Venezuelans square off over 'circles'

Begun as community service groups, critics say Bolivarian Circles are militias

Last year, in a bid to give more power to the people, President Hugo Chávez called on his supporters to form community groups to lobby the government directly for funds. His hope was to diminish the power of existing government institutions. Some 70O,000 Venezuelans have since become members of the Bolivarian Circles.

For the Venezuelan government and these supporters, the circles are civic action groups that help the country's poorest.

But critics of Mr. Chávez say the circles are a dangerous underground militia that threaten to tip Venezuela into a maelstrom of political violence. Many want them disbanded.

The two positions reflect the polarization of a country still reeling from last month's failed coup. Since Chávez returned to power on April 14, Venezuelans of all political stripes have called for conciliation. But continuing debate over the Bolivarian Circles highlights the persistent gulf of understanding between followers and opponents of the controversial president.

"Chávez is trying to build an urban guerrilla force to consolidate his power," says retired Gen. Manuel Andara of the Institutional Military Front, a group of retired officers who lead an energetic anti-Chávez campaign.

General Andara alleges that the circles have been trained by Cuban spies disguised as medical workers. Others have compared the circles to Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution – neighborhood groups which monitor antigovernment activity.

Like many in the opposition, Andara says that the groups are the first step in a plan hatched by Cuban President Fidel Castro to impose communist regimes throughout South America.

But despite Chávez's close friendship with Mr. Castro, the president's supporters dismiss such allegations as fantasy.

"We are as far from communism as is possible," says Freddy Bernal, mayor of Libertadores, a district in downtown Caracas. "We Venezuelans reject any kind of totalitarianism – from the left or the right."

Mr. Bernal says that criticism of the circles is a political tactic to discredit Chávez's enduring appeal to the country's vast underclass.

"When the circles started to grow, the opposition got scared, because they feared the people were getting organized," he says.

Caracas's Mayor Alfredo Peña – an outspoken critic of the president – says that he is not concerned that Chávez supporters are organized. What worries him is that they are also armed. "I'm not saying that all of the circles are violent, but some definitely are," he says.

On April 11, 17 people died after shooting broke out during a massive opposition demonstration in Caracas. TV cameras caught several Chavistas firing handguns from a bridge, and initial reports suggested that they were aiming at the unarmed demonstrators.

Evidence later emerged to support claims that they were exchanging shots with unidentified snipers on a nearby rooftop, while many of the victims turned out to be Chávez supporters.

But Mr. Peña insists that the president's followers were to blame, and he has called on the government to crack down on the circles.

"Anyone who illegally uses firearms must go to prison, whether they're from the government or the opposition," says Bernal. "They must be tried, and they must go to jail."

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel on Saturday denied that the government encouraged supporters to use violence against opposition marchers.

Bernal insists that the circles will remain a central part of the government's social policy. "This country's problems are so complex that the state alone cannot solve them," he says.

Named after national hero Simón Bolívar, some 70,000 groups have been set up across the country, each with about 10 members.

"The idea is that we all work together for the good of the community," says Elisabeth Desantes, a circle organizer in Catia, a hardscrabble neighborhood of cinderblock houses sprawling across the hills of west Caracas.

Here, local circles have organized street cleanups, set up shelters for battered wives, acted as guarantors for microcredit loans, and given free English classes to local school children.

A government booklet says circle members must swear loyalty to the Constitution and promote healthy living. It also tells them to train "revolutionary cadres" and defend the Bolivarian Revolution, as Chávez calls his broadly left-wing policies.

Some circle members say that they are prepared to fight for their beliefs.

"We are ready to defend the Venezuelan revolution at all costs, even if we must pay with our lives," says Lina Ron, head of the Popular Power Network, which links some 120 circles in Caracas. "And if anyone has a weapon, they are welcome, because the revolution must be defended with bullets."

Such fighting talk worries the president's opponents.

"The president's discourse is very violent, turning the poor against the rich," says Mr. Peña. "It is a discourse of confrontation, which has brought his supporters to feel that they have the right to take justice into their own hands."

Ms. Ron herself faces criminal charges for provoking street clashes at a demonstration earlier this year.

But the president's supporters say that for the first time in the country's history, Chávez has opened up political debate to the 80 percent of the population who live in poverty.

Similarly, says social worker Susana Rodriguez, the Bolivarian Circles are a way for the country's poor to "organize as human beings with rights and responsibilities, and to seek solutions to local problems."

"They don't replace the official apparatus, but they fill in the communication gap between society and the government," she says.

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