General Vivas against Oblivion

Ángel Vivas Perdomo lived besieged in his house just over three years. He gained enormous fame because he resisted armed an arrest warrant issued by President Nicolás Maduro in February 2014. Over the months, his case was buried by the avalanche of news generated in Venezuela. Hurt, he wrote a diatribe against everyone before being captured by the state security forces on April 7. This is the story of a man who feels misunderstood.

18 May 2017
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On April 7, 2017, Brigadier General Ángel Omar Vivas Perdomo got up before dawn. One thousand 138 days had elapsed since February 23, 2014, the last time he could leave his house in the neighborhood of Prados del Este, in Caracas. Three years, one month and thirteen days with the torture of knowing that as soon as he set foot on the street he would be arrested by order of President Nicolás Maduro. Three years, one month and thirteen days doing the same as always after badly sleeping a few hours in the early morning, with the certainty of knowing that one day, his executioners would handcuff him.

Vivas left his room, walked to the guest room of his big house and took the Bible as soon as he stepped through the doorjamb. From the window of the room an intricate and wooded patio is observed, where the general spent most of his forced confinement, taking care of a small vegetable and fruit garden, and a piece of sky. At that time it was not clear yet. The general drew the curtain and repeated the routine well known to his wife Estrella Vitora: open the Bible, read its pages and find in its passages explanations to the condemnation of living under siege without believing that a crime has been committed. "That morning my husband told me that he had asked God to stop the injustice of living harassed. He was already tired of this situation," recalls Vitora many days after her husband was taken into custody.

Vivas finished praying and climbed the small wooded hill to tend the garden. He was happy because all the sacrifice required during the severe drought that hit Venezuela from 2014 to 2016, watering the garden in the middle of the night because at that time the water flow was stronger, bore fruit. After a failed harvest, he had harvested 65 kg (143 lb) of tomato and 27 kg (59.5 lb) of fresh black beans, reduced to 18 kg (39.5 lb) when dried. It was an irony. General Vivas had to feed a troop in the midst of the terrible scarcity that plagues Venezuela, but could not go out to sell the harvest in neighboring supermarkets.

“The first time I visited Ángel in prison, he said, 'They grabbed me like a lamb, Estrella'.”

There in that garden, where he also planted pepper, scallion and pumpkin, he spent much of the day away from his sentence. It was also the way to make the back of his house useful, an overgrown patio ending in a wall of earth, limiting with a street of Cumbres de Curumo neighborhood, nearby Fort Tiuna, the main military fortress of Caracas. General Vivas and his wife, meticulous to obsession, thought that, down there, down the mountain, or perhaps by rappel from a helicopter, men could arrive in the middle of the night to take them prisoners. Sometimes they asked the people who spontaneously came to take care of them - when their case went around the world - to go through the small forest. The collaborators found the bushes less dense, as if someone had cut them, batteries and empty cans of sausages. Today, Estrella Vitora is sure that they were being watched from there. "And look," she says with a slight click of teeth, "they took him the way we least expected. The first time I visited Ángel in prison, he said, 'They grabbed me like a lamb, Estrella'.”

A Man with a Rifle

On February 23, 2014, Vivas submitted a vignette that went around the world. With a spiked AR15 assault rifle and a pistol in his belt, he resisted a search warrant for his home. That day, a section of the quiet street named Maracaibo, in Prados del Este seemed the prelude to the dressing room of a pop figure. Everyone cheered on Vivas, who was pacing from side to side showing his weapons.

His attorney, José María Zaa, remembers very well that unusual day. Vivas had called him when they came looking for him. The officials were following an order from President Nicolás Maduro. The day before, February 22, 2014, at the height of the protests commanded by leaders Leopoldo López, María Corina Machado and mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma, the head of state had said on television, "I have ordered to stop the general who order the installment of that steel cable. Find Ángel Vivas and bring him." Maduro accused Vivas of being the mastermind of the fatal accident of a motorcycle rider, Elvis Durán de la Rosa, in avenida Rómulo Gallegos, in Caracas. The investigations had shown that Durán de la Rosa, 29, had had his throat cut with a steel cable installed across the road. Shortly before that misfortune, Vivas had written on Twitter, "In order to neutralize criminal hordes of motorcycle riders, nylon or galvanized wire strings must be installed at the intersections, at 1.20 meters (4 ft) high."

"It was a forged record, an evident irregularity," says his attorney.

Vivas and Zaa knew each other very well because the lawyer had drafted the lawsuit that in May 2007 had been filed with the Supreme Court of Justice to request the prohibition of the use of the slogan "Homeland, socialism or death" in the Venezuelan barracks. All that would end later, in March 2012, with a sentence of four months and fifteen days in prison for the offense against military respect by virtue of his public statements on service matters.

Zaa, a man with several decades of experience in the activity of the courts, broke through the crowd, who also wanted to enter to protect the military man, and got in the house between screams. "Brave. Brave. Brave." "It was a forged record, an evident irregularity," Zaa recalls three years later, sitting in a café in eastern Caracas, and regretting not having been able to visit him in jail since last April 7. "I told him to tell the captain in charge of arresting him that he (Vivas) would not leave with him until he brought a court order." Then Vivas pronounced the words that made him famous.

-Whoever gets into my house will suffer the consequences.

