Skirmishes start as Venezuelan leader's foes, backers rally

Reuters News
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Posted: May 01, 2017 12:36 PM

By Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) - Security forces fired tear gas toward opposition supporters in several parts of Caracas on Monday, witnesses said, during rival May Day marches for and against Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The skirmishes broke out as the opposition began a second month of protests demanding elections to try and end the Socialist Party's 18-year rule of the South American oil producer.

Twenty nine people have been killed and hundreds injured in the unrest that began in early April.

"For no reason, they are starting to repress us," lawmaker Jose Olivares said, using the streaming app Periscope on his phone to show National Guard troops firing in one district of west Caracas where hundreds of anti-Maduro marchers gathered.

Opposition supporters ran behind trees and walls to avoid the volleys of gas. Olivares was later injured in the head by a gas canister, the opposition said.

In downtown Caracas, red-shirted backers of Maduro rallied en masse, cheering a huge inflatable doll of his predecessor Hugo Chavez and railing against opposition "terrorists."

At the weekend, Maduro announced a 60 percent increase to the monthly minimum wage to counter the impact of triple-digit annual inflation which has eroded people's buying power.

He touts the move as evidence of strong worker protection under "21st century Socialism."

But foes say the increase, which takes the minimum wage to nearly $50 a month at the black market rate, is further proof of Maduro wrecking the oil-rich nation's economy with chaotic policies like currency controls and excessive money printing.

Millions of Venezuelans are struggling to eat three square meals a day or afford basic medicines amid a fourth year of recession.

"Who can stand this? So much hunger, misery, crime ... The prices are going up far more than the salary rises," said social security worker Sonia Lopez, 34, waving a flag signed in the past by now jailed opposition leader Antonio Ledezma.

OPPOSITION WANTS ELECTIONS

Thousands of supporters of both sides were gathering in Caracas and other major cities. The government laid on hundreds of buses for its backers but closed subway stations in the capital and set up roadblocks, impeding opposition mobilization.

Government opponents are demanding elections, autonomy for the legislature where they have a majority, a humanitarian aid channel from abroad and freedom for more than 100 jailed activists.

Maduro retorts that they are violent protesters seeking a coup to allow a Washington-backed right-wing government get its hands on Venezuela's oil wealth.

The fatalities since early April have included supporters of both sides and a National Guard sergeant, most from gunshots.

"The workers are in the street to defend our president against the violent coup-mongers," said Aaron Pulido, 29, a union worker with migration department Saime gathering in downtown Caracas in a sea of red banners.

"They destroyed five Saime offices around Venezuela in the last month ... There's never violence in our marches," he added.

Police and National Guard troops, whom the opposition accuse of using excessive force in near-daily clashes, were out in force across the capital, many behind riot shields with armored vehicles waiting in side streets.

Some government workers acknowledged they had been coerced into attending. "We're here because they tell us to. If not, there are problems," a 34 year-old worker with a state aluminum company, just off a bus after an all-night journey from southern Ciudad Bolivar, told a journalist until a supervisor cut off the conversation.

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer, additonal reporting by Marco Bello and Carlos Rawlins; Editing by W Simon and Andrew Hay)