CARACAS, Venezuela – Anti-government protesters in Venezuela have settled on a new target for their frustration: Hugo Chavez.
Until recently, even as the economy cratered and Venezuelans abandoned support for President Nicolas Maduro, many in the socialist-run country continued to revere Chavez for standing up for the oil-rich nation's long-overlooked poor masses.
But that once solid reputation has begun to crumble as quickly as statues and monuments built to the late strongman have been toppled. As anti-government unrest has spread, claiming at least 53 lives and leaving hundreds injured, protesters have ripped from their pedestals statues honoring Chavez in at least five towns over the past month.
The latest incident took place Monday when a protest in the western city of Barinas turned violent and demonstrators torched a home where Chavez spent part of his childhood, opposition politicians in the city said.
During a day of violence in the city, in which at least five men were killed and 50 injured, it was unclear how the incident began or the extent of damage to the house — one of several, and hardly the best known — where a young Chavez lived during an itinerant upbringing marked by poverty.
But the symbolism was nonetheless deeply felt by protesters and government supporters alike.
Since Chavez died in 2013, Maduro has tried to cement his grip on power by constantly invoking his political mentor. New statues depicting a youthful Chavez have been built around the country. His penetrating eyes and iconic signature are emblazoned on hundreds of public buildings. And even anti-government demonstrators frequently couch their criticism of Maduro by citing El Comandante's old speeches to argue he has strayed from Chavez's revolutionary road map.
Yet in town plazas around the country, Venezuelans no longer appear to view Chavez's legacy as justification for the current government.
In Villa del Rosario, a town in northwest Venezuela, protesters two weeks ago set fire to a statue of Chavez standing in salute and later proceeded to shake it back and forth, cheering when they finally knocked it to the ground. The only thing left standing was the commander's boots. In another city, a Chavez bust disappeared entirely.
"Some people, in some way, want to satiate that frustration, that disappointment they carry inside," said Joni Cermeno, a businesswoman who lives in Pariaguan, where townspeople recently awoke to find their Chavez statue reduced to smelted metal.
Authorities have responded swiftly.
Sixteen people were detained in the Villa del Rosario statue destruction and sent to military tribunals, according to their lawyer, Laura Valbuena. She said they have been charged with rebellion and insulting officials and could face up to 27 years in prison.
Jaquelin Perdomo, who works for the Caracas' mayor office, said the statue burnings were aberrant acts by a violent opposition.
"They want to erase anything that smells of Chavez," she said while waiting for a pro-government march in Caracas to begin on Monday.
However for many analysts the removal of so many Chavez statues, while unlikely to rank alongside the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, reveals the extent to which many Venezuelans feel embittered and betrayed by Maduro.
"Not too long ago, Chavez was widely regarded as a revolutionary hero in Venezuela," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "These acts reflect the depth of anger and hostility toward a regime that, in the name of Chavez, has utterly destroyed a once relatively prosperous and democratic nation."
Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.