Venezuela's Opposition Seeks to Keep Pressure on Maduro

by Alvaro Algarra

April 20, 2017

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CARACAS, VENEZUELA —
Opponents of the Venezuelan government vowed to continue street protests Thursday aimed at forcing out President Nicolas Maduro, a day after deadly clashes killed at least two people and hundreds of others were arrested in the largest anti-government demonstrations in years.

Thousands of Venezuelans poured into the main streets of Caracas Wednesday, with rival camps demonstrating support for and against Maduro and his socialist policies.

Security forces deployed tear gas in a neighborhood on the capital city's west side, and a teenager shot in the head near an anti-government protest died while in surgery. Pro-government militias were blamed for his death, as well as the killing of a woman in San Cristobal. The prosecutor's office is investigating the circumstances of both deaths.

A National Guard soldier was also reported killed during protests in Miranda state, near Caracas.

Wednesday's deaths bring the number of people killed in almost three weeks of escalating protests to eight.

Despite Wednesday's deadly violence, opposition leaders called for renewed protests on Thursday.

"Today there were millions of us. Tomorrow even more of us need to come out," senior opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles told a news conference.

US response

In Washington, administration officials are worried the Venezuela government is working to suppress the opposition.

“We are concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in a way that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday at the State Department.

“We are concerned about that situation. We're watching it closely and working with others, particularly through the OAS [Organization of American States] to communicate those concerns to them,” Tillerson added in a brief press conference.

Venezuela's tattered economy, and the resulting strain on her family and the broader society, prodded Helma Mendoza to join "the mother of all marches," organized by leaders of the center-right political opposition.

"I am motivated by the hunger that we are going through … [and] for those who are dying in hospitals for lack of medicines," Mendoza told VOA.

"We are living in a dictatorship, we are living in oppression," opposition protester Karina Ivone said. "This cheating government has betrayed us, the people, the children in the family."

But Yoneici Paredes, a youth leader supporting Maduro, took a different view.

"Today, this youth is convinced that socialism is the way … for us to build Venezuela's power and the message is to contribute our grain of sand to be a better country in Venezuela," Paredes said.

Counter march

President Maduro had rallied his supporters to turn out for a counter march, and Wednesday brought out thousands of demonstrators wearing red clothing that marked them as Chavistas.

"Today, the entire Venezuelan population comes out to ratify its support for the Bolivian revolution" and its "loyalty to supreme commander Hugo Chavez," one man in a red cap and T-shirt told VOA.

Chavez launched the leftist movement carried on by Maduro, who succeeded him as president in 2013.

In recent protests, security forces have fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons.

The demonstrations erupted after the Venezuelan Supreme Court's March 30 announcement that it would strip the opposition controlled National Assembly of its legislative powers. The court, stacked with appointees of Maduro and Chavez, reversed its position in the wake of domestic and international outcries about an attempted power grab.

Maduro's opponents converged on central Caracas on Wednesday to pressure his administration to respect the assembly's autonomy, schedule long-delayed elections, free political prisoners and restore other democratic norms.

Unidad Venezuela, a coalition of opposition parties, also organized marches in each of the country's 24 states. A demonstration also took place at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington.

Economic pressures

The National Socialist Party has ruled Venezuela for 17 years. Economic pressures have mounted in recent years, especially since the price of oil, Venezuela's chief export, began falling in 2014. Venezuelans face chronic, severe shortages of food, medicine and other basics in what once was Latin America's wealthiest country.

Wednesday's mass protest fell on a significant date for Venezuelans: On April 19, 1810, Venezuelans began their quest for independence from Spain.

In recent days, Maduro ordered troops to fan out around the country on high alert, and he encouraged his backers, including civilian militia members, to defend against alleged plans to overthrow his government.

"Do not hesitate for a second," he urged on Monday.

The U.S. State Department Tuesday issued a statement warning that the "international community" would join in any Venezuelan response to the "criminal repression of peaceful democratic activity. ..."

The statement, by spokesman Mark Toner, urged nonviolent demonstrations. "We deplore the use of violence against unarmed protestors," the statement also said.

Maduro rejected the statement, saying the State Department in essence had announced a coup against Venezuela. "Whoever wants to see the script written to generate violence, death … read the statement. There is the plan," he said.

On Monday, 11 Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, called on Venezuela's government to respect the constitutional right to peaceful protest.

On Tuesday, the Venezuelan Penal Forum, a nongovernmental organization, said security forces in the country have carried out 538 arrests since early April. It said that as of Monday, 241 people were being detained. It also reported multiple instances of torture and cruelty to detainees.

State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report