?Circles? Hub of Chavez?s Power; Opposition Calls Left-Wing Groups ?Fascist,? Wants Them disbanded.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: THE AMERICAS)
Byline: Mike Ceaser, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
CARACAS, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez owes his return to power after a 48-hour coup earlier this month to the passionate loyalties he generates, and there is no group of Chavistas more ardent than the militant ?Bolivarian Circles.?
But in light of recent events, the Circles have become a target of heated criticism from political opponents, who frequently label the left-wing group as a ?fascist? force designed to repress opposition.
The Circles were organized soon after Mr. Chavez?s 1998 election as an expression of his philosophy of social cooperation and empowerment for poor people.
Since Mr. Chavez?s April 11 fall and rapid reinstatement amid street protests that left about 50 people dead and hundreds wounded, the Circles have gained a sinister image among many Venezuelans.
They regard the group as a violent organization representing the worst aspects of lawlessness, favoritism and the personality cult of Mr. Chavez.
After Mr. Chavez?s ouster, television stations broadcast videos taken during the previous day?s protests, showing men in the Bolivarian Circles? red uniforms firing from buildings, apparently at anti-Chavez demonstrators.
Last week, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, probably Mr. Chavez?s most prominent political opponent, told reporters that members of the Circles, wielding pistols, machine guns and grenades, had invaded his office the day after Mr. Chavez?s return to power.
?There were, I would say, 40 armed men wearing bulletproof vests and yelling ?Long live Chavez,?? Mr. Pena said. ?They identified themselves as members of Bolivarian Circles.?
Mr. Pena held up photographs of walls and windows with bullet holes he said were left by the attackers.
?Mr. Chavez himself has said that he is the ultimate leader of the Circles,? he said.
About one month ago, Mr. Chavez said in a speech that he was budgeting $140 million for the organization. And the Circles? official literature lists the president as the organization?s chief and their headquarters as the presidential palace.
If the circles are violent, motorcycle-gunning youths, they are also middle-aged women dedicated to improving their communities? health, reforming prison inmates and teaching literacy.
?If someone needs a prosthesis, we get it for them,? said Miriam Sierra, a silver-haired housewife of 47 who heads a Bolivarian Circle of 150 women in a lower-income neighborhood. ?We work with prisoners so that they don?t go back to crime.?
In these contrasting views, the circles also represent a dramatic split between pro-and anti-Chavez Venezuelans, which has divided this nation into two opposing factions, two sets of priorities and two different realities.
After Mr. Chavez?s sudden return to power a week ago Sunday, groups of them rode motorcycles through the capital, waving signs, honking horns and yelling their support for the president.
In a press conference the next day, Mr. Chavez defended the group.
?The Bolivian Circles are social organizations which cooperate with the community,? he said. ?They are not armed groups, and if some have committed errors, they will be punished.?
A group of Circle members, primarily middle-aged women, seated around a restaurant table in downtown Caracas fit Mr. Chavez?s description.
Each carried in her purse or pocket a little blue book that is a copy of Mr. …