Venezuela security forces block protesters in Caracas

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 04, 2017 9:48 AM

By Andreina Aponte and Christian Veron

CARACAS (Reuters) - Blocking streets with riot shields and using pepper-spray on protesters, Venezuelan security forces impeded an opposition rally in Caracas on Tuesday against President Nicolas Maduro's unpopular socialist government.

Authorities also closed subway stations and ringed off the capital's Plaza Venezuela, where Maduro foes had planned to meet.

In one street, women knelt down, singing the national anthem as neighbors banged pots-and-pans from nearby buildings in a show of anger against a government feeling public ire for a deep recession that has led to shortages of food and basics.

"We're going to get rid of them, but we have to fight," said Jose Zapata, a 57-year-old electrician, as he marched with a stick in his hand.

Maduro's supporters were organizing their own counter-rally, in a volatile scenario seen many times during the 18 years of leftist rule in the South American nation.

Fearful of clashes, some Caracas residents were staying home, and businesses near rallies were closed.

Some protests were also taking place in other cities.

Tuesday's instability sent Venezuelan bonds lower, with the benchmark 2027 paper's price off 4.4 percent.

Tensions have soared in the oil-producing nation's long-running political standoff after the pro-Maduro Supreme Court last week annulled the opposition-led congress' functions.

Although it retracted that ruling over the weekend, the National Assembly remains powerless due to previous court judgments.

MADURO "TERRIFIED"

Foreign pressure on Maduro has risen as scattered opposition protests have restarted.

"It is Mr. Maduro who has ordered shut all the accesses to Caracas to stop people expressing their repudiation," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles. "He's terrified."

Stung by criticism from most of Latin America of an erosion of democracy, Maduro says the U.S. government and other foes are whipping up hysteria against him to lay the ground for a coup.

Maduro's administration is particularly furious with Organization of American States head Luis Almagro, who is leading regional condemnation.

The regional bloc on Monday urged Venezuela to restore congress' authority and guarantee separation of powers, but Venezuela's representative walked out, as did the envoy from fellow leftist Bolivia, which holds the OAS presidency.

"The OAS has surpassed itself in aggression against Venezuela," Maduro said late on Monday. "It is a real court of inquisition, carrying out abuses and vulgarities."

Venezuela's opposition won a National Assembly majority in late 2015, but the Supreme Court has overturned almost all its measures.

The legislature planned to start proceedings later on Tuesday to have the tribunal's judges removed, but that would only be a symbolic rebuke since it has no power to act.

Opposition leaders have been staging small, targeted protests over the last few days that have resulted in some clashes with security forces and Maduro backers.

Two lawmakers were injured on Monday, and authorities have arrested two political activists and two military officers since the weekend. More than 100 opponents of Maduro are now in jail, rights group say.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Eyanir Chinea and Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)