Eduardo Barreto isn’t sure if the armed guards that have been shooting at him were even Venezuelan.
Since joining his country’s protests earlier this month, the 20-year-old economics student from Valencia has been tear-gassed and chased by officers on motorcycles. He has watched his friends get shot in the back as they fled, and he was marching on the same street where student and beauty queen Génesis Carmona was killed last week.
He has little love for the National Guard, which the government has unleashed on protesters, but if he’s going to get shot, he’d like it at least to be done by a countryman.
“We know there are Cuban officers within our National Guard,” said Barreto, repeating widespread but unconfirmed reports that president Nicolás Maduro’s government might have tapped its island neighbor for help in protecting its Bolivarian revolution. “Can you imagine Russian officers joining the US National Guard to shoot at American citizens there? That’s unacceptable.”
Barreto says he has no doubt that at least some of the officers he has come across are Cuban. Early on in the protests—before guards started shooting at him—he brought them water bottles to cool off while they watched over demonstrators.
“They were in the streets standing in the sun all day, and I wanted to be friendly,” Barreto said. “One of them, when he thanked me, had a Cuban accent. I know a Cuban accent; I have uncles there.”
Venezuelan officials have neither acknowledged nor denied the accusations. But reports like Barreto's have multiplied over the last several days, also fueled by Ángel Vivas, a retired Venezuelan general and government critic. The embattled former military man tweeted to more than 200,000 followers that “Cuban and Venezuelan henchmen” were coming to his house after Maduro ordered his arrest, according to several reports.
VICE News reached out to both Cuban and Venezuelan officials, but neither was immediately available for comment.
In Caracas, students singing the Venezuelan national anthem gathered at a heavily guarded Cuban Embassy on Tuesday, protesting the involvement of Cuban troops in the repression and calling for an end to Cuba’s longstanding influence on Venezuelan politics.
“We won’t let the Castro brothers keep controlling Venezuela,” student leader Gabriela Arellano told local reporters. “Enough with Cuban interference.”
Opposition party Voluntad Popular tweeted photos of heavily armed Venezuelan guards protecting the Cuban Embassy on Tuesday. Protesters said they handed out a document to a national-police representative outlining their concerns, then withdrew peacefully.
In the video below, taken by Voluntad Popular outside the embassy, Arellano calls on the “Castro regime” to withdraw from Venezuelan territory.
Student leader Gabriela Arellano spoke outside the Cuban Embassy in Caracas on Tuesday.
It’s not the first time that anti-government protesters have gathered at the Cuban Embassy in Caracas. Back in 2002, during a coup that briefly ousted former president Hugo Chávez, protesters broke the windows, pierced the tires, and poured white paint into cars parked by the embassy, the AP reported then.
Venezuela’s close relationship with Cuba dates back to Chávez’s early days in power and was largely defined by Fidel Castro’s personal friendship with the former Venezuelan president, who was widely perceived as his ideological successor until his death last year.
But money also keeps the two nations’ interests aligned.
Venezuela is Cuba’s top trading partner and aid provider, to the tune of $3.5 billion a year and 115,000 barrels of oil a day, according to The Economist. Cuba pays its neighbor back in doctors, as well as in intelligence and security officers. It can also lend a hand in times of crisis.
Former intelligence officer and Cuban government critic Uberto Mario said in an interview that the elite Cuban troops known as Avispas Negras—literally the “black wasps”—have been traveling to Caracas undercover.
“They know how to infiltrate the protests, dressed as civilians, and this way they move all around Venezuela to neutralize the protests' advance,” Mario said. “They’re here for that, to repress.”
Several hundred people have been detained since the protests started, and there have also been reports of torture, including one of a student who was sexually assaulted with a rifle.
“The G2, the Cuban equivalent of the CIA, they have practice torturing citizens,” Barreto said. “We believe the reason they are here is to do those things.”
But if the Cuban government is watching Venezuelan protesters—and rather closely, if the accusations of infiltration are true—so are its critics.
“There must be much nervousness in Havana’s Revolution Square,” Cuban blogger and activist Yoani Sanchez recently tweeted. “Venezuela is taking it by surprise.”
Meanwhile, clashes between demonstrators and police have continued this week across Venezuela, as protesters organizing via social media and phone apps have set up barricades and snarled traffic.
This video, filmed in the Altamira Square area of Caracas on Monday, shows protesters moving away from loud explosions as smoke from a street fire fills the air.
Protesters clashed with police in Caracas on February 24.
Further protests are also planned through the week, including a women’s march on Wednesday, called by opposition congresswoman María Corina Machado and the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López.
Protesters are also planning public memorials on Wednesday for the 14 people killed in clashes so far, and have called for a Friday mobilization of motorcyclists wearing white shirts and Venezuelan flags—a rebuttal to the motorcycles normally used by the national guard and pro-government colectivos.
They also planned a Saturday rally against the national oil and gas company, which is in the spotlight after Maduro reopened a controversial debate on gasoline price increases.
Finally, protesters are calling on fellow Venezuelans to boycott the upcoming Carnival holiday, which Maduro extended by two days in an attempt, many said, to distract the country from the unrest.
“He declared Thursday and Friday national holidays to tell people to go to the beach, go travel, get off the streets,” said Barreto. “We want to make sure that people don’t go to Carnival, that they stay on the streets.”
In Valencia, some have planned to lie down along the city’s highways in their bikinis “to tan,” Barreto said.
“That’s the way we’re gonna celebrate Carnival this year.”