Tuesday, April 22, 2014
CARACAS (Reuters) - Masked youths battled police, protesters burned and hung from lamp-posts effigies of President Nicolas Maduro and marchers demanded the "resurrection" of democracy on a volatile Easter Sunday in Venezuela.
Though millions of Venezuelans have headed for Caribbean beaches and family gatherings over the Easter period, student demonstrators have sought to keep a nearly three-month protest movement going with religious-themed demonstrations.
After a barefoot walk and a "Via Crucis" march in the style of Jesus' tortured walk towards crucifixion earlier in the week, hundreds of demonstrators began Sunday with a rally denominated "Resurrection of Democracy."
Easter marks the day Christians believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead after being crucified.
"We're staying in the street until we get our country back," student leader Djamil Jassir, 22, told Reuters in a square where protesters displayed dozens of used gas canisters and bullets as symbols of repression. "This is the time to stand firm."
Later, several hundred hooded protesters, many wearing Guy Fawkes masks, set up barricades in the eastern Chacao district of Caracas that has been a near-daily battleground during recent unrest in Venezuela since mid-February.
Chanting "Liberty!", the youths threw petrol bombs, fired stones from slings, tore down advertising hoardings, and placed wires across streets blocked by debris.
Police responded with teargas and water-cannons, as residents banged pots and pans from windows in a form of protest. Some neighbors threw bottles of water and bags of ice down to the students from balconies.
Anti-Maduro protests since early February have led to violence killing at least 41 people, according to official figures. The dead have been from both sides of the South American nation's political divide and from security forces.
Activists said a student was shot dead on Thursday night in Valencia city while raising cash for the Easter Sunday tradition of "burning Judas" - when neighbors set fire to effigies of hated figures in memory of the disciple who betrayed Jesus.
Gabriel Daza, 21, was constructing a model of a National Guard military officer, activists said via Twitter and in local media. If it is confirmed that his death was linked to the political tensions, he would be the 42nd fatality of the unrest.
Around Venezuela on Sunday, opposition supporters burned puppets of Maduro, the government's powerful No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, and other senior officials. Effigies of a red-clad Maduro hung from several lamp-posts in Caracas.
"They're taking us to the brink, they're killing us," one student, who asked not to be named, said before pouring kerosene over puppets of Maduro and Cabello tied to a railing in Caracas.
Government supporters, meanwhile, did the same to effigies of prominent opposition figures, with jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez proving particularly popular.
"The only Judases in Venezuela are Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado, Antonio Ledezma," one Maduro supporter said on Twitter, referring to the three most hardline opposition leaders. "You all need holy water."
In Petare, the biggest shanty-town in Caracas, residents burned effigies of opposition governor Henrique Capriles and mayor Carlos Ocariz, accusing them of failing to rein in opposition supporters to prevent deaths and damage.
NO "VENEZUELAN SPRING"
Despite the violence and protests of recent weeks, Maduro's position does not appear under threat, with numbers on the street dropping and the armed forces seemingly firm behind him.
"One year into government, I will continue to fulfill my oath with the people," said Maduro, who this week celebrated the anniversary of his election win to replace late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. "No-one will deny our right to be happy, free and independent," he added via Twitter.
The troubles have been limited to a few areas of Venezuela's main cities - and state TV has sought to project an image of normality throughout Holy Week, showing images of packed beaches, happy people, and officials praising Maduro.
The ugly side of Venezuela, though, was also on evidence on Saturday night in Caracas when a driver hit a protester during a street blockade. He tried to escape, but was caught and badly beaten by residents, a Reuters photographer saw.
Frustrated by successive election losses, the protesters originally took to the streets in early February demanding solutions to Venezuela's rampant violent crime, soaring prices, and shortages of basic goods from flour to toilet paper.
Hardliners had hoped for a "Venezuelan Spring" that would oust Maduro, but they failed to bring millions onto the streets.
Maduro says protesters, encouraged by the U.S. government and international media, are seeking to topple him as happened to Chavez during a brief coup in 2002.
He wants to preserve the OPEC state's popular welfare policies while tweaking his predecessor's statist economic model. Critics say 15 years of autocratic rule have ruined what should be one of Latin America's most prosperous economies.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Friday, April 11, 2014
Monday, April 7, 2014
Violence in Venezuela Escalates as Government Attempts to Further Evade Responsibility for Controlling Vigilante's in the Socialist Collectives
Caracas (AFP) - Protests erupted in Caracas late Friday after Venezuela's attorney general charged jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez with responsibility for anti-government demonstrations that have shaken the country since February.
Riot police fired tear gas at crowds of rock-throwing demonstrators in the Chacao neighborhood in what has become an almost regular nightly ritual.
In an ominous sign of possible escalation, a masked man was photographed moving among the protesters armed with what appeared to be a rifle with a telescopic sight.
Leftist President Nicolas Maduro more than once has decried the existence of sharpshooters among the most radical protesters. The government claims the protests are part of a coup attempt orchestrated by the United States and right-wing Colombians.
The protesters, in turn, have long complained about harassment from gangs of armed, semi-official pro-government thugs.
Thirty-nine people have died and another 608 have been wounded since crowds took to the streets in early February to protest Venezuela's soaring crime, high inflation and shortages of essential goods.
- Lopez in solitary confinement -
Lopez, a Harvard-educated economist who is leader of the Popular Will party, has been held in a military prison since he was arrested on February 18 in the midst of a massive opposition protest rally.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz told a press conference that Lopez was formally charged with inciting violence, arson, damage to property and conspiracy.
