Protests Continue as Venezuela Goes on Vacation

Opposition protests continue in Venezuela, while masses of holiday-goers have headed to the beach to escape the unrest.

By Ewan Robertson
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Mérida, 3rd March 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Opposition protests continue in Venezuela, while masses of holiday-goers have headed to the beach to escape the unrest.

Over the weekend opposition supporters continued the protests that have mainly taken place in middle and upper class areas of Venezuela’s cities.

However the government has argued that the large numbers of people travelling to the beach and other destinations over the long “carnival” weekend shows that the protesters are a “minority” and that life in most of the country continues as normal.

Protests began last month after hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is currently under investigation for incitement to violence, called for supporters to take to the streets and force the “exit” of President Nicolas Maduro. Led by pro-opposition students, demonstrators have also mentioned insecurity, high inflation and shortages as reasons for discontent.

While some protests have been peaceful, others have descended into violence and rioting. Further, small groups of radical opposition activists have set up burning street barricades in parts of some of Venezuela’s cities, blocking traffic and creating a range of problems for the normal functioning of civic life.

Protests vs. holidays

The opposition fought to keep the momentum of protests going as the country entered a long weekend on Thursday, which will last until this coming Wednesday. On Sunday, thousands of opposition supporters marched through Caracas to underscore their discontent.

The mayors of several opposition controlled municipalities cancelled local carnival celebrations, rejecting the government’s call for normality.

“There’s no reason to celebrate here,” said Ramón Muchacho, mayor of the wealthy Chacao municipality of eastern Caracas.

Also on Sunday 41 people, including an Italian photographer, were released from detention. They were arrested on Friday during a confrontation between National Guard officers and molotov-cocktail wielding opposition hard-liners in the up-market Altamira area of Caracas.

There were fresh confrontations in Altamira today, with National Guard officers using tear gas to disperse opposition radicals armed with molotov cocktails, the local mayor reported.

Meanwhile the government has said that at least a million people have taken advantage of the long weekend to go on holiday.

“With this mobilisation [of tourists] that there has been this carnival, it’s being demonstrated to the country that the violent ones are a minority…[and] that they’re ever more isolated,” said tourism minister Andres Izarra today.

On the country’s beaches, many Venezuelans expressed their desire to escape from the unrest.

“They [the violent protests and street barricades] are absurd, we all have the right to free transit whatever our political opinions: they’re not doing anything with these barricades,” said Oscar Figuera, a beach-goer with his family, to private Venezuelan news outlet Noticias 24.

"I’m self employed, and I’ve not been able to go out to work and my children haven’t been able to go to school. There are other ways to protest,” Figuera stated.

Meanwhile some opposition supporters stayed on the streets, arguing that they didn’t want the holidays to dampen the protests. “Going on vacation is really like saying that [the government] is right, that everything is calm and everything is fine, when we don’t feel that way,” said Carlos Torres, an engineer, to the BBC in Caracas.

“We want the street to remain active,” said another protester, a student named Eduardo.”If the protests are peaceful then people get tired,” he explained.

Nevertheless President Maduro argued today that the great majority had decided to use the long weekend to celebrate the carnival holiday. “You [the opposition] believed that we were going to let you take away the children's happiness. The people of Venezuela have triumphed. The people want peace,” he declared.

Also today, right-wing legislator Maria Corina Machado and Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, led a march to the Venezuela office of the Organisation of American States (OAS). Describing the situation in Venezuela as “the assassination of a democracy”, they demanded that the OAS debate events in Venezuela and support the opposition with a “firm reaction”.

“If the OAS turns its back on Venezuela in these hours it won’t just be betraying Venezuela, it will be burying the OAS,” argued Machado, who participated in the short-lived 2002 coup against former president Hugo Chavez.

Antonio Ledezma reiterated his faction of the opposition’s rejection of Maduro’s National Peace Conference initiative, which had its first meeting last Wednesday with business, religious, and some opposition figures.

“Those aren’t meetings of peace, they’re meetings of violence where citizens aren’t respected and there isn’t a clear agenda of what is wanted to be achieved,” he argued.

Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles didn’t attend today’s march. Instead the state governor launched an initiative called the “People’s Defence Command”, which he said seeks “to form a great social movement…to push for change”.

One of the objectives of the initiative is to “leave aside the political agenda of violence” and to campaign on “social problems” that can be used to reach out to the opposition’s non-traditional base of support.

While also rejecting Maduro’s offer of dialogue, Capriles has previously criticised the hard-line opposition’s tactics as containing an “empty agenda” and representing a political “dead end”.

According to press and authorities, 18 have been killed and 260 wounded since violent protests began last month. The latest victim is a National Guard officer, Giovanni Pantoja, who died last Friday. He was reportedly shot by a gunman in an “ambush” while he and his colleagues were trying to clear the remains of a street barricade from a road in Carabobo state.

Venezuela’s Ombudsman, Gabriela Ramírez, reported today that the state’s human rights body has received 42 denouncements of abuses by security forces. She said that the majority of these were for excess use of force at the point of arrest, but “not one for torture”.

President Maduro has called for the formation of a bi-partisan Truth Commission to investigate and attribute responsibility for “all” acts of recent violence, although some opposition figures have rejected this as being weighted in favour of the government. The opposition’s MUD coalition is preparing a report solely focused on alleged abuses by state security forces, to be presented to “international organisations”.