A retired Venezuelan general resists arrest — for more than two years.
For the past 20-some months, Ángel Vivas’s days have been largely the same. Around 9 a.m., the retired army general gets up and makes coffee. Hunter, the German shepherd Vivas calls “my best friend and guardian,” sits with him as he flips through the morning’s paper in a large parlor in his sprawling white house in Caracas. Vivas has not left his home since February 2014, when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called for him to be taken into custody. Since then, his home has been under siege. He spends most of his time in the parlor, looking out over a patio of red tile into a forest where birds mark time’s passing. His nights are harder. “Sometimes I receive messages that force me to remain vigilant until daybreak,” Vivas says. “The spies of the dictator usually attack their victims at dawn.” Not even he believed this impasse would last so long. “I never thought I’d find myself in this situation,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine a day when I’d be in my house, in my country, and not be free.”
Vivas, a solidly built man with a commanding presence and bulldog cheeks, was a part of Venezuela’s military establishment for most of his life. Born in 1956, he entered the military academy right out of college and soon became chief financial officer of the army. Despite his 35 military decorations, he resigned from his position as head of the defense ministry’s engineering department in 2007 after refusing to order his subordinates to recite the motto “Fatherland, socialism, or death.” He was arrested and sentenced to 4 months and 15 days in prison. Listening to Vivas explain his decision to defect from the party line, you get the sense that his patriotism often conflicts with his idealism — his blog, where he posts philosophical thoughts and updates on his life, lists his favorite music as Venezuela’s national anthem and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Vivas’s tendency to speak his mind led him into trouble again in the winter of 2014, when daily life in Venezuela was beginning to unravel. Under Maduro’s presidency, the country’s main source of income, oil production, was shrinking; its largest bill, 100 bolívares, couldn’t buy a carton of eggs. Food shortages made it hard to get sugar or toilet paper or bread. So when protests against the regime began in the capital and three activists died in clashes with government forces, demonstrations quickly fanned across the country.
The government reacted by arresting more than 3,000 people, torturing and beating some of the detainees. In retaliation, people blockaded cities, burning mattresses and shutting down major intersections. Among those who called for Maduro’s resignation was Vivas, who took to Twitter to encourage the demonstrators. Hearing dissent from someone in the army is unusual in a country where the consequences of speaking up keep even many ordinary citizens quiet. Vivas also released several YouTube videos — one directed at army members, begging them to refuse to fire on civilians, and another providing practical suggestions to demonstrators on how to build barricades, like stretching steel cables across streets.
Shortly thereafter, a motorcyclist in Caracas collided with such a trip line, and President Maduro issued a live broadcast on national television. “I have ordered the detention of the general who called for the collection of the cables and who trained these fascists, Ángel Vivas,” Maduro said. “Get him and bring him in.”
Vivas’s wife saw the broadcast and hurried to tell him that the president had just called for his arrest. “The problem with fear is knowing how to control it,” Vivas says. So he posted on his blog, “
I WILL NOT SURRENDER.” Soon, hundreds of supporters gathered outside his home. “More than my own safety, I am afraid for the future of my country,” Vivas says. “I don’t have any other option than to put the fear on my back and continue.” When government forces arrived to arrest him, Vivas’s lawyer told them they couldn’t detain him without a legal warrant. “The National Guard then tried to break down the door to remove me by force,” Vivas says. The former general strutted onto his roof holding a semi-automatic. “The only way I will be taken is in a body bag!” Vivas shouted. The crowd began throwing rocks. The government forces, badly outnumbered, retreated. Vivas remained — and has now been stuck at home for more than two years.
In some ways, Vivas’s situation echoes that of the country at large. During the time he’s been unable to pass through his front door, Venezuela has suffered from skyrocketing currency rates and a severe cash deficit, causing speculation that the country might default on its $15.8 billion of debt payments. It has been unable to obtain even rudimentary medical supplies, and because the country’s currency is worthless, it’s almost impossible to leave. Increasing shortages have made the black market the only way for many people to get basic supplies. A national election in December brought Maduro’s opposition a surprise supermajority in the legislature. Leaders of the Democratic Unity coalition promised to fight for the release of jailed dissidents, though Maduro and his Socialist Party have sought to undermine such efforts. “Given the curve of social deterioration, which is becoming exponential — the lack of food and medicine and basic daily items,” Vivas says, “anything could happen in the coming days.”
For the first several months of the siege, Vivas was energetic, angry at what he considered a politically motivated charge. Now his defiance has become a test of endurance. He refuses to go into specifics about his security, but he implies it consists of significant force. “This is a question of perseverance,” Vivas says. The government cut his phone and internet lines five months ago and is likely planning to cut his water and electricity soon. “Naturally,” Vivas says, “I’m afraid.” His wife and daughters live with him, and people he calls “supporters” find ways to bring them food and supplies, but it’s getting harder.
When we last talked, on a smuggled cellphone, I asked Vivas how long he thought his situation could possibly continue and how he imagined it ending. “These same questions,” Vivas said, “I ask myself over and over again.”