The most important move in Nicolás Maduro’s January 4 cabinet reshuffle was the naming of hardline Aragua governor Tarek El Aissami as Vice President. The most important move in the days following was the creation of a new government body called Special Anti-Coup Command for Peace and Sovereignty –later referred to in government media as the National Anti-Coup Command–to be headed by El Aissami. Maduro said that the Command would focus on taking “preventive, legal, and corrective measures against coupist sectors, at the internal and political levels,” and that it would “bring peace and stability to the Venezuelan population.”
So far, the Anti-Coup Command has detained nine opposition activists, most from the hardline Popular Will party.
The Command is integrated by high level officials, mostly from the military and the ruling party. It is coordinated by the Vice-president El Aissami, and staffed by the Vice-President of Political Sovereignty, Security and Peace, Carmen Meléndez, the Minister of Defense, Vladimir Padrino López, the Minister of Interior Relations, Nestor Reverol, the Director of the political police agency SEBIN, Gustavo González López, and PSUV Vice-president and National Assembly Diputy, Diosdado Cabello. According to Maduro, each state of the country will also have a Regional Command to which “the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, security agencies, and the other patriotic and revolutionary forces,” will responds.
Days after its creation, the new Anti-Coup Command carried out its first action. On January 11 opposition National Assembly substitute deputy Gilbert Caro, and his girlfriend the opposition activist Steyci Escalona, both activists from the Popular Will (Voluntad Popular (VP)) party, were detained in the State of Carabobo. VP is the radical opposition party founded by jailed leader Leopoldo López.
Vice-President Tarek El Aissami confirmed the arrests and said that Caro had been apprehended in fraganti because he was carrying an automatic rifle, 20 rounds of ammunition, and plastic explosives in his car. He made several accusations against Caro after his detention. He recalled the deputies’ past as a prison inmate–Caro served a sentence for drug trafficking–and claimed that he is the chief “of the penitentiary network of the unconstitutional organization called Voluntad Popular.” He also said that Caro had met exiled opposition leaders in the frontier Colombian city of Cúcuta, where he had received instructions from foreign agents to “ignite the country” with violence.”
The opposition immediately suggested that the evidence found in Caro’s vehicle had been planted by the government and that in any case he enjoys parliamentary immunity. The Venezuelan Constitution states that if a deputy is captured committing a crime, he or she must be put under house arrest until the National Assembly decides whether there should be a trial.
Government deputies have argued however that immunity cannot serve as a cover for impunity and that in in fraganti cases, National Assembly procedures can be bypassed. President Maduro has also argued that Caro does not enjoy parliamentary immunity as he is only a substitute and not a full deputy of the National Assembly.
Minister of Interior and also member of the Anti-Coup Command, Néstor Reverol, gave further details about the plot Caro is supposed to be part of. He said they had “exposed and neutralized a terrorist plan orchestrated by right-wing sectors to destabilize national peace.” The plan, according to Reverol, was to attack the opposition leader Manuel Rosales, recently released from house arrest, and then blame the government for the attack.
Reverol mentioned Caro’s arrest as part of the “neutralization” of the plot, but added that another opposition militant, Jorge Luis González Villasmil of the Primero Justicia party, had also been detained in the city of Maracaibo. González Villasmil was said to have possessed gunpowder, 500 pamphlets, unspecified “hand explosives”, and 20 rounds of ammunition.
On January 21, a Voluntad Popular leader said that Caro has been taken to a jail in Guárico State without informing his relatives or lawyers. On January 22 the Minister of Penitentiary Affairs, Iris Varela, published in her Twitter account (@irisvarela) pictures of Gilbert Caro taken after his arrest. Caro is shown eating a sandwich right after having his head shaved in an undisclosed location.
Apart from Caro and Escalona, opposition activists Jorge Luis González, Roniel Farías, Irwing Roca, and Jorge Luis González Villasmil, and retired General Raúl Baduel were detained on 11 and 12 January. On January 21, two more retired military were detained upon arriving to General Baduel’s residence.
“These actions,” reported the government’s Agencia Venezolana de Noticias making reference to the arrests, “are part of the Anti-Coup Command, sworn in this last Wednesday by the National government in order safeguard peace and democratic order from the violent plans of right-wing sectors.”
Amnesty International has called the recent streak of detentions of opposition activists a “witch hunt,” and suggested that “the use of arguments referring to absurd conspiracies to justify irregular detentions demonstrates Venezuela’s lack of commitment to basic human rights.” AI suggested “Instead of pursuing those who have different opinions, the Venezuelan government should focus its efforts on the search for effective and just solutions to overcome the grave humanitarian and human rights crisis that is affecting the population.”
AI reminded government authorities that “they should expeditiously guarantee all procedural rights to those who are detained, in particular the presentation before civil judges with charges and evidence, as well as providing access to family and legal counsel.”
The Venezuelan government has routinely accused the opposition of planning a coup d’état since the time they in fact carried-out a coup d’état thirteen years ago in April 2002. According to the government, plotting violent acts and assassination attempts to destabilize the country are part of an “unconventional war”—including an “economic war” and “media war”–that the opposition, in cahoots with international allies, is fighting against the Bolivarian Revolution. The creation of the Anti-Coup Command this month came on the eve of the National Assembly’s vote that Nicolás Maduro had “abandoned” the presidency, which would have led to new elections if it had not subsequently been annulled by the Supreme Court.