President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power in Venezuela may have been loosened over the past week, but diehard supporters say they are willing to fight “tooth and nail” for him.
There is a mood of simmering defiance in some quarters of Caracas, where supporters of the socialist leader are angered by international backing for Juan Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly legislature who declared himself interim president last week.
Marlene Vargas, a 52-year-old teacher, is a dedicated “Chavista” who believes US President Donald Trump is trying to “strangle” the socialist regime with sanctions and threats.
Vargas is part of the bedrock of support for the movement founded by Maduro’s predecessor, deceased former president Hugo Chavez.
Chavez’s oil-fueled spending lifted millions of Venezuelans out of poverty after he came to power in 1999, inspiring a loyalty to his successor that still endures.
That loyalty – fueled in part by regime-subsidised food allowances and bonuses — has provided core support in a string of election victories for Maduro’s party, despite opposition boycotts and vote-rigging accusations.
“We may not have high technology and experience of war like the United States, but we are a dignified people and we will defend ourselves tooth and nail,” Vargas told AFP in January 3, a “Chavista” stronghold in western Caracas named for the date of a 1958 coup.
“If things heat up, we will go down on the streets,” said 65-year-old Maria Torrealba.
Torrealba is one of 1.6 million Venezuelans — according to official government figures — in a militia force created in 2009 to provide support for the armed forces.
Torrealba says it’s the US and its sanctions — not Maduro — that has plunged Venezuela into a crippling economic crisis.
“They have blocked us (market access) but we are ready to resist,” she said with a dose of vehemence as she headed to the presidential palace for an “anti-imperialist” rally.
Vargas believes fresh sanctions imposed this week will only aggravate the hardship of Venezuelans, already suffering from chronic food and medicine shortages.
“Every time the government comes up with an economic solution, more sanctions come,” she said.
But war “will only bring deaths, misery and hunger.”
And war is a very real prospect for people like Julieta Willchez, fearing for the future of her three children and eight grandchildren.
“That’s why we’re in the street,” said Willchez, 64. “We are no longer defending just a president, but the country.”
She questioned the opposition boycott of last May’s presidential election, which saw Maduro win a second term.
“There were six million of us citizens voting because we believe in the process. Their duty would have been to participate, and then let the most popular party win.”
She rejected any notion of “foreign interference” and accused the US-backed Guaido of “selling out” to Washington.
Still, conflict would bring a unity of sorts, mused Willchez.
“When the bombs start to all,” Chavistas and the opposition alike “are going to have to unite to defend Venezuela,” she said.
Carmen Martinez was walking from the western district of El Paraiso to Maduro’s Miraflores presidential palace for a “vigil.”
Next to the palace is a huge roofed platform erected this week to accommodate a “permanent vigil” for Maduro.
Dozens of socialist supporters danced around, waving the red flags of the Bolivarian revolution while salsa bands belted out songs against the “empire.”
Iris Varela, Maduro’s prisons minister, roused the crowd at a similar rally on Tuesday, shouting: “War or embargo, I’m staying with Maduro.”
“No one can bring down President Maduro, let alone those terrorists,” said Martinez, referring to the opposition and Washington.
Near Miraflores, someone had drawn graffiti of Trump with a swastika on his chest, titled “Donazi.”
For Vargas, the US president is leading an “orchestra” against Venezuela.
“He opens his mouth and all the other countries must do as he says. If the Americans set foot on Venezuelan soil, we’ll face up to them.”