- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez owes his return to power after a 48-hour coup earlier this month to the passionate loyalties he generates, and there is no group of Chavistas more ardent than the militant "Bolivarian Circles."

But in light of recent events, the Circles have become a target of heated criticism from political opponents, who frequently label the left-wing group as a "fascist" force designed to repress opposition.

The Circles were organized soon after Mr. Chavez's 1998 election as an expression of his philosophy of social cooperation and empowerment for poor people.

Since Mr. Chavez's April 11 fall and rapid reinstatement amid street protests that left about 50 people dead and hundreds wounded, the Circles have gained a sinister image among many Venezuelans.

They regard the group as a violent organization representing the worst aspects of lawlessness, favoritism and the personality cult of Mr. Chavez.

After Mr. Chavez's ouster, television stations broadcast videos taken during the previous day's protests, showing men in the Bolivarian Circles' red uniforms firing from buildings, apparently at anti-Chavez demonstrators.

Last week, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, probably Mr. Chavez's most prominent political opponent, told reporters that members of the Circles, wielding pistols, machine guns and grenades, had invaded his office the day after Mr. Chavez's returned to power.

"There were, I would say, 40 armed men wearing bulletproof vests and yelling 'Long live Chavez,'" Mr. Pena said. "They identified themselves as members of Bolivarian Circles."

Mr. Pena held up photographs of walls and windows with bullet holes he said were left by the attackers.

"Mr. Chavez himself has said that he is the ultimate leader of the Circles," he said.

About one month ago, Mr. Chavez said in a speech that he was budgeting $140 million for the organization. And the Circles' official literature lists the president as the organization's chief and their headquarters as the presidential palace.

If the circles are violent, motorcycle-gunning youths, they are also middle-aged women dedicated to improving their communities' health, reforming prison inmates and teaching literacy.

"If someone needs a prosthesis, we get it for them," said Miriam Sierra, a silver-haired housewife of 47 who heads a Bolivarian Circle of 150 women in a lower-income neighborhood. "We work with prisoners so that they don't go back to crime."

In these contrasting views, the circles also represent a dramatic split between pro-and anti-Chavez Venezuelans, which has divided this nation into two opposing factions, two sets of priorities and two different realities.

After Mr. Chavez's sudden return to power a week ago Sunday, groups of them rode motorcycles through the capital, waving signs, honking horns and yelling their support for the president.

In a press conference the next day, Mr. Chavez defended the group.

"The Bolivian Circles are social organizations which cooperate with the community," he said. "They are not armed groups, and if some have committed errors, they will be punished."

A group of Circle members, primarily middle-aged women, seated around a restaurant table in downtown Caracas fit Mr. Chavez's description.

Each carried in her purse or pocket a little blue book that is a copy of Mr. Chavez's 2-year-old constitution and professed their dedication to the president.

A short conversation with the women makes it clear Mr. Chavez has energized a sector of Venezuelan society by giving them a feeling of importance.

"It is the first time that [the government] has taken account of us," said Rosa Sala, 51. "With President Chavez's government, the people matter."

Social scientist Mercedes Pulido said there are two types of Bolivarian Circles.

"One type of popular organization likes community development, self-organizing, public service, but that is the mask."

Miss Pulido said the Circles' members are motivated by a quasi-religious dedication to Mr. Chavez's philosophy: a sense of confrontation with the wealthy.

Miss Pulido said the Circles' members trained by Libyans and Cubans, and provided with new motorcycles have often been sent out to disrupt anti-government meetings, and maybe to harass and intimidate reporters.

On the Saturday Mr. Chavez spent in the custody of the short-lived military junta, groups of honking, yelling motorcyclists surrounded Caracas television stations, which Mr. Chavez has often blamed for broadcasting an image hostile to his government.

Their goal is to put fear into the population, Miss Pulido said.

Circles members see their actions as justified. Ninoska Lazo, a 57-year-old lawyer, was part of a group of Chavez supporters who that Saturday evening gunned their motorcycles in front of and threw rocks at an independent television station, which had ignored the huge pro-Chavez demonstrations that day.

"They were telling lies all day," she said of the station. "We went to tell our truth."

By Miss Pulido's estimate, there are about 30,000 trained Bolivarian Circles members across Venezuela, though many more sympathizers who turn out for rallies, and almost one-quarter of the nation's 350 mayors support the organization.

About 50 people are reported to have been killed before and during the coup; government officials were arrested, often without court order; and searches were carried out.

Mr. Chavez has acknowledged that during the demonstrations his supporters carried arms but says his opponents, whom he accuses of intending to storm the presidential palace, did too.

This week, parliamentarians of Mr. Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party showed their own videotape, which they said demonstrated that the president's opponents were the aggressors.

In it, dark silhouetted figures fired rifles from rooftops. In one sequence, a woman was shot in the head and collapsed onto the street.

Many Venezuelans from both sides of the debate have been calling for a "truth commission" to examine the events, but government critics worry that such a commission will be stacked with Chavez loyalists.

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