Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro has called on armed pro-government groups to help subdue unrest as he announced a 30-day electricity rationing plan set to inflict further pain on the population.
In a televised address, Maduro said he had no choice but to take drastic measures while his government rebuilt key sections of Venezuela’s national grid following a succession of crippling power failures since 7 March.
Experts and Maduro’s political opponents say the repeated collapse of Venezuela’s electricity system – which has left millions without light or water – is a consequence of years of neglect, corruption and incompetence.
But in his late-night appearance Maduro repeated the Socialist party line that Venezuela had suffered a series of “brutish attacks” masterminded by his political opponents and their supporters in the White House.
“We are facing a group of monsters who want to destroy Venezuela,” Maduro said, claiming their aim was to topple his government by “making the people and the country go mad”.
Amid growing fears that Venezuela’s crisis could be moving into a violent new phase, Maduro instructed “revolutionary and patriotic” government supporters and armed pro-government gangs known as colectivos to mobilize “to defend the peace of every barrio, of every block”.
“They will not take away our peace,” Maduro vowed.
Last week Maduro’s second-in-command, Diosdado Cabello, appeared in a menacing video flanked by dozens of masked men and women who he referred to as “peace defenders” but who many fear have been tasked with violently repressing dissent.
There were signs on Sunday that such groups had begun responding to the government’s calls.
As further blackouts struck Venezuela and citizens took to the streets to protest, photographs and videos circulated appearing to show armed men confronting demonstrators in the capital, Caracas. Two protesters were reported to have been shot after burning blockades were set up in streets near the presidential palace.
“We’re here fighting for water and power, we’ve gone twenty-some days without water,” Yofre Gamez, 32, told Reuters as shots rang out.
In the western state of Zulia, perhaps the worst affected by the electricity crisis, opposition leaders claimed a 70-year-old woman had been shot dead by members of one colectivo during a protest.
Maduro’s challenger, Juan Guaidó, claimed such paramilitary groups were trying – but failing – to suppress popular opposition to Hugo Chávez’s successor, who has led Venezuela into economic crisis.
“We must stay strong and stay in the streets,” tweeted Guaidó, who most western governments have recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
The Venezuelan human rights group Provea said Maduro’s so-called “peace squads” were actually paramilitary gangs tasked with spreading violence and shooting protesters. “Maduro’s peace means violence against the people,” Provea said.
As Venezuelans braced for weeks of hardship and uncertainty, Maduro urged them to have faith in his government – and in God.
“God must accompany us with his blessings in this, the most difficult of battles that we must face,” Maduro said, before being applauded by senior political and military leaders.