When pro- and anti-Nicolás Maduro factions converged Sunday afternoon at Montrose and Westheimer, the fault lines between the groups had little connection to the nominally Socialist leader of Venezuela.
About 15 socialists, who oppose President Donald Trump, called a “U.S. coup” in Venezuela. A few feet away were around a handful of counter-demonstrators, who appeared to support Trump, Immigration and Custom Enforcement and the fascist 1970s government of Augusto Pinochet, in Chile.
A small contingent of police officers, there to keep order, set up a metal riot fence between the two groups. Police Lt. C.J. Bender said he didn’t expect any problems but stressed: “What we expect and what we get are two different things.”
David Michael Smith, an activist with the Houston Socialist Movement, had helped organize the pro-Maduro rally with his wife, Ronna. Smith knew some of the counter-demonstrators.
“They threatened an event yesterday,” he said, referencing a protest Saturday at Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library over public reading events organized by drag queens.
The controversy Sunday centered on Juan Guaidó, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly who on Wednesday declared himself the legitimate leader of the country. Maduro dismissed the announcement as part of a history of “gringo interventions and coup d’etats,” but the Trump administration and other U.S.-aligned governments accepted Guaidó’s claim.
Smith said he was there to support “the revolution” — meaning Maduro’s government. Given the chaos Venezuela, the term “revolution” had some ambiguity.
Smith seemed to recognize the irony and caught himself with a smile. “The Bolivar revolution,” he clarified, using a name often applied to pan-American socialism. “Not the counter-revolution.”
Smith wasn’t just there to support Maduro, though. He was also taking a stand, he said, against “fascists” and “armed Trumpsters.”
“Some of these folks are very close to neo-Nazis,” he added.
The pro-Maduro side was a mix of Latino immigrants and run-of-the-mill leftist protesters.
Victor Ibarra, a Mexican-American immigration lawyer saw his pro-Maduro stance as Mexican patriotism. After all, López Obrador still recognized the Maduro government.
“The way to solve the crisis in Venezuela is with an election,” Ibarra said. “Otherwise, anyone can stand up and go like this” — he raised his hand to mimic himself taking an oath — “and be president.”
José Chirinos — apparently the only Venezuelan-American in attendance — captured the tenuous connection between Venezuela and these protests. Wearing a Venezuelan flag over his shoulders, he got into a brief shouting match with pro-Maduro demonstrators.
“Yo soy Venezuelano,” Chirinos shouted at the Maduro supporters. They pushed Chirinos and shouted “Contras out” at him — in reference to the infamous right-wing death squad in Nicaragua in the 1980s and 1990s.
Police escorted Chirinos across the riot barrier. He stood by himself. He wasn’t with pro-Maduro, but as an immigrants’ rights advocate, he didn’t have much in common with the pro-Trump supporters, either.
“I help a lot of immigrants,” Chirinos said when asked how he felt about Trump.
In fact, Chirinos said, he knew Ibarra from his immigration work. Chirinos was hurt and angry to see Ibarra standing in support of a government Chirinos saw as illegitimate.
“With that act, he’s destroying his pro-immigrant work,” Chirinos said. He wondered aloud if he should buy Ibarra “a first-class plane ticket” to Venezuela so that he could see the chaos for himself.
Chirinos pulled up an Instagram post on his phone. The photo showed Venezuelan police manhandling two people, whom Chirinos described them as his nephew and niece.
“How can you support a communist guy and a criminal?” he asked rhetorically about Ibarra. “It’s ridiculous — and sad.”