By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) – Decried by protesters as “murderers” defending a dictator, Venezuela’s military insisted on Thursday it was not taking sides in the national political turmoil, though it did back socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s controversial plan for a new congress.
The armed forces’ National Guard unit has played a pivotal role in two months of unrest rocking Venezuela, often blocking marches and using teargas and water cannons to fight youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
At least 57 people have been killed, including one National Guard member and two policemen.
The military defended its record during the protests, in which Maduro opponents have staged daily demonstrations demanding elections, humanitarian aid to offset a brutal economic crisis, and freedom for jailed activists.
“The Bolivarian National Armed Forces have made a superlative effort to keep the peace, protect life as a fundamental right, and keep institutional stability,” it said in a statement.
The communique was a response to Chief State Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who on Wednesday accused security forces of excessive force against protesters. She said one student was killed by a tear gas cannister fired from close range by a National Guard.
The military statement said Ortega’s “pre-qualification” and “hypothesis” were damaging to soldiers’ morale, and fodder for “the negative public opinion right-wing groups” want to spread.
The death of Juan Pernalete, 20, has become a rallying cry for protesters. But senior officials have suggested the student was killed by someone within opposition ranks using a pistol as a way to discredit the government.
The armed forces statement said officers had absolutely respected rights, behaved with “stoicism” and “sacrifice”, and had shown restraint under verbal and physical aggression including seven attacks on military installations.
“In no way are partisan positions adopted,” it added, noting that any “excesses” or “irregularities” were punished.
According to the government, 17 National Guard officers and seven policemen have been arrested over deaths during the protests.
Thursday’s statement backed the president’s plan to create a super-body, known as a Constituent Assembly, with powers to re-write the constitution and supersede other institutions in the oil-producing country.
Maduro accuses foes of seeking a coup with U.S. help and says the assembly is needed to bring peace. But opponents argue it is a ploy to stay in power by setting up a congress filled with government supporters.
Polls show the ruling Socialists would lose any conventional election, and the opposition’s main demand is to bring forward the 2018 presidential vote.
“The National Constituent Assembly … represents a space to find solutions to our problems with understanding, harmony and brotherhood,” the military said.
A key power-broker in the past, including during a short-lived 2002 coup against former leader Hugo Chavez, the military’s role is seen as crucial. Opposition leaders hope it may withdraw support for Maduro as the unrest drags on.
On the street, soldiers often stand impassive behind riot shields as protesters harangue them, or as women sometimes offer flowers. When crowds try to pass their security cordons, fighting starts and can last hours, with stones, excrement, bottles and petrol bombs thrown at them.
In private, some low-ranking National Guard members have admitted they are exhausted, fed up with being the first line against protesters, and suffering the same economic problems as much of the population.
“I’m shattered, brother. Do you think I want to be here?” said one National Guard member at a recent protest, briefly sitting on a wall after he and colleagues sent scores of protesters fleeing with a volley of tear gas cannisters.
Security forces are also finding that low salaries and opposition to Maduro are hurting their recruiting and retention efforts, sources in or close to the armed forces and police have told Reuters.
Opposition leaders say dozens of dissenting military members have been arrested in recent weeks, though there is no confirmation of that, and in public the armed forces’ leaders are standing firm behind the unpopular Maduro.
(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Editing by Frances Kerry)