CARACAS, Venezuela — With fresh swagger and volleys of tear gas, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has moved forcefully in recent days to extinguish the month-long protests against his government, sending security forces to clear barricaded streets while he taunts his opponents with new, lurid insults.
Hundreds of national guardsmen in riot gear swept through Caracas’s Altamira Plaza in a predawn operation Monday, seizing the square located in an upscale section of the capital that has been the symbolic center of the anti-government campaign.
On Tuesday, the plaza remained militarized, and although smaller groups of protesters rallied in front of motorists stopped at red lights, they did not attempt to block traffic or rebuild barricades.
Maduro said his forces would continue “liberating” areas occupied by the hardened protesters he has begun calling “Chuckys,” apparently a reference to the campy slasher films starring the red-haired homicidal doll “Chucky.”
“Get ready, Chuckys. We’re coming for you,” he said before sending in the troops.
The president’s new offensive threatens to weaken the student-led protests, which began last month in western Venezuela and have spread to the country’s major cities, fueled by anger over food shortages, rising crime and Maduro’s hard-fisted response to the unrest. Hundreds have been injured and at least 29 have been killed, including a soldier who died Monday after being shot in the head near a barricade, according to military officials.
Although at times large and sometimes violent, the demonstrations have not posed a significant challenge to the stability of Maduro, who was elected in April after the death of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, who was in power for 14 years.
In recent weeks, Maduro has repeatedly invited protesters, opposition leaders and even U.S. officials — whom he accuses of trying to subvert his government — to join him in “peace” talks. But the entreaties and talk of “love” and “affection” seem poisoned by his equal fondness for sneering, schoolyard taunts.
In a speech over the weekend loaded with “Chucky” references, Maduro called jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, who has been held in a military prison for a month and is accused of fomenting violence, “Crazy Chucky.” Another leading opposition figure, congresswoman María Corina Machado, is also a “Crazy Chucky,” Maduro said.
He then told a rambling, ribald joke about Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader Maduro defeated in last year’s election by 1.5 percentage points, calling him “Chucky Lucky.” The joke’s punch line was that Capriles had been sexually assaulted by a large gorilla while visiting Africa and was lucky to survive.
It was an instance of the “burlesque theater” and “verbal radicalism” that Maduro engages in that seem to mock the offers for dialogue, said students in western Venezuela, where clashes have been the most intense.
“Every day there is more repression against protesters from armed groups and soldiers,” said Liliana Guerrero, a student leader at the Andean University.
Students trying to organize nonviolent marches have been hit with heavy doses of pepper spray and tear gas, making it increasingly difficult for them to persuade other disaffected Venezuelans to join them, they say.
Student leaders said they would hold a national assembly Wednesday in Caracas to regroup and define a course of action. “We’ll have the internal discussions we need to stay united in opposition to a government that has criminalized protest,” said Juan Requesens, president of the student federation at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
If the protests lose steam in the coming weeks, analysts say, Maduro will have little incentive to accede to the demands of the students and other opposition figures who have conditioned their participation in “peace talks” on the release of jailed protesters and an insistence that the talks be carried live on television.
Maduro and his United Socialist Party control every branch of government and the vast majority of Venezuela’s state governments, and they did well in municipal elections in December, so they are not feeling “weak or illegitimate,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a leading Venezuela expert.
Smilde said the Maduro government “feels like it is in the driver’s seat and will only dialogue on its own terms.”