Venezuela Detains Rebel Guardsmen, Sparking Protests in Caracas

(Bloomberg) -- A number of rebel national guardsmen were detained in Caracas on Monday after stealing weapons, prompting spontaneous protests in support of the officers in a working class neighborhood of the Venezuelan capital.

The Venezuelan Defense Ministry said that a group of rebel officers stole weapons from several outposts before converging on the Cotiza national guard base, where they were detained and are being interrogated. Videos on social media, which haven’t been independently confirmed, showed armed soldiers lining up and declaring themselves in rebellion.

Residents responded to the incident by banging pots and pans and lighting dumpsters on fire in the rough neighborhood, which is just 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the presidential palace. Security forces fired tear gas from around and inside a security base onto the surrounding streets and slums.

Jennifer Penaloza, a 34-year-old bank manager who lives close to the base, said she began hearing gunshots and tear gas being fired around 2 a.m. on Monday.

After a shootout erupted, officials burst through her door to take cover. “It was terrifying; I grabbed the children and we hid in the bedroom,” she said. “It worries me to think about what’s to come but how much more of this must we endure?”

Protests, Chants

A small group of young protesters covered their faces with their shirts and threw trash and stones at the national guard members. People chanted “this government will fall.”

While political protests in the wealthier east of the city have been commonplace for years, it’s relatively rare to see poor and working class neighborhoods voice dissent against the government because they’ve largely been the political base for Chavismo over the past two decades. The revolt and protests come just two days ahead of planned street marches to mark the end of a military dictatorship in 1958.

For the opposition, the march will measure the appetite for supporters to ramp up protests against the government as newly sworn-in National Assembly head Juan Guaido calls for the military to drop its support for President Nicolas Maduro in order to form a transition government and call for elections. Guaido argues that Maduro’s new six-year term is illegitimate because the electoral process was deemed fraudulent by as many as 60 countries.

Resurgent Opposition

The government will gather its supporters to defend Maduro’s new term and calls from inside and outside Venezuela for an uprising as the U.S. and others weigh more economic sanctions.

Town hall meetings have popped up across Venezuela in the past weeks as the newly emboldened opposition rallies around Guaido. He’s offered blanket amnesty to military and government officials who help in bringing down the regime.

“What’s happening at the National Guard post in Cotiza is a sign of the generalized feeling inside the National Armed Forces. Our military officers know the chain of command is broken due to the usurping of the president’s office,” Guaido said on Twitter. “The National Assembly will provide all guarantees necessary to armed forces members who contribute actively to restoring the constitution. We don’t want a divided armed forces or conflicts between members, we want them to all side with the people, the constitution and against the usurpation.”

Internet observatory group NetBlocks said there was restricted access to Twitter and Instagram through state telecommunications provider CANTV in Venezuela on Monday morning as the incidents unfolded.

Maderling Villasmil, a 37-year-old legal assistant, said her neighbors in the slum that surrounds the base took to the streets before dawn when they heard the firefight.

“Everyone is fed up; the situation is unlivable,” she said. “This isn’t a neighborhood of multimillionaires, just people trying to get by.”

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