Venezuela protest death toll rises
Three more people killed as a result of anti-government demonstrations
CARACAS — Three Venezuelans died from gunshot wounds during protests against socialist President Nicolás Maduro, witnesses and local media said yesterday, pushing the death toll from almost two months of protests to over 30.
Thousands of supporters and opponents of the president took to the streets yesterday in new shows of force.
A man identified as Jesus Orlando Labrador died from a gunshot wound in the chest yesterday in the southwestern city of Merida, Mayor Carlos García told The Associated Press. He said it happened when a suspected group of hard-line government supporters began shooting at anti-government protesters.
Meanwhile Argenis Hernández, 26, was shot in the stomach as he was demonstrating near a barricade in the central city of Valencia and died yesterday in a nearby hospital, according to local media reports. A motorcyclist attempted to cross the barricade and opened fire on demonstrators when they would not let him through, wounding Hernández.
Bus driver Wilfredo Rey, 31, died on Friday night after being shot in the head during a confrontation between demonstrators and hooded gunmen in the convulsed western city of San Cristóbal, according to residents of the neighbourhood where the incident took place. Rey had not been involved in the protests, they said.
With the two latest victims, the death toll rises to 34 people in five weeks of clashes between protesters and security forces who are sometimes joined by motorcycle-riding civilians loyal to Maduro’s socialist government. Hundreds more have been wounded and arrested.
The threat of violence didn’t deter thousands of Venezuelans from congregating peacefully in the capital Caracas and other cities yesterday to demand an end to the use of force against dissents by what opponents have taken to calling Maduro’s “dictatorship”. The demonstrations come a little more than a month after the arrest of Leopoldo López, a leading voice of the opposition who had been urging Maduro to step down. He is charged with conspiracy and arson tied to the first wave of deadly protests.
Maduro has denounced the protests as part of a US-backed, “fascist” conspiracy to stir violence and oust him from power just a few months after his party prevailed in nationwide municipal elections. The hand-picked successor of the late President Hugo Chávez, he was expected to address another rally called yesterday in Caracas by loyalist students denouncing arson attacks that have kept several universities shut for weeks.
“This Venezuelan right-wing is especially conspiratorial and is trying to drive a hole through our democracy,” Maduro said in televised remarks yesterday.
While both sides are digging in for a prolonged battle, Venezuela’s economy continues to wobble, with many analysts now forecasting a recession this year and no end in sight for widespread shortages and galloping inflation that hit 57 percent in February.
Maduro on Friday estimated damage caused by the protests at US$10 billion.
In related news, Venezuela on Friday managed to prevent discussion of its political crisis at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting, and also stopped opposition lawmaker María Corina Machado from speaking to the regional body.
After an eight-hour session closed to the press at the group's Washington headquarters, 22 countries voted against discussing Venezuela's increasingly violent political crisis.
The OAS's permanent council earlier voted 22 to 11 in favour of barring the press, with one member abstaining.
Panama had accredited Venezuelan lawmaker María Corina Machado to its delegation so she could speak about the situation in her country.
But Venezuelan Ambassador Ray Chaderton said that a Machado presentation would have violated the group's principle of non-intervention in affairs of other countries.
Machado is a proponent, along with jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, of an opposition strategy that seeks to force Maduro's resignation under pressure of street protests. The government is threatening to strip her of her parliamentary immunity and charge her with murder over the street protests.
The opposition lawmaker said the vote against opening the session reflected "the totalitarian vocation of the Venezuelan regime."
The Venezuelan case was discussed two weeks ago at the OAS in a special session of its permanent council, which also was held behind close doors. On that occasion, a wide majority of countries approved a declaration in solidarity with Venezuelan democracy and the government's initiatives to hold talks to defuse the protests.
Herald with AP, Reuters, AFP