In Caracas slum, ‘colectivos’ keep protests away
CARACAS — The voice of Hugo Chávez thundered from speakers in a western Caracas slum, a daily reminder that this remains the late leader’s turf, immune to protests from the wealthier east.
The comandante’s shouts of “Viva la revolución!” echoed down the hillside January 23 barrio that is known as a stronghold of “colectivos,” or collectives — community organizer groups that are deeply loyal to the Socialist government.
The students and opposition activists who have demonstrated for the past month against Chávez's handpicked successor, President Nicolás Maduro, have not dared to protest here.
The “colectivos” say their role is to provide security in their streets and fulfill Chávez’s mission by cleaning up their neighbourhoods, organizing sporting events for children and promoting health and education programmes.
But protesters see something more sinister behind these groups, accusing them of sending motorcycle gunmen to wreak havoc at demonstrations that have posed the biggest challenge to Maduro’s nearly year-old presidency.
“They are demonizing the colectivos because they want to get rid of the colectivos that are driving the (revolutionary) process,” said Mauricio Urbina, a burly 49-year-old municipal worker who is the coordinator of Colectivo La Libertad (Freedom).
At least 20 people have died in violent protests that began last month, including a 51-year-old member of a colectivo who was shot dead on February 12.
“If they (the government) want peace, why are they sending colectivos,” said Miguel Rodríguez, a 21-year-old law student who is part of hardcore protesters who have clashed almost daily with riot police in the well-off Chacao district.
‘Poor celebrate, rich protest’
In the capital, the ideological divide is also split geographically between east and west — the defiant middle-class on one side, a Socialist slum on the other.
While radical protesters clashed with the national guard on the anniversary of Chávez’s death on Wednesday, the January 23 residents launched fireworks and flew kites in honour of their “eternal comandante.”
“The poor are celebrating and the rich are protesting,” said Urbina, wearing a black cap with a red star.
But colectivo leaders acknowledge that their omnipresence in the slums keeps any government opponents from venturing out to demonstrate.
“These are sectors whose majority support the revolutionary government,” Urbina said. “We say our piece and, well, people will say, ‘We are the minority, I won't go out.’”
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost last year’s presidential election by a whisker, says the protest movement will not force any political change as long as the country’s poor stay home.
‘We want peace’
The colectivos were born years before Chávez was first elected in 1998, rebelling against right-wing governments in the 1970s and 1980s.
They now oversee their own slices of turf, assisting the government's oil-funded social programmes, from free healthcare centres manned by Cuban doctors to education projects and sports activities.
Municipal police rarely venture into the slum. The colectivos are in charge of security here, though they insist that they stopped using guns long ago to protect their community.
“The only weapon we have is the Constitution,” said Keyvins Tablante, 27, an organizer of the Colectivo Salvador Allende, making kites next to two baseball fields being renovated with artificial turf.
“We work for peace, for the community, to take back public spaces. The colectivos have proven that we are not violent,” he said across from the Mountain Barracks where Chávez's remains lie inside a marble tomb.
But one group called La Piedrita (Little Stone) has been known to carry firearms. La Piedrita’s members declined to be interviewed.
La Libertad’s territory is right under La Piedrita.
Urbina’s group oversees an apartment building featuring huge murals of Chávez and Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, with closed-circuit cameras peaking from the roof.
Next to a court where children were playing football, Urbina opened the door to a room with a flat-screen TV and computer showing live images of streets and sidewalks.
When they see trouble, they say they intervene by trying to “mediate” between the assailant and the victim, or hand over a suspect to the national guard.
“They take care of the area, walk around policing, ensuring no drugs are sold,” said Irma Reyes, a 49-year-old mother of four who walked by the neighbourhood’s Plaza Bolivar.
“We are organized,” she said. “We want peace, we want harmony.”