- - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela — The priest had just told parishioners to “go in peace” at the end of Mass on Easter Sunday when a truckload of heavily armed national guardsmen rolled past the 18th-century St. Philip Neri Cathedral in this small city outside Caracas.

It was yet another reminder that in Venezuela, a country on the brink of political and economic collapse, peace may be an even scarcer commodity than food and medicine. That is particularly true in Los Teques, which for the past two weeks has been a hotbed of protests against embattled socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Confrontations continued to escalate over the weekend, with local residents burning tires and the Bolivarian National Guard launching tear gas bombs against residential buildings on Saturday night. Ostensibly to prevent looting, the guard on Sunday further “militarized” several neighborhoods, where it patrolled streets in armored vehicles.

So as they filed out of the church onto the central Plaza Bolivar after the 5 p.m. Mass — the day’s third — their hometown’s delicate situation was not far from worshippers’ minds.

“My family and I live close to here, and we’ve been hearing shots being fired until midnight,” said Jubrardith Chacon, who attended the service with her young son.

The 34-year-old schoolteacher said she lived in Montana Alta, a neighboring suburb where 19-year-old Jairo Ortiz died during a protest against the government on April 6 — an incident that started the spiral of violence in the Los Teques area.

That some residents have responded by setting fires and looting stores, the official version, is “not correct,” Ms. Chacon insisted.

“But given the political situation we are living — we are not being heard, there is no freedom of expression — we have reached the limit,” she said. “This has been the straw that broke the camel’s back. People are tired. We don’t want this government anymore because it has brought us all of this.”

The difficulty of feeding one’s own family, coupled with rampant violent crime, is what has brought many ordinary Venezuelans to the breaking point, Ms. Chacon added.

“There are many children who have died from hunger, malnutrition, need and [lack of] medicine. And look at what time the church is closing because of the terrible insecurity. Imagine, it’s only 6 o’clock,” she said. “And the police don’t help, they don’t offer a hand. Nobody offers a hand. To the contrary, they turn a blind eye.”

Sky-high tensions are expected to ratchet up Wednesday during what one opposition leader has called “the mother of all protests” against the government, while pro-Maduro forces plan counterdemonstrations — all on a national holiday that marks the start of Venezuela’s independence struggle in 1810.

In an ominous move, the president on Monday announced plans to expand the number of civilians involved in the Bolivarian militias created by Hugo Chavez, Mr. Maduro’s late political patron, to 500,000, up from 100,000, and provide each member with a gun.

Mr. Maduro told a gathering of thousands of militia members in the capital that it is time for Venezuelans to decide if they are “with the homeland” or against it.

“Now is not the time to hesitate,” he said.

Many in Los Teques put the blame for their troubles squarely on Mr. Maduro, whom — in a Venezuelan Easter tradition — they picked as this year’s “Judas” and promptly burned in effigy. Presidential puppets were also set on fire in dozens of other locations, including at a Caracas site just blocks from Miraflores, the local version of the White House.

“I feel hate [toward Mr. Maduro] because, thanks to his ineptitude [and] his ignorance, many lives are currently lost,” said high school student Jeremy Pena, who was strolling across the largely deserted Plaza Bolivar on Sunday afternoon. “Spending money on tear gas bombs and equipment to suppress demonstrators instead of spending money on the health care, which is totally dismantled.”

Many of Ms. Chacon’s friends and family members who used to back Mr. Maduro, meanwhile, have had enough of the government’s “shamelessness.”

Siding with the government

Others believe the real evil force in the country is an oligarch-controlled opposition, which the president claims is waging an economic war against his “Bolivarian Revolution.”

The two perspectives reflect the sharp social and economic divisions that have long plagued the country.

“I’ll admit there are failures. But there are failures because they haven’t stopped the sabotage,” said Maria Josefina Morales, a 57-year-old health care worker. “The medicine — we have opposition infiltrators who take it, steal it, let it expire. They themselves — the opposition — hide the drugs. When you give it to patients, they are already expired.”

Likewise, the situation in Los Teques can hardly be blamed on a government trying to restore order, said Ofelia Mujica, a 64-year-old lawyer.

“The opposition is inciting violence. I see all this incitement to protest — for them to go out, burn, violate, trespass. I don’t see it as something good,” Ms. Mujica said. “And they’ve mistreated the national guard. When they throw stones at you, you have to defend yourself.”

In an atmosphere this highly charged, it is no surprise that politics even made its way, ever so subtly, into the cathedral, where Sunday’s homily included calls to reject the “usurpation of power,” refuse to “live under oppression” and “fulfill the sacred duty of liberty.”

Seven out of 10 Venezuelans identify as Roman Catholic. And hard-liners around Mr. Maduro have long viewed the church with suspicion. Opposition leaders, such as 2013 presidential candidate and Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, have tended to be unapologetically public about their faith.

Pope Francis’ efforts to mediate the crisis have only brought the Vatican sharp criticism from both sides. Government critics say the Argentine-born pope’s attempts at a compromise are only legitimizing the oppressive rule of Mr. Maduro.

Mr. Capriles — whose office sits right across from the cathedral and who has said that Mr. Maduro is behind any looting in the city — on April 7 was given a 15-year ban from holding political office. The decision, handed down by Comptroller General Manuel Galindo, a Maduro loyalist, further infuriated protesters in Los Teques, Miranda’s state capital.

“The president blames the governor [for the violence] because he is an opponent,” said Ms. Chacon. “But no, it’s not the governor; it’s the people. It’s we residents who are tired of so much uncertainty.”

That things are unlikely to calm down anytime soon was underlined by a dozen national guardsmen who, heavily armed and in riot gear, clamored around a truck outside the Guaicaipuro metro station in downtown Los Teques. Stone-faced, they would not say if they had any sympathy for their fellow citizens who vow to keep protesting.

“I took part in the march we had in Los Teques a few days ago because I feel that by going to demonstrations, I can change the country,” said Mr. Pena, the student. “Every time we see more police, more armored vehicles. I personally feel more insecure with the police than with the very protesters.”

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