In his youth, he looked like Ernesto “Che” Guevara and led a similar lifestyle. Douglas Bravo, the supreme commander of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement of the 1960s and ’70s with an unkempt beard, beret and green uniform, fought for almost two decades in the mountains dreaming about a revolutionary government.
He’s never lost his rebellious spirit and appetite for armed resistance. And now Bravo, 85, has a new, unlikely target: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Over the decades, Bravo had many powerful enemies in the Venezuelan presidential palace known as Miraflores. There was Marcos Perez Jimenez, who put him in jail for 2 1/2 years in the 1950s, and President Ramulo Betancourt, who forced Bravo to flee to the mountains.
Though Betancourt is regarded by many as the father of Venezuelan democracy, Bravo saw him as an enemy who wanted to wipe out revolutionary radicals — his comrades who were fighting for socialist goals like equal society.
Today, these presidents from the past bring back distant, almost nostalgic memories for Bravo, but when it comes to Maduro, he can hardly breathe amid his fury.
“Maduro devastated this country. We are going hungry. We have diseases that didn't exist here anymore like leprosy, or cholera. Crime is skyrocketing, and he is shooting unarmed people on the street,” he says during an interview with el Nuevo Herald in Caracas.
It is a remarkable turnabout for this once staunch believer in the communist-inspired guerrilla movement. He is now advocating for the same type of armed struggle against Maduro, a radical socialist leader, handpicked by Hugo Chávez. “Our [former] Attorney General Luisa Ortega said that this regime took away our civil and human rights and has brought the country to dictatorship. For me, that means we have to defend ourselves by any means necessary,” he said.
“We have every right to take up arms against him,” he said as he added sugar to his coffee.
Bravo is still full of vitality and passion. This diminutive but steely-looking man drinks his coffee almost in one gulp as if he can't wait to make his case. He justifies his support for an armed uprising as a way to confront tyranny. He goes back to history to find similar examples and cites the founding fathers of the United States who started an armed rebellion against the English king.
As he talks, Bravo writes on the paper napkin in front of him a list of names, political alliances, historical events, dates and nicknames that shaped his life. One of the first figures, central to his life story, is Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
In the mid-’60s, Bravo tried to lure Guevara — via third-person correspondence — to come to Venezuela to start a Cuban-style revolution. The Argentinian guerrilla fighter opted instead to take his fight to Bolivia where he eventually died. “Che made a great error. Here in Venezuela, unlike in Bolivia, we had established good relationships with peasants and could have relied on their support,” Bravo said.
Still, some Cuban guerrilla fighters did make it to the mountains of Venezuela. “Fidel sent me 15 guerrillas,” he said. The leader of this squad dispatched from Cuba in 1967 was Arnaldo Ochoa, who later became one the most powerful generals under Fidel Castro.
But Ochoa became too powerful, Castro's opponents say. In 1989, Ochoa stood trial (one of the accusers was Fidel himself) for reportedly trafficking in drugs and diamonds from battlefields in Africa where Ochoa was leading Cuban troops. He was found guilty and executed by a firing squad.
Fidel, according to Bravo, betrayed the armed leftist struggle when he “sold himself to the Russians.” For Bravo, Fidel's embrace of the Soviets killed guerrilla movements all around the world, including in Venezuela. The struggle stopped being about the fight for the independence and sovereignty of countries because Fidel and Cuba became a pawn on the global chess board played by the Soviet superpower, Bravo argues.
After spending 18 years living in the mountains in Falcon state, Bravo said, he decided on Nov. 24, 1979, to leave it behind and try to win power through the political system.
“It is tough for a man to live in seclusion like this, with no family life,” he said. Still, Bravo has six daughters. “My ex-wife used to climb up to the mountain and return pregnant,” he said, as a mischievous smile spread over his face.
As commander-in-chief, Bravo has sent hundreds of his comrades to fights from which they never returned. When asked how many people Bravo himself killed, the aging guerrilla gives an evasive answer. “I was only defending myself. If somebody tries to kill me I have to shoot back,” he said. Then he adds: “I killed few enemies.”
Once his mountain guerrilla chapters ended, Bravo became a member of the Partido Revolucion Venezuela, the so-called Third Way. As Bravo never fails to say, he was — and is — fed up with capitalism and also with Stalin and Castro styles of communism. He's never shied away from a sharp, public critique of Hugo Chávez, either, which is something few people dare to do in Venezuela.
Even today, Chávez is left out of the many public expressions of disdain for Maduro in Caracas, where the walls are covered with messages such as “Maduro is a dictator, narco-trafficer and assassin.”
Bravo and Chávez conspired to achieve Bravo's lifetime dream — a revolutionary, socialist government. But after 10 years of planning and strategizing to deliver a socialist leader to the Miraflores palace, there was a dramatic fallout between the two.
Bravo still feels betrayed by Chávez, with the most stinging memories apparently centered on the circumstances around the failed coup led by Chávez in February 1992. Bravo claims that the goal was to elevate to power Simon Munoz, at that time rector of the Central University of Venezuela. But Chávez, according to Bravo, decided to go the “military way,” leaving civic leaders behind in an attempt to grab power for himself.
“Chávez broke another promise back then. He told me he would deliver to demonstrators in the street 30,000 rifles. It never happened,” Bravo said.
Looking back, Bravo says that gambling on Chávez was a bad choice. “He sold sovereignty of the country to American and Chinese multinational companies to enrich himself and his cronies,” Bravo said.
He claims that now, once again, he has become an enemy of the state and has to change houses to stay safe, just as in the old days. “I learned from early days how to live underground,” he said.
“Venezuela needs to do one thing only right now,” he said in his raspy voice. “We need to get Maduro out.”