CARACAS - After the tunnel that bores through one of the rocky hills that surround Caracas, the road bends, lined on either side with colorfully-painted homes, ending in one of the plazas of the 23 de Enero neighborhood.
This corner of the capital is a bastion of support for incumbent Hugo Chavez, and one of the 278 places that the Venezuelan opposition thinks might see violence during the presidential elections this Sunday. In this square, the “collectives,” armed pro-government groups considered a threat to a calm election day, are active.
Warnings about the possibility of violent acts have been repeated by supporters of Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski. The murder of three of Capriles’s supporters on Saturday has sharpened and led credence to their warnings. Chavez’s government also spoke about the possibility of violence this week.
“Our intelligence shows that there are several factors, several groups that are tiny, of course, that are planning actions that are not within the legal, constitutional framework,” said General Henry Rangel Silva, Minister of Defense.
Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami also announced that from Friday through Monday during election weekend the right of civilians to carry arms would be suspended. The Venezuelan Foreign Secretary accused Capriles of preparing to “ignite” the country to tarnish the electoral process.
“You can understand this fear, if you keep in mind that the president has talked about the possibility of a civil war if pro-government forces lose,” says Roberto Briceño León, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela and director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
Still, in the end, he thinks the chances are unlikely of major violent conflict. “There are not two armed factions that could face off,” in Venezuela. But there are armed pro-government groups that could act violently. “Although I am sure that most Chavez supporters do not agree with the use of force, including some of the militias created by Chavez,” Briceño León said.
In a country where 14,000 people were murdered in the past year, the arms in circulation are part of the problem. Briceño León said that a lot of people have guns to defend themselves, but that others fall into the hands of young gang members. “However, the origin of the problem is impunity. For the mothers whose children are killed, the only kind of justice they can think about is divine justice.”
In this country of 29 million, there are between 9 and 15 million guns, both legal and illegal, according to official data in 2009. Briceño León said that in Venezuela, violence has become a common way to solve conflicts within communities, especially because the communities often don’t find conflict resolution in the court system.
It’s in this context that Chavez talks about a peaceful revolution, even with the help of well-armed militias, which Briceño León says is a troublesome contradiction.
Eyes of observers
In a fight for every vote, both side’s electoral machines are working at full speed. “My Comandante!" could be heard coming from a red tent in the middle of Caracas one day earlier this week. A group of election observers were preparing to be present at different polling sites.
As it happens, both Chavez -- who is trying to be elected for a third term after 14 years in power -- as well as Capriles, are depending on a group of 200,000 people who are working as electoral observers for the campaigns. Since Chavez was elected in 1999, this is the first time there have been equal forces on each side, according to analysts.
But these two armies of observers have very different goals, depending on the side it represents. For Chavez’s observers, the goal is to verify the loyalty of people who have supported Chavez in the past; for the opposition, it is to make sure that people who are not satisfied with Chavez get the chance to vote.
For that reason, the opposition’s goal is to make sure that places like the neighborhood of 23 de Enero do not become ‘points of unrest’ as they have in the past. In past elections, 5,300 polling places out of a total 13,810 have reported problems, including an absence of witnesses, attempts to bribe opposition representatives and voter intimidation.
To try to avoid that in the Caracas neighborhood of 23 de Enero, Capriles’s team has 459 volunteers stationed there. Some of them have received death threats, according to the campaign’s national coordinator.
“Only five people know that I am going to do it. Some of them say that I am crazy, but I am committed to change for Venezuela,” one of Capriles’s volunteers told Clarin, asking for anonymity for fear of retribution.
At the same time, he thinks that the populist militias either already know or will find out everything soon enough. Still, he says, “Maybe this time they understand that we are tired of seeing them move around with impunity, and that peaceful change is an option.”