GEORGIA, Venezuela – The host of the popular radio show “People’s Fight” has always zealously praised the ruling Socialist Party of Venezuela, even when millions sank into penury under its rule. But when an acute shortage of gasoline paralyzed his remote fishing town this summer, he strayed from the party line.
In his show, the presenter, the socialist for life Jose Carmelo Bislik, accused the heads of the local parties of draining fuel, leaving most people in lines for days in front of empty gas stations.
Just a few weeks later, on August 17, four masked gunmen stormed Mr. Bislick̵
Those responsible for Mr Bislick’s death remain at large in the town of 30,000, where everyone knew about him and his devotion throughout his life to the socialist revolution in Venezuela. The mayor of the Socialists never spoke about the crime and did not visit the family, who said the murder was politically motivated.
“Is it so bad to condemn wrongdoing that it costs the life of a person who only wants social welfare?” Asked Mr Bislick’s sister, Rosmery Bislick.
His death appears to be part of a wave of repression against left-wing activists alienated by President Nicolas Maduro, who appears intent on consolidating power in the December parliamentary elections. A vote boycotted by the opposition as a sham could bring one of Latin America’s most established democracies to the brink of a one-party state.
After crushing political parties opposed to his version of socialism, Mr Maduro’s critics say he trained the state security apparatus on disillusioned ideological allies, repeating the path taken by left-wing autocrats from the Soviet Union to Cuba.
Mr Maduro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Anyone who criticizes is crammed with the opposition, the right called a traitor,” said Ares Di Fazio, a former urban guerrilla and leader of the far-left Tupamaros party, which was dismantled by the government in August after expressing discontent.
Longtime government supporters, who have flooded the streets of rural cities in recent months to condemn the collapse of public services, have been suppressed by security forces. Public officials who condemn corruption have been accused of sabotage.
Members of the ruling electoral alliance who choose to run as independents are disqualified. Those who persist are harassed by the police or accused of false crimes.
The repression stems in part from Mr Maduro’s decision to abandon the redistribution policies of his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in favor of capital equity in order to survive US sanctions. The change effectively legalized Venezuela’s growing black market economy and simplified pervasive corruption, creating a new economic order that benefited the military and business elites loyal to Mr Maduro.
The result is a shattering gap between official rhetoric, which blames the national collapse for sanctions, and the extravagant life paraded by government friends in expensive-imported supermarkets and luxury car showrooms.
“For some, there is a blockade, for others – boutiques,” said Osualdo Rivero, a prominent Venezuelan left-wing activist and national television presenter who has been provoking attacks on the opposition in his program for years.
Those who question this are “turning into sawdust,” said Mr Rivero, who has now been declared a traitor and threatened on social media to speak out against corruption.
Over the last two decades, left-wing parties, represented by activists such as Mr Rivero, have helped Mr Chavez, and then Mr Maduro, stay in power.
Parties, some dating back to Cold War-era uprisings, campaigned for Mr Maduro’s candidates, attended government rallies and sometimes harassed opposition protesters. Their message of radical change echoed in Venezuela’s inept cities and rural posts, bored by ingrained inequality.
But these allies have become increasingly disillusioned with Mr Maduro’s authoritarianism and corruption. This year, for the first time, they decided to nominate their candidates for Congress.
Mr. Maduro answered quickly.
Courts in August placed Mr Maduro’s loyalists at the top of Tupamaros and three other dissident parties.
Police arrested Tupamaros party leader Jose Pinto on unproven murder charges, harassed Communist Party leaders and briefly detained veteran leftist Rafael Uscategi, 73, on charges of visiting a brothel. All defendants call the cases political persecution.
Mr Uzcátegui claims that 37 members of his Fatherland for All party have been detained for campaigning against the government in the upcoming elections. Four of them simply sprayed on the public wall the words “Decent salary now,” a request to raise Venezuela’s minimum monthly salary, which is equivalent to $ 2 in local currency.
“The government is no longer afraid of the law,” Mr Uzcátegui said. They are afraid of the left, he said, “because they know we are telling people the truth.”
Isabel Granado, a 32-year-old Communist Party activist, decided to run for congress against the government in December because she said it no longer represented the poor.
