Venezuela rivals march a month after first deaths

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 12, 2014 1:01 PM

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Supporters and foes of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro took to the streets of Caracas again on Wednesday a month after similar rival rallies brought the first bloodshed in a wave of unrest round the OPEC member nation.

Red-clad sympathizers of Maduro's socialist government held a "march for peace" while opponents wearing white gathered to denounce alleged brutality by security forces during Venezuela's worst political troubles for a decade.

Police and soldiers lined the streets with riot gear ready and many Caracas residents chose to stay at home.

Two opposition supporters and a pro-government activist were shot dead in Caracas on February 12, galvanizing an incipient protest movement and leading to near-daily clashes in Caracas and some western Andean cities.

At least 22 people have died, with victims on both sides.

Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver who won election last year to succeed the late Hugo Chavez, has declared victory over an attempted 'coup' against him and appears to be in little danger of being toppled by a 'Venezuelan Spring'.

But students are vowing to keep the protests going, meaning protracted instability could bring more bloodshed and represent a further drag on Venezuela's already troubled economy.

"The opposition are causing all the violence. They should think a bit smarter. The street barricades make no sense, they just cause violence," said government supporter Marcos Alacayo, 46, among hundreds of 'Chavistas' at a square in east Caracas.

"They're trying to make out the nation is in a bad state, but that just isn't true. More people have access to healthcare, education and good food than ever. That's what they don't understand. Before Chavez, no one had what we have now," added Alacayo, who works for a state-run higher education program.

HUNDREDS ARRESTED, INJURED

More than 1,300 people have been arrested since anti-government demonstrations began at the start of February, and 92 are still behind bars, according to the government.

Those held include 14 security officials, some of whom are implicated in the deaths of two of the victims shot in the February 12 rallies. More than 300 people have also been injured.

"Today we're marching to denounce the repression. There can't be impunity. Why do they attack us when we are demonstrating freely? The security forces are bowing to a political ideology when their duty is to protect the people," said law student Agnly Veliz, 22, at the opposition rally.

Veliz said she was at the fateful February 12 rally and has been protesting every day since. "What's the point of graduating while the country is in chaos? If I lose the year but help to achieve a better Venezuela, then it's worth it."

Although their protest movement is smaller than those seen in Brazil, Ukraine and around the Middle East, the demonstrators in Venezuela share a similarly amorphous list of grievances and causes.

Some want Maduro out now. All complain about crime, inflation and shortages of basic goods. Demands to free detainees, especially hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, have become an increasingly loud cry on the streets.

The protests have wrong-footed the moderate political leadership of Venezuela's opposition coalition, including two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro by just 1.5 percentage points in last year's vote.

His strategy had been to work patiently in grassroots communities while waiting for the next electoral opportunity - parliamentary elections in 2015, but now firebrand opposition leaders and students are taking the lead.

"Let's not give up. I won't. God bless you all!" said the imprisoned Lopez in a message to Wednesday's opposition marchers Tweeted by his wife after a prison visit.

Maduro ordered his security forces to prevent the opposition demonstrators from reaching downtown Caracas, where the February 12 trouble started as rivals clashed. "I know they have a violent plan. I'd be crazy to allow it," he said.

Foreign ministers from South America's Unasur bloc were to meet in Chile on Wednesday to discuss the Venezuelan situation.

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Diego Ore; Editing by James Dalgleish)