- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Bolivarian Circles, the Cuban-inspired neighborhood vigilante groups charged with protecting the populist revolution of President Hugo Chavez, are being armed with weapons diverted from the military, according to army officers.
The increased firepower raises the risk of violence between them and anti-Chavez groups who have marched almost daily to protest the president's order last week to fire the chief of the Caracas city police and place his forces under the control of the national guard.
Members of the Bolivarian Circles say they exist to perform community social services and support the president. But others see a more sinister purpose to the circles, comparing them to Cuban groups that keep watch on their neighbors and report any counterrevolutionary activity.
"The Bolivarian Circles are a sort of militia," said Gen. Nestor Gonzalez, who charged that weapons belonging to the armed forces have been diverted to the groups. "They are progressively replacing [the army]."
Members of the Bolivarian Circles deny the charge and blame escalating violence in the capital on Mr. Chavez's opposition.
"[The Bolivarian Circles] are armed," said Jose Luis Perez, a Chavez supporter. "But with values, courage and purity."
The smell of smoke and tear gas is becoming a daily feature as militant "chavistas" confront anti-Chavez protesters, who are demanding a referendum on the president's rule. There is fear that the political impasse could break into a full-scale civil war.
Demonstrators yesterday blocked a busy highway in Caracas with cars, trucks and flaming piles of trash to protest the government's militarization of the city's police.
National guard troops fired tear gas and pellets to prevent Chavez supporters from clashing with the opposition marchers.
Mayor Alfredo Pena and other opposition leaders say Mr. Chavez is provoking violence as a pretext to declare martial law and to avoid demands for a referendum.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is considering whether to issue an injunction against Mr. Chavez's takeover of the police. Congress is also to debate the decision.
The court has handed down several rulings against Mr. Chavez's government in recent months.
On Monday, it dismissed a bid by Mr. Chavez to void an elections law, opening the way for a nonbinding referendum on his administration next month.
The National Elections Council meanwhile is verifying petitions with 2 million signatures demanding the referendum, which would ask Venezuelans whether Mr. Chavez should resign.
Venezuela's constitution says a binding referendum can be held halfway into a president's six-year term, in Mr. Chavez's case, in August.
Bolivarian Circle member Aura Rodriguez dismisses any suggestion that her group is intent on violence against the anti-Chavez protesters.
Mrs. Rodriguez, a short, silver-haired 68-year-old who carries Mr. Chavez's picture in her purse, calls the accusation impossible. "[The Bolivarian Circles] are not like they say about terror," she said. "It's meetings, marches support for our president."
To Mr. Chavez and his supporters, the Bolivarian Circles which claim 2.3 million members in more than 230 chapters are grass-roots groups committed to helping the poor, teaching literacy and organizing disenfranchised communities.
To Mr. Chavez's opponents, who say the groups are heavily armed and call them "Chavez circles" or "fascist circles," they are shock troops for a Cuba-style communist revolution, which the opposition believes Mr. Chavez intends to bring to Venezuela.
Disarming both sides of the civilian population is one of the points on the agenda of ongoing talks between government and the opposition sponsored by the Organization of American States.
The nation's main opposition union and business federation meanwhile are threatening to call a national strike if early elections are not set by Dec. 4.
The Bolivarian Circles have contributed to the capital's atmosphere of insecurity. In Caracas, their members often roar through the streets on motorcycles, blowing horns and waving flags, while pedestrians scurry off the sidewalks and shopkeepers slam their security doors. Wealthy Caracas neighborhoods have armed themselves against the circles and made plans to barricade streets in case of rioting.
The opposition frequently blames the Bolivarian Circles for violence such as bombs detonated recently outside the headquarters of an opposition union and rioting near the National Assembly on Tuesday. But Guillermo Garcia Ponce, who heads the Bolivarian Circles with the title of national commander of the Political Command of the Revolution, calls those charges "totally untrue."
"The government doesn't need to arm the circles, because it has the loyalty of the armed forces," he said.
Highly organized, the Bolivarian Circles proved invaluable to Mr. Chavez in April when a group of military officers arrested him during a two-day coup.


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