Two years ago, she and two dozen small farmers from her town of El Vigia, in the foothills of the Andes, decided to take over a plot she said authorities had declared inactive since 2010. They called their farming group “The Mighty Hand of God” crops to feed their families.
The government has long approved such takeovers to win support for rural areas and try to reduce inequality.
Suddenly, on September 24, Ms. Granado said a black-clad special operations team broke into her home, threw her 9-year-old daughter on the floor and threatened to beat the activist in front of the child if they did not come with them. She was taken to a police station and charged with illegal occupation of land and rustling of cattle, a charge Ms Granado denied.
She was released the next day for lack of evidence, but was detained again two days later, this time by military commandos. Ms Granado said she was handcuffed at the time of her detention, threatened with fake drug charges and said she would be executed.
This was not an empty threat in a country where UN investigators have involved Mr Maduro’s special operations police, known as the FAES, in thousands of extrajudicial executions in slums in recent years.
“I was really horrified because, in addition to being a social activist, I am also a mother,” Ms Granado said. “The only thing I could think of were my children.”
Ms Granado said the timing, brutality and arbitrariness of her detention indicated a desire on the part of local authorities to deter her from running for Congress. She said she lives in constant fear, often changing safe houses.
But she said she would continue her campaign.
“People’s support for us is what hurts them the most,” she said, referring to the government.
Following the tense calm brought about by the pandemic, popular discontent with Mr Maduro’s government erupted in more than 1,000 lightning protests in September.
Unlike previous waves of unrest, the latter were concentrated in the poor provincial states that had long formed the basis of the ruling party. The protesters, many of them longtime government supporters, are demanding food, fuel and electricity, not political change, according to interviews in four affected cities.
Mr Maduro responded to dissatisfaction at the socialist core with the same repression applied to opponents. More than 200 protesters were detained during the September protests, and one person was shot dead by police, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Social Conflict, a non-governmental group monitoring the unrest.
“What they are doing smells a lot of dictatorship to us,” said Edito Hidalgo, a veteran Tupamaro activist who led a protest in the western city of Uracice in September. “They have the power and they will not let it go.”
Urachiche, a cohesive agricultural community, has voted overwhelmingly for socialist candidates since Mr Chavez was sworn in in 1999, promising to rule for the people.
“This is a revolutionary city,” said Mr Hidalgo, who proudly recounted Che Guevara’s visit to Uracice in 1962.
After enduring Venezuela’s deteriorating economic conditions for seven years, the city finally raised its voice in September. Thousands marched peacefully to the town hall, singing the national anthem to give the mayor a proposal to improve food and fuel supplies.
A band emerged from the crowd with traditional instruments – miniature guitars and maracans – closing the rally with an impromptu concert, Mr Hidalgo said. “Then they all went to their homes without throwing a single stone.”
A few days later, FAES police stopped in front of Mr Hidalgo’s house, looking for him. Warned by his wife, he escaped and spent two weeks in hiding while security forces harassed his neighborhood.
“They had decided they had to get rid of Edith Hidalgo because he was preaching the people’s revolution,” he said.
Polls show that the Socialist Party is now supported by only one in ten Venezuelans.
Back in Güiria, the family of Mr Bislick, the dead radio host, is still waiting for justice.
After the armed men abducted Mr. Bislick, his family ran to the police station – their car, like most in the city, was out of gas.
Instead of conducting an immediate search, officers spent two hours gathering their data, his family said. In desperation, the family then ran to the ruling party’s office, where Mr Bislik had worked for two decades to look for a reserve fuel to help with the search. They were refused.
Eventually, a neighbor found Mr. Bislick’s body in the bushes.
Mr Bislick’s denunciation of corruption became so popular that residents fired his program into the streets from their car speakers during interruptions, said his radio colleague, José Alberto Frontén.
“We set the program hard and we knew that our blows landed where they should,” said Mr Frontén. “But we have never seen this blow await us.”
Isayen Herrera reports from Guiria, Anatoliy Kurmanaev from Caracas, Tibisai Romero from Uraciche, Venezuela and Sheila Urdaneta from Cabimas, Venezuela. Nairobis Rodriguez has participated in reports from Cumana, Venezuela.