Small protests proliferate in simmering Venezuela

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 17, 2016 7:06 AM

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Frustrated neighbors block a road with trash after days without water. Placard-waving nurses halt traffic to demand uniforms and medicines. Women bang pots on balconies when the lights go out.

Venezuela is simmering with small-scale street protests as water and electricity services stutter, labor disputes mount, and basic food items become more scarce and expensive amid a worsening economic crisis across the OPEC nation.

"What do they expect? For us to cross our arms and do nothing against such ineptitude!" said Jonathan Perez, an unemployed 25-year-old who helped organize a protest outside a state water company office after cuts in his poor Caracas neighborhood.

The largely spontaneous demonstrations are not in themselves a major threat to President Nicolas Maduro, but they do show the depth of public anger and they could become a catalyst for wider unrest, especially if an opposition bent on forcing Maduro from power can tap into the frustration.

Over 1,000 protests were reported in the first two months of this year by the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict - nearly 17 per day. There were also 64 looting incidents.

"The situation has got worse in 2016. Protests have increased in number and size," the group, which is highly critical of Maduro, said in a report.

"Additionally, we see an increase in violence."

Most of the protests are small, short and specific: they involve just a few dozen people, last a few hours at most and are rooted in local neighborhood or workplace issues.

National Guard soldiers and police often turn up, with officers preferring low-profile tactics, trying to talk people into removing barricades and taking complaints elsewhere.

Where looting or fighting occurs, it is normally outside supermarkets, as people often wait for hours under the sun and scuffles can break out when stocks arrive.

OPPOSITION CAMPAIGN

In the volatile western city of San Cristobal, though, masked youths have been burning tires and hurling stones at police, who respond with tear gas and water cannon, in overtly political protests demanding Maduro's exit.

San Cristobal and Caracas were the epicenters of nationwide opposition protests in 2014, which led to the deaths of more than 40 people.

By many metrics, Venezuelan society is in a worse state than it was back then. Across the recession-hit nation, people endure ever longer power and water cuts, triple-digit inflation, the collapse of the bolivar currency and shortages of basics from medicines and milk to light bulbs and batteries.

The opposition alliance is trying to oust Maduro and trigger a presidential election via a recall referendum, constitutional amendment to cut his term, or by igniting mass protests on the streets.

But their campaign kickoff on Saturday drew barely a few thousand people, showing how hard it will be to harness undeniable anger into direct mass pressure on Maduro.

The opposition has an image problem among many Venezuelans after the 2014 protests turned violent and failed to draw in the poor. The ruling Socialist Party accuses them of exploiting the current economic crisis to stir violence and seek a coup.

And voters who gave the opposition an unprecedented victory in December's legislative election are disappointed not to have seen any improvement in their living conditions.

Disillusionment with politicians on both sides of the divide is palpable everywhere.

"The government and the opposition blame and fight each other, while they don't see the disaster people are suffering," said health center receptionist Jereli Gil, waving a banner with colleagues as they blocked a Caracas thoroughfare on a recent weekday morning to demand equipment and back pay.

Gil, 22, says she struggles to care for her two-year-old child given her 11,000-bolivar monthly salary - just $9 at the black market exchange rate - and the shortages.

"I can't get diapers, or milk. I work from 8 to 5, so when do I have time for shopping lines? The politicians need a dialogue, their rivalry is helping nobody."

(Additional reporting by Efrain Otero in Caracas, and Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Editing by Girish Gupta and Kieran Murray)