between authorities and armed groups were also reported in the western Caracas sector of Boqueron in Sucre Parish, with special forces being deployed after police and National Guard personnel were forced to retreat.
Violence was also reported in other parts of the country, with witnesses denouncing attacks against public institutions in Anzoategui and Portuguesa States. In Yaracuy, 18-year-old Daniel Veliz was killed by a gunshot during an opposition protest, but no more details are known at this time.
In the central state of Barinas, local residents reported the murder of 30-year-old Gustavo Ramirez, nephew of former higher education minister Edgardo Ramirez, who was struck by a bullet to the head. Ramirez reportedly was not taking part in any demonstration but walked near an armed confrontation between opposition groups and security forces. Two other people have been reported dead in Barinas as a result of these clashes.
In the western state of Merida, reports emerged that a government supporter was shot dead and burned by masked people following an anti-government march. Witnesses identified the victim as Cohen German, who allegedly had a mental disability. A press conference to offer further details on the investigation has been set for Friday.
Different NGOs have put the number of casualties so far between 14 and 26, but several cases have yet to be confirmed and responsibilities ascertained.
Armed forces stand by Maduro
The incidents of violence followed opposition leader Juan Guaido’s self-proclamation as “interim president,” a move that was swiftly recognized by the United States and regional allies such as Brazil, Colombia and Canada.
Despite speculation that Guaido’s action would provoke a fissure in the armed forces, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez issued a statement Wednesday evening voicing support for President Nicolas Maduro as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
On Thursday morning, the top general gave a press conference, vowing, “The events of 2002 will never be repeated,” referring to the short-lived US-backed coup against former President Hugo Chavez in April 2002.
Padrino went on to reaffirm the National Bolivarian Armed Forces’ commitment to upholding the constitution in opposition to foreign meddling.
A few minutes earlier, the commanders of the eight Integral Strategic Defense Regions (REDI), responsible for the deployment of troops in each region of the country, also hosted a press conference from different locations, declaring “loyalty and absolute subordination” to President Maduro.
Following Guaido’s self-swearing in, President Maduro called on the Venezuelan people to defeat what he termed a “coup attempt.” Countries such as Russia and China, as well as regional allies Bolivia and Cuba, have reiterated their support for the Maduro government and rejected US-led efforts.
Maduro also announced that Venezuela was breaking diplomatic relations with the United States, giving diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded that the US does not recognize the Maduro government’s authority to break off relations and would not withdraw its personnel.
Maduro addressed the issue on Thursday during a ceremony inaugurating the judicial year at the Venezuelan Supreme Court, confirming that the Venezuelan embassy and consulates in the United States were closing and diplomatic personnel would return shortly. The Venezuelan president reiterated that US diplomatic staff had until Sunday to leave the country and that “if they have any common sense and rationality” they would do so.
Maduro also revealed that Russian President Putin had reaffirmed his support for Venezuela during a phone conversation, going on to thank the governments of Uruguay and Mexico for their offer to mediate renewed national dialogue efforts. He once more urged the Venezuelan people to fight for peace, before handing to the Supreme Court and the National Constituent Assembly a proposed reform of the law against corruption.
On Wednesday evening, high-ranking Chavista figure and President of the National Constituent Assembly Diosdado Cabello revealed on his TV show “Con el mazo dando” that he had held a meeting with Guaido the day before.
“Guaido asked for a meeting yesterday, and I went because I’ll meet with anyone for the peace of this country,” Cabello stated.
Cabello claimed that Guaido had pledged to do one thing but had done the complete opposite and that the opposition lawmaker had sent him a message claiming he was “under pressure” to proclaim himself president. Despite not presenting any evidence, Cabello challenged Guaido to deny the events.
Edited and with additional reporting by Lucas Koerner from Caracas.