CARACAS, Venezuela — For more than a dozen years, Hugo Chávez led a socialist-inspired movement that transformed Venezuela, winning one presidential election after another with the support of an army of red-shirted “chavistas.”
But four years after Chávez’s death, the movement he founded is splintering, with current and former government officials, as well as residents of poor neighborhoods that were once adamantly pro-government, turning on his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
The criticism from Maduro’sformer allies has helped to energize a protest movement that has drawn demonstrators onto the streets almost every day for two months. The participants are angry at what they call Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule and a severe economic crisis. Polls indicate some 80 percent of the population wants him to resign.
“This is not about government versus opposition anymore,” said Vladimir Villegas, who used to be the director of the government’s national television station and helped write a new constitution championed by Chávez. “This is about a whole country against the government.”
The most prominent dissident in Venezuela’s government is Luisa Ortega Diaz, a Chávez loyalist who has served as attorney general for nearly a decade. In late March, she criticized an attempt by the pro-Maduro supreme court to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress, saying it was against the law. In early May, she upbraided the government for its role in violence against protesters. And last week, Ortega came out against a plan by Maduro to rewrite the constitution, saying it was “destroying the legacy of President Chávez.” She asked the supreme court to annul the process , a request that was denied.
On June 6, a prominent retired general in the Venezuelan army resigned from a senior government job. Maj. Gen. Alexis Lopez Ramirez, who had formerly served as director of Chávez’s presidential guard as well as commander of the army, was a top defense adviser to Maduro. Lopez said in a statement on Tuesday that he stepped down due to his “disagreement with the process” used by Maduro’s government to convene an assembly to change the constitution.
Many proud socialists who served in top roles in Chávez’s government have turned on Maduro. They tend to be particularly alarmed by the attempt to strip the legislature’s powers and by Maduro’s plan to hold a vote later this summer to elect delegates to change the constitution.
“Maduro is not the man that Chávez thought he would be,” said Ana Elisa Osorio, a former environment minister in Chávez’s government, who described the current president as “authoritarian” and “almost Stalinist.”
So far, Maduro has maintained his grip on power because he retains the support of key institutions such as the armed forces, the police, the electoral agency and the supreme court. But the popular protests appear to be putting strain on these bonds as well.
The military and other security forces are in a particularly fraught position. Nearly every day for the past two months, Maduro has relied on the police and National Guard to block opposition marches and demonstrations. Security forces in armored vehicles and riot gear have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters. At least 67 people have died, and more than 1,200 have been injured in the violence, according to government statistics.
On June 6, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López warned that he did not want to see one more National Guard member “committing illegal acts against people,” and said that anyone who does not respect human rights or behaves unprofessionally “will have to face the consequences.” The next day, however, Padrino appeared to take a step back from that criticism, tweeting about his “solidarity” with the National Guard, who are “always loyal to their duty."
In March, three army lieutenants who opposed Maduro sought asylum in Colombia. But there have been few other public signs of major turmoil within the military.
One former Venezuelan officer described discontent among many low-ranking soldiers. If big protests continue, there will be “a moment when the National Guard won’t take it anymore,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by authorities.
Maduro has already lost support in many of the lower-income neighborhoods where Chávez was long a hero for providing subsidized food and new schools and clinics. In an act that would have been unthinkable until recently, protesters in the western state of Zulia toppled a statue of Chávez in May, according to video provided by local media.
In this deeply divided climate, some former Chávez supporters want to carve out more space in the political middle. The “chavistas” are skeptical of the main opposition alliance, known as Democratic Unity, which they see as antagonistic to their socialist goals, but also disapprove of Maduro. Some have criticized Maduro for using dwindling state funds to pay off international bondholders at a time when Venezuelans face severe shortages of food and medicine.
“Maduro is disconnected from the masses and is more worried about the price of oil,” said Nicmer Evans, a political analyst and leader of Marea Socialista, a movement that formerly supported Chávez but has turned against the president.
At a meeting recently at the Hotel Presidente in downtown Caracas, dozens of former Chávez supporters discussed how a third political bloc might emerge. Former government ministers and Chávez supporters said they wanted to mediate new talks between the opposition and the government, even though previous attempts at dialogue have failed.
As it stands now, social unrest and political violence have “accelerated the possibility of a civil war,” said Gustavo Márquez Marin, a former minister of industry and commerce during Chávez’s tenure, who attended the gathering.
“Most of the country doesn’t want violence, they want peace,” he said. “We want to save the nation.”
Among opponents to Maduro, there are differences of opinion about how to move forward. While many in the opposition demand early elections, the anti-Maduro socialists say that holding elections before 2018, when they are scheduled, would violate the law.
But Maduro’s plan to convene a special assembly — aimed at rewriting the 1999 constitution that many “chavistas” still revere — seems to have united opponents from different political backgrounds. Maduro’s government has described the assembly as a way to restore peace. His opponents consider it a maneuver to avoid elections, and many say they plan to boycott the July vote to choose the 545 delegates.
Earlier this month, Gabriela Ramirez decided to step down from her position as adviser to the supreme court, due to her concerns about the assembly, which she called tantamount to a “coup.”
Ramirez, a former pro-Chávez congresswoman and top government human rights official, said she still believes in the social aspects of Chávez’s ideology. But she has grown concerned about Maduro’s stewardship of the economy and the threats to democracy.
The final straw came when she saw how the delegates to the constituent assembly will be chosen — with many to be selected by pro-government groups such as labor unions.
If Chávez were alive today, she said, “I have no doubt that he would be on our side.”