VALENCIA/MERIDA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Housewives stash bottles and fuel for Molotov cocktails. Activists run a network of safe houses. Masked youths block roads. A rifle-wielding dissident general makes a call to arms.
From clandestine meetings to guerrilla-style broadcasts, an amorphous and quixotic “resistance” movement has emerged across Venezuela aspiring to force President Nicolas Maduro from power and end 16 years of socialist rule in the OPEC nation.
The most hardcore still sporadically barricade streets with burning trash and pelt security forces with stones, or occasionally torch a government vehicle, especially in the western Andean regions they nickname “the Wild West”.
Some admit trying to connect with active and retired soldiers in the hope of a coup against Maduro.
“We want to bring down the government. There’s no other way out,” said one housewife in her fifties who helps coordinate the self-styled resistance in the central city of Valencia, a hotbed of protests last year that led to 43 deaths nationwide.
She hurled stones at police, ferried students around and stored materials to make petrol bombs and spiked tubes known as “Miguelitos” that are laid on roads to puncture police vehicles.
Upset at the failure of those protests, she tries to help keep the movement alive by organizing secret meetings and forging contacts with former military officials.
Local ruling Socialist Party supporters recently outed and threatened her online, publishing photos of her and family members as well as her car license plate. “Go for her,” one wrote. So she fled her apartment in a hillside upper-middle-class neighborhood in Valencia to lie low in Caracas.
“They are breaking us down,” she said, “but I can’t lose hope. How can I close my eyes and do nothing?”
The radicals’ underground activities – aided by campaigners in Europe and the United States - are an embarrassment to mainstream opposition leaders hoping to oust Maduro at the ballot box.
They say the hard-liners inadvertently help Maduro by enabling him to paint all opponents as extremists and allege foreign-backed coup plots against him. Some say government infiltrators play a role in the more extreme activities.
Interviews by Reuters with dozens of people involved with the protest movement across Venezuela indicate that their numbers are relatively small and they lack a clear strategy.
The more serious threats to Maduro do not seem to come from the “resistance” or even the mainstream opposition but rather from growing anger over a deep economic crisis and from factions within the ruling coalition.
Though the top military brass parade their support for Maduro, rumors are rife of dissent and a handful of air force officers were recently arrested for allegedly plotting to bombard the presidential palace and topple him.
Militant opposition activists know they cannot topple Maduro by themselves but hope to keep up pressure and be ready to help detonate a full-blown crisis if public unrest and internal divisions put his government in danger.
“We are housewives, businessmen, students,” said a 30-year-old man in the Andean city of Merida who identified himself only as Antonio and spoke to a reporter in a moving car and at the back of an empty bar playing loud music.
He initially supported former socialist leader Hugo Chavez when he became president in 1999 but became disillusioned with his authoritarian style and statist economic policies.
Now, after recently losing his job at a water bottling plant, Antonio helps transport people to clandestine meetings.
Divided among myriad groups, it is hard to put a number on how many Venezuelans belong to the nebulous radical opposition.
Government sources talk disparagingly of a few hundred misguided “criminals” while activists boast of tens of thousands of would-be “liberators”. Analysts estimate a few thousand.
The militants view Maduro, Chavez’s protege who was elected to power in April 2013 after the late leader succumbed to cancer, as a puppet of Cuba’s communist leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, and accuse him of wrecking the economy.
They also show disdain for opposition parties, who have time and again lost elections against Chavez and Maduro. “The resistance is a product of the opposition’s failures,” said Antonio.
‘PSYCHO NO. 12’
The anger is fueled by economic and social crisis - long supermarket lines, shortages of basics, the highest inflation in the Americas and the world’s second highest murder rate.
Maduro’s approval ratings have slumped and the opposition has a good chance of winning control of parliament in elections later this year, though members of the “resistance” are convinced officials will use fraud to prevent that happening.
With state security on their tails and making regular arrests, most of the militants who spoke to Reuters hid their identities. Some only meet each other under trees after dark.
One activist in Caracas, who helps people who are on the run, carries a wig and a suitcase of clothes in her car, ready for quick escapes to safe houses. She said she receives so many abusive calls from government supporters that she stores the numbers on her phone in contacts as “Psycho.”
“I have a Psycho 1, Psycho 2 ... up to No. 12!” she said.
While using encrypted chat mechanisms, pseudonyms like “The Specialist” or “Kaiser”, and sometimes foreign languages to try to avoid detection, they also display naivety by, for example, taking group photos in cafes and posting them on social media.
Arguably the most prominent member, though, makes no attempt to conceal his identity.
At the height of last year’s protests, retired army general Angel Vivas, 59, took to the roof of his Caracas home wielding an assault rifle in defiance of an apparent arrest order.
Since then, he has published videos on YouTube urging supporters to take up arms.
“The aim of the resistance is to expel this Castro communist invasion from Venezuelan territory and punish, with all the severity of the law, the traitors in its service,” he told Reuters at his large home, sitting in front of a portrait of independence hero Simon Bolivar.
In a cabinet, Vivas keeps models of past Venezuelan presidents. Chavez is upside-down, and Maduro missing.
Why Vivas has not been arrested is a source of conjecture
Political analyst Miguel Angel Albujas said it is because the general’s call to arms had little impact and he is seen as a laughing stock in official circles.
By contrast, hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has been in prison for more than a year for leading anti-government protests and Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma was jailed in February on charges of conspiring to overthrow Maduro.
“Chavez stopped resistance with his charisma,” said Albujas, a university professor. “Maduro doesn’t have that, so he resorts to repression ... but only when the threat is real.”
Lorent Saleh, 26, is a younger public face of the resistance. He was arrested in September when authorities published videos of him discussing apparent bomb and assassination plots. Despite the damning broadcasts, his mother, Yamile Saleh, says the videos were fabricated.
“The government is trying to scare young people,” she said.
Maduro regularly invokes the Saleh case, showing videos, emails and photos to back his claims that U.S.-backed extremists want to stage a coup.
Plotting has been a staple of Venezuelan politics in recent decades. As a young army officer, Chavez led a failed coup in 1992 and a decade later, in power, he survived a short-lived putsch against him.
The “resistance” draws support from Venezuelan emigres and foreign sympathizers, who run web sites, lobby international bodies and offer outside logistics.
Ana Diaz, who left Venezuela in 2004 and lives in Miami, is a prominent supporter, sending sends gas masks, protective gloves and even energy bars to opposition radicals across her home country. “The kids need protein,” she said.
Ulf Erlingsson, a Swede and former aid worker, helped found the Operation Venezuelan Liberty web site four years ago after becoming convinced Venezuela was a nefarious influence.
“This is a criminal regime run by a foreign power, Cuba,” he told Reuters. “So there is nothing illegal in fighting them.”
Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray