CARACAS, Venezuela -- Thousands of red-shirted supporters and heavily armed soldiers marched in unison Wednesday to kick off 10 days of commemorations to mark the anniversary of President Hugo Chávez’s death. But just beneath the fanfare and choreography were the simmering tensions that El Comandante’s 14-year rule left behind.
As memorial fireworks burst over the city, throngs of protesters threw stones at police in eastern Caracas and President Nicolás Maduro admitted that he was “battling” to preserve the legacy of his mentor and predecessor who succumbed to cancer a year ago.
During a graveside speech that was part memorial, part saber-rattling, Maduro announced the country was breaking diplomatic ties with Panama over an alleged “conspiracy” and said authorities had thwarted plans to blow up bridges and tunnels.
Maduro provided few details, but he has often accused foreign countries, including the United States, of being behind a plot to topple him and routinely calls protesters “fascists” and “terrorists.”
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has been leading a push for an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States to discuss the Venezuelan crisis. That meeting has been scheduled for Thursday, but Maduro belittled any decision that may emerge from it and said he would not authorize an OAS visit to the country.
“Leave the OAS where it is; it looks real pretty in Washington, a long way away from us,” he said. “Get out of here OAS — now and forever.”
For almost a month, student-led demonstrations have rattled a country already saddled with a collapsing economy and soaring crime. The running skirmishes have left more than a dozen dead and hundreds injured. They’ve also sparked accusations that government security and administration-backed gangs, known as colectivos, have assassinated and tortured protesters.
While the opposition has demanded that the gangs be disarmed, Maduro seemed to give them carte blanche Wednesday to crack down on demonstrators.
“For any flame that is lit, snuff it out,” he told them during a national broadcast.
On March 5, 2013, the government announced that Chávez had succumbed to an undisclosed form of cancer. His prolonged battle with the disease — both here and in Cuba — fueled anxiety and speculation about the fate of his “Bolivarian Revolution” and populist reforms that made him a hero to many of the country’s poor. His death triggered snap elections and Maduro, his hand-picked successor and longtime foreign minister, won the contested race by just 1.5 percent of the vote.
In a sense, Chávez was lucky to die when he did, said Yasmín Ibarra, 48, a saleswoman at a hardware store. She said that constant food shortages and inflation that hit 56 percent last year have soured the national mood. She said she laid the blame on Chávez’s policies, including draconian price and currency controls.
“Whoever was in power right now was going to face protests,” she said. “The only difference is that Chávez was a real leader — with national and international support. This guy [Maduro] just does whatever the Castro brothers tell him to do.”
Castro shows up
Cuban leader Raúl Castro was among the foreign dignitaries to attend Wednesday’s event, along with the heads of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Jamaica and Suriname, among others. During his decade and a half in power, Chávez used the nation’s oil wealth to create strong regional ties and finance multi-lateral groups.
While the protests have captured global headlines and riled some sectors, they are not widespread throughout the capital. And, in a sense, the government has used that to its advantage — keeping the most crippling protests concentrated in the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas.
Edita Alfonzo, 68, in the pro-government neighborhood of 23 de Enero, said the protests weren’t marring the solemn occasion.
“Let them block their own streets and cause chaos over there,” she said of demonstrators. “Over here, it’s all peace and quiet.”
Wednesday also brought signs of strain among the various opposition factions. While the MUD said it would not hold any events in deference to those mourning Chávez, others questioned the strategy.
Gaby Arellano, a student organizer, said protesters had to maintain pressure on the streets. She also criticized opposition deputy Julio Borges who had called for the 24-hour détente.
“I think his political instincts and those [of the MUD] who follow him have not been in line with the historic moment that Venezuela is living through,” she said Wednesday. Hours later, protesters were once again snarling traffic with barricades. Opposition deputy María Corina Machado joined marchers Wednesday in the border state of Táchira.
While Maduro has cracked down on protesters, he’s also invited them to join a series of “peace conferences” with civil society and business leaders.
The MUD said it will not participate until the government meets a series of demands, including the release of protesters and opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was detained two weeks ago.
On Wednesday, Maduro urged them to drop their preconditions and join.
“If it’s necessary to invite the devil in order to cease this violence against Venezuela, then we’ll do it,” he said.
Elizabeth Torres, 49, was overseeing a sidewalk memorial known as the “Saint Hugo Chávez Chapel” near the late-president’s crypt. She greeted mourners and helped arrange bouquets brought to the site.
“I think he would be really happy today,” she said of Chávez. “He has a nation of people who love him and those protests are nothing to worry about.”