Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced plans to arm supporters in preparation for the “mother of all protests” which Venezuela’s opposition party planned for Wednesday.
“A gun for every militiaman!” Maduro declared Tuesday, addressing thousands of militia members dressed in beige uniforms in front of the presidential palace, Fox News reported. The president said he will expand the number of civilians in the armed militias, providing guns to as many as 400,000 of his supporters.
This arming of Maduro’s supporters comes five years after Venezuela’s socialist regime outlawed the commercial sale and civilian ownership of firearms, according to the BBC. The 2012 firearms ban allowed only the military, police, and groups like security companies to purchase guns. Venezuela doubled down on this ban last summer, launching gun buyback and confiscation programs.
The government justified the gun bans and confiscations by arguing they were necessary to combat the country’s violent crime and murder epidemic. But statistics from the nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory show the murder rate increased from 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012 to 91.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016. By contrast, the FBI reports the U.S. murder rate at 5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015.
Opposition leaders called protesters to the streets on Wednesday, a national holiday marking the beginning of the struggle for Venezuela to gain independence from Spain. Maduro called for a countermarch on the same day.
Ready to repress opposition-led protests, Maduro packs streets with soldiers and gives weapons to the few supporters he has left pic.twitter.com/rcKaQYgh7W
— José Miguel Vivanco (@JMVivancoHRW) April 19, 2017
The opposition has accused Maduro of creating a dictatorship. The government has blocked their attempts to remove Maduro from power by a referendum vote, and it has also delayed local and state elections. The last election held in the country was the parliamentary election of 2015. That election gave the opposition a majority the legislative body. Opposition leaders accuse the government of delaying elections to protect Maduro.
On March 29, the Venezuelan Supreme Court dissolved the Parliament, taking all legislative power on itself. This effectively removed the only block on the ruling United Socialist Party. The opposition characterized this as a coup. Although the decision was reversed three days later, protests had already erupted.
According to CNN, the protests have been bloody. Six people have died, and countless others, including journalists, have been injured. The opposition was further enflamed, however, when on April 7, the government banned the main opposition leader Henrique Capriles from doing any political work for 15 years. A 44-year-old governor, Capriles has run for president twice.
Maduro has taken a confrontational tone against the protests, declaring members of the opposition “vandals and terrorists.”
“We’re after and will capture the very last of the attackers,” the president said on Sunday.
The Bolivarian militias, whom Maduro is arming, currently consist of 100,000 members and were created by the late Hugo Chavez to assist the armed forces in defense of his revolution from external and domestic attacks.
— VALC (@VALCnow) April 19, 2017
Maduro has accused the opposition of being in league with foreign powers, but opposition leaders attack the president himself for Venezuela’s woes, including triple-digit inflation, rising crime, and shortages of everything from food to toilet paper.
Indeed Maduro’s socialism has led his government to seize bakeries amidst a bread shortage, take over toilet paper factories, and continue the same big government policies that hurt the country under his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
Today is an important day on Venezuela's history.
The Venezuelan people march looking for new presidential elections, freedom & democracy 🆘💟 pic.twitter.com/J66T7AyGrL
— Carol🇪🇸RamosFerrer🇻🇪 (@mywordsworlds1) April 19, 2017
But the government refuses to take responsibility.
“The excessive ambition of [our] enemies threatens the peace and stability by carrying out a criminal agenda loaded with hate that includes terrorist acts, disturbances, looting, vandalism, different forms of violence against innocent people and public health facilities,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez declared in a statement.
Padrino added that violent protests are geared toward creating “anxiety in the public, anarchy and chaos, with the ignoble aim of toppling the democratic government.”
But opposition leaders have blamed Maduro for ordering security forces to use tear gas against protesters and failing to stop pro-government groups from attacking demonstrators.
Yes, this is the same Nicolás Maduro who endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. Conservative warnings about socialism ring more true by the day as Venezuela descends further into chaos.