The population that then applauded him, continued to take care of him for several months. The neighborhood association notified the family whenever a person wanted to visit them, or if a taxi was in the streets. It was the tribute they paid for having witnessed an act they judged to be the demonstration of the manliness of an officer who refused to subordinate himself to the tutelage of Havana. Vivas had disobeyed the order of President Maduro, a close ally of Castroism, and resisted in his house ready to die. He had raised the flag of Venezuela with the seven stars drawn in the blue stripe and with the shield horse looking to the right. It was also a subtle way of resisting Hugo Chávez’s decision to add the eighth star to the national flag -corresponding, strictly speaking, to an old wish of Liberator Simón Bolívar- and redesign the gallop of the white horse.

Apart from these fuss, Chavismo claimed to have evidence that constituted the other side of the heroic story that the residents of Prados del Este built about General Vivas. In the criminal proceeding against the former Minister of Defense, Raúl Baduel, Vivas was accused of "paying an significant amount of money" for the acquisition of a home, to a senior Army officer, named Gustavo Reyes Rangel Briceño, in June of 2006. "At the date of the incident, Vivas was the director of Finance of the Army, while Baduel was the general commander of that component of the FAN (National Armed Forces), and therefore, his immediate boss," says the chavista website La Tabla. The accusations were deemed by his supporters as a campaign to discredit him. After all, Vivas was the first general to openly defy his superiors after the April 2002 coup and the events in Altamira Square in October of that year. But his vignette soon faded. The crowds withdrew. They left him alone with his wife and two daughters, and their resentment.

Shortly before that, after three years under siege, Vivas wrote a long tirade against everyone on his blog. "A lot of people have come to visit me, but no matter how many people come every day, no matter how animated I look when talking to them, there are absences that I feel and carry inside silently. Some are like wounds that will never heal and will always cause me a lot of pain in my soul, others have caused me great disappointment, and others have only made me proud of what I am doing and encouraged me to move forward."

"I do not appear in any of the lists of political persecuted, although my case is known worldwide," claimed Vivas

It was a hard balance after 1,096 days of confinement. Almost nobody left unharmed. All his comrades-in-arms of the José Ignacio Riveiro de Abreu e Lima (1978) promotion fell. "Not a single one has come to visit me, not even those who have kept themselves clean, if there is any left” - political parties, human rights organizations, and the social media. “I do not appear in any of the lists of political persecuted, although my case is known worldwide."  He felt utterly misunderstood. Only his wife Estrella, his daughters and his dog, a furious German shepherd named Hunter, that in the morning of April 7, 2017, barked furiously while his master struggled with his captors, were the exception. "He would give his life to defend me. There is no doubt that he is my best friend," Vivas wrote on March 21, fifteen days before he was captured.

A “Casual” Accident

On April 7, 2014, Estrella Vitora went to the supermarket and returned at 10:30 in the morning. As she always did, she parked on the sidewalk in front of her house to wait for the electric gate to open. It was a ritual that facilitated the maneuver of driving up the steep parking ramp. As soon as she stopped, she heard a blow. A car had crashed into the stone wall of the facade. A young man got out of the car. "Ma’am, ma’am, I was distracted. What a shame."

"My husband began to tell him, very relaxed, that he should be more careful. He was unsuspecting."

Vivas came to see what had happened and found that the damage was minor. I was not armed. Only then, he allowed himself to joke with the young man. "My husband began to tell him, very relaxed, that he should be more careful. He was unsuspecting," recalls Estrella Vitora. They said goodbye and the man turned around and put his hands to his head. Now she thinks that was the gesture for men dressed in black, belonging to the Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, to jump from all sides. At the same time, the driver jumped on Vivas. They all managed to immobilize him and drag him into a truck.

Estrella Vitora started screaming from the balcony and tried to close the electric gate. Some neighbors came out, but it was already late. Ángel Vivas Perdomo had resisted 1,138 days besieged in his house and now they were taking him, without a search warrant, to an unknown destination. Many days later, Estrella would prove that everything had been a trap. The recordings of the security cameras of a neighboring house showed the car that collided with its facade when it came from a dead end perpendicular to its home, while she was driving to her house.

Attorney José María Zaa has not been able to see him and says that there has not been a presentation hearing. But the truth is that Vivas was presented before the military justice on April 8, as several of the detainees of the round of protests that began with the decision of the Supreme Court of Justice to finalize by two judgments the legislative powers of the Parliament. "Vivas was assigned an attorney to guarantee his right to defense," tweeted Ombudsman Tarek William Saab on April 14.

"I do not want to know anything about God. I have an existential crisis," Vivas told his family from jail

The family could see him on May 10 at the headquarters of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, after uninterrupted long waits. Estrella says that her husband was tortured. "In the middle of the beating, he asked God why he had abandoned him if he had always wrought His judgment." When she saw him, she noticed that he was walking with difficulty. The cervical injury seemed magnified by the effects of the beating. At age 22, Vivas Perdomo was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a disease that affects the joints of the base of the spine, which does not allow him to stretch his neck. That peculiar way of looking is the consequence of a degenerative disease.

For Vivas, says his wife, it is difficult to smile, for obvious reasons, but when he tries to do it, he complains of pain in his ribs. Physical pain is just the most visible expression of the drama he is living. The other, is deeper and unfathomable. He told his relatives, "I do not want to know anything about God. I have an existential crisis."

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