Uneasy calm in Caracas as death toll hits 18
US Secretary of State Kerry studies mediation possibilities as country looks to Carnival
CARACAS — The start of a weeklong string of holidays leading up to the March 5 anniversary of former President Hugo Chávez’s death did not completely pull protesters from the streets as the government apparently hoped.
Hundreds of students rallied on a leafy street in east Caracas on Thursday demanding an end to the government crackdown on protests and the release of those jailed in recent weeks. When some of the protesters later moved toward a major highway, government security forces fired with tear gas.
In Valencia, about 170 kilometres west of the capital, protesters manned burning street barricades and clashed with police.
President Nicolás Maduro announced this week that he was adding Thursday and yesterday to the already scheduled long Carnival weekend that includes Monday and Tuesday off, and many people interpreted it as an attempt to calm tensions.
Thursday’s student protest was intended to send the government a message that demonstrators would not be distracted by a vacation.
“They want to demobilize us with this decree that joins Carnival with these two days commemorating the Caracazo,” said student leader Juan Requesens, using the common term for a wave of anti-government protests in 1989.
“Maduro is mistaken,” he added. “We’re going to continue in the street, we’re not going to leave our democratic fight for six days at the beach.”
What began as student-led demonstrations this month in several cities have taken a toll that the government puts at 18 dead. The mostly middle class opposition joined the protests, but for the most part they have not expanded to poorer neighbourhoods where Maduro’s support base resides.
The roadblocks, mostly in middle class neighbourhoods, have become just another irritation for some already frustrated by food shortages, soaring crime rates and inflation that hit 56 percent last year.
“I’m fed up. I have an empty refrigerator and I can’t even go to the supermarket because of this barricade,” said Alma Castillo, a 33-year-old homemaker in Caracas. “I’m not a Chavista, but it’s not fair that our own neighbours do this to us. The protest has to be organized and peaceful.”
Protesters blocked streets in Valencia Thursday after clashes with police the night before in a working class neighborhood left a bus and another vehicle burned.
Others in the well-off municipality of San Diego lined up for hours to buy scarce basic necessities.
“This shouldn’t continue like this,” said engineer Armando Rodríguez, accompanied by his wife and two young children. They waited four hours to buy two chickens, which like corn flour, cooking oil and toilet paper have become hard to find.
Handfuls of demonstrators blocked several roads again yesterday morning.
In that context President Nicolás Maduro forged ahead with a new round of televised peace meetings yesterday. He announced his intention to establish similar conferences in all states. Absent were members of the opposition, who refuse to open a dialogue until Maduro releases protesters from jail and stops harsh crackdowns on protests.
“I believe the country would win if we see each other face to face and talk,” Maduro said. He also announced that national guardsman Giovanni Pantoja died yesterday after being shot in the eye while he and others removed debris from a street in Valencia.
The United Nations again called for dialogue and an end to violence in Venezuela yesterday.
“The inflammatory rhetoric from all sides is utterly unhelpful and risks escalating the tense situation in the country,” UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said, calling for an independent investigation into the deaths.
“It is time for all sides to move beyond verbal aggression and towards meaningful dialogue. This crisis will only be resolved if the human rights of all Venezuelans are respected.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was discussing with Colombia and other nations the possibility of international mediation in Venezuela.
The United States is working with Colombia and other countries to see if mediation can bring opposing sides in Venezuela together for talks on ending unrest there, US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday.
“We are working closely with Colombia and other countries to try to see how some kind of mediation might be able to take place, because it’s obviously already proven very difficult for the two sides to bring themselves together by themselves,” Kerry said during a joint news conference with his Colombian counterpart.
“They need to sit down and come together and talk about the future of Venezuela and how they can best affect that future in a peaceful and responsible way,” he said.
Kerry repeated that the United States was willing to have a more constructive relationship with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“Unfortunately, Venezuela has spontaneously decided again and again to move in a different direction and more often than not to blame the United States for its own lack of governance and inattention to its economy and dealing with its own citizens,” Kerry said.
“We will examine every aspect of what is available to us as an option but most importantly we need a dialogue in Venezuela, not arrests and violence in the streets, and persecution against young people who are voicing their hopes for a future,” Kerry said.
On Thursday evening Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua politely rejected Uruguayan President Mujica’s offer to mediate in the conflict.
A crisis in numbers
More than 250 people have been injured around Venezuela this month, and another 500 or so arrested, authorities said.
Included are seven intelligence agents and security officials accused in the shooting of two people in downtown Caracas on February 12, the most violent day of protests.
Herald with AP, Reuters. Télam