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'Circles' Round Up Support for Venezuelan President


CARACAS, Venezuela — Lina Ron hardly seems the heart of a revolution.

The chain-smoking widow lives in a tunnel beneath a busy Caracas street. Her ill-fitting clothes swallow her slight frame. Her only visible weapons are two cellular phones that ring incessantly.

Nevertheless, Ron represents the fundamental building block of President Hugo Chavez's controversial attempt to transform Venezuelan society, alleviating the poverty that afflicts 80% of the population.

The 40-year-old former student organizer runs the country's largest and most powerful Bolivarian Circle, one of thousands of grass-roots groups named after 19th century South American liberator Simon Bolivar.

Originally, the groups were supposed to foster community development and teach the fundamentals of Chavez's so-called Bolivarian Revolution. But since the coup attempt in April that briefly forced Chavez from power, many circles--especially those in Caracas, the capital--have taken on the task of defending Chavez from those who continue to seek his ouster.

Some circle members boast openly of being armed, while others, like Ron, only hint darkly at the bloody consequences that could result from any effort to dislodge the embattled president.

At least some of the groups have spun out of control.

"If there are any problems, there will be blood on the streets," said Jorge Barreto, a circle member who patrols near Chavez's official residence and claims to have a 9-millimeter pistol close at hand.

The radicalization of the circles has led to fears of a far more deadly confrontation than the April 11 coup, when military officers and a coalition led by one of the country's top business groups briefly seized power.

At least 17 people were killed during an exchange of gunfire between pro- and anti-government forces before Chavez was returned to office 48 hours later by loyal troops and massive street demonstrations.

Despite appearances, Ron is a firebrand who only recently was released from prison on charges that she incited a riot during a demonstration in February. Ron, who claims to coordinate "thousands" of other circle members, said the coup alerted the poor to the dangers facing the president.

"Chavez is loved and admired by the people. He will be defended to the death," Ron said recently as she sat outside her home and headquarters, a subterranean passageway that leads to a parking garage beneath Venezuela's Central Bank.

In response to the circles, neighborhood groups in wealthier sections have also begun arming themselves, according to some reports. Weapons sales have increased since the coup.

The growing hostility is another demonstration of the continuing polarization in Venezuelan society and the threat of a further explosion of violence.

"The circles are nothing more than a facade," said Liliana Hernandez, a member of the opposition Justice First party. "They are armed groups supporting Chavez."

Chavez's revolution has never been well-defined. Part populism, part socialism, part direct democracy, it has deeply divided Venezuelan society, pitting unions, clergy, media and business against Chavez.

He has courted close relations with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Iraq's Saddam Hussein in an attempt to create a political bloc opposed to the United States and its globalization efforts. His fiery rhetoric and four-hour-long speeches have infuriated the opposition, though he has toned down his language since the coup.

Last year, he began encouraging the creation of the circles as a way to promote civic participation, to get small groups of citizens directly involved in the government. The idea was that citizens would apply for government funding to build sewers, to electrify rural communities and to form employment cooperatives.

But like nearly everything else in Chavez's revolution, the circles themselves are ill-defined. There is a registration process, but not all the circles participate. There is a guidebook--62 pages long and filled with colorful graphics and vaguely spiritual exhortations to seek "the most pure of the human race"--but it has not been distributed to all the groups.

Even the national coordinator admits to not knowing how many circles exist or how many people they contain. Some estimates put the number of participants at more than 450,000.

"Anybody can get together and call themselves a Bolivarian Circle," said Rodrigo Chaves, a surgeon who gave up his lucrative practice to coordinate the circles. "We are trying to put together a national registry now."

It is clear that at least some of the circles are engaging in activities on the margin of the law.

Some call themselves warriors for Chavez, patrolling the grimy streets around the pale yellow presidential palace in downtown Caracas with radios to quickly mobilize the faithful.

These self-styled soldiers say they have contingency plans to flood the city center with Chavez supporters and quickly gain access to homemade weapons depots to confront any attempt to force Chavez from power.

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