The government had until Saturday to press charges or release him.
The action stems from Lopez's public support for the student-led street protests that have rocked the country since they began February 4 in the western city of San Cristobal and spread to several other major cities.
Lopez and some other opposition leaders support a strategy dubbed "the exit" that is aimed at generating pressure through street protests for Maduro -- the handpicked successor to late socialist icon Hugo Chavez -- to resign.
Hours after the attorney general's announcement, about 3,000 demonstrators, most of them students, hit the streets in eastern Caracas demanding that Lopez be freed.
Under the slogan "Free Leopoldo," some were dressed in white, a symbol of peace, while others carried the Venezuelan flag.
"We have no weapons, just stones," said one young male protester who wore a homemade gas mask.
Popular Will activist Ernesto Palacios, 31, told AFP: "As a sign of respect, the government should release Leopoldo Lopez and political prisoners."
From his cell at Ramo Verde military prison, Lopez, whose picture wearing a green shirt and leaning over a small window with hands on his cell bars has been circulated on social networks, has complained about his solitary confinement.
Lopez, who had called repeatedly for Maduro's resignation, is allowed one hour of exercise outdoors and has a small television.
- Drug traffickers arrested -
Separately, Maduro announced the capture of two alleged drug traffickers he linked to the anti-government protests.
Colombian suspect Hugo Alberto Nuncira Soto, alias "Don Diego" and "El Junco," of the Los Urabenos criminal gang was arrested, Maduro said, blaming him for "guarimbas," or blocking streets with rubble.
Gabriel Alejandro Reyes Beltran of Venezuela, who is wanted by Interpol, was also arrested on charges of setting up barricades in San Cristobal.
"Criminal gangs of Colombian drug traffickers, paramilitaries and border security forces are directly involved in the planning and execution of roadblocks," the president complained on national media.
The president also ordered an investigation into armed vigilantes who entered the campus of the Central University of Venezuela in downtown Caracas, triggering violent clashes.
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Venezuelans queued on Friday to register for an electronic card system designed to end food shortages that have plagued the country – but which some fear may be the thin end of the rationing wedge.
The ID card, introduced this week, will limit Venezuelans to once-a-week shopping and will set off an alarm to halt any transaction if a purchaser breaks the rules. The government wants to prevent individual shoppers from "over-buying" in a country hit by acute shortages of basic items including milk, sugar and toilet paper. Critics say it is an admission of failure of economic policy in one of the world's big oil-producing nations.
"The government needs to control the hoarders. They have made this worse. But if there weren't shortages there wouldn't be hoarders. We are trapped," says Jose Diaz, a 65-year-old construction worker.
By keeping a record of what is purchased and limiting shopping trips, the electronic card is supposed to curb hoarding and prevent speculative shoppers from buying to resell at a profit. But the larger aim is to halt the huge outflow of food to neighbouring Colombia, where it sells for up to 10 times as much. It is estimated that almost 40% of Venezuela's food is transported illegally across the border.
According to the food minister, Félix Osorio, registering for the card will not be mandatory and regular users may still shop at the network of subsidised food chains. But as with many customer loyalty programmes, cardholders will benefit from even lower prices, extra offers and even enter a raffle to win one of 500 houses in Venezuela's largest public housing programme.
Outside the Bicentenario megastore in Plaza Venezuela, a middle-class neighbourhood in the capital, Caracas, the line stretches for several blocks. Some of the people here have come to register for the new system; others simply want to buy food. Most of them have already been waiting for several hours. They are desperate over what they say is a lifetime spent standing in queues. The card, they hope, will put an end to a perverse cycle they say they cannot bear for much longer.
"This card will take the edge, the sense of panic, out of shopping. If we know that we will find rice or milk next time we come we don't need to stock up and so there will be more to go around," says Oscar Romero, as he orders a cup of coffee from a street vendor to make the wait more pleasant.
After queuing for almost three hours, Pascual Sandoval is just three blue plastic chairs away from registering for the "card for secure supply" as it is being called. Inside, government employees will ask him for his name, home address, job and salary, and if he owns a home or vehicle. They will even scan his thumbprint. "It is a needed step to stop food contraband and speculators who have bled us dry of food," says Sandoval, a retired stonemason.
Like Sandoval, Romero blames the shortage of basic shopping items on speculative shoppers who buy milk, sugar and toilet paper at the subsidised store to resell in their street stalls at three times the price.
His fellow queuers share his enthusiasm for the shopping card, but are not as confident that it alone will solve the shortages or the ensuing long lines. For many the root causes run deeper. Critics say the new system will do little to galvanise the productive parts of an economy in which people see no point in producing goods that are then subject to price controls and end up being loss-making.
Asdrúbal Oliveros, an economist, argues that the government should use the new system to slowly lift the price controls while maintaining subsidies for the poorest sectors of society by way of direct cash handouts through debit cards that cover only food purchases.
"The mistake of these price controls is that the subsidy doesn't go directly to the families and instead it subsidises the product. This breeds scarcity, contraband and the long queues. This appears to be the government's resistance," said Oliveros, who is director of Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalitica.
Fiercer critics say the card is the most blatant sign that Venezuela's economy has spiralled out of control. For some, the recent move is nothing short of a Cuban-style rationing card that will sooner or later hamper citizens' economic freedoms.
"I don't want to be told what I can buy and when I can buy it. That's what I work for. I am a revolutionary but I didn't go into this wanting it to become Cuba," says Mercedes Azuaje as she exits a corner shop with an almost empty bag of groceries.