Mérida, 12th March 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Two deaths have marked the one month anniversary of the start of nationwide anti-government protests in Venezuela, as opposition leaders continue to refuse to engage in peace talks.
Pro-government and opposition groups rallied across Venezuela, one month after the radical wing of the opposition took to the street on 12 February to demand the ousting of President Nicolas Maduro. Thousands of Maduro supporters staged a “march for peace” in Caracas, with similar pro-government rallies taking place in other cities.
In the capital, the day began with Chavista student groups marching through the city. Small music concerts were held along the route, while the students carried banners and placards condemning violence.
“Yes to peace. No to violence,” one group of pro-government students chanted.
Silvestre Montilla from the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) was one the students that attended the rally.
"We are gathered here today in protest of the violence," Montilla told state broadcaster VTV.
Maduro addressed the march at Plaza Morelos, praising the pro-government youth movement.
“The youth revolution will always be eternal, renewed, educated and will remain true to the tenets of [Simon] Bolivar and comandante Chavez,” Maduro stated.
The president urged both pro-government and opposition student groups to engage in a peace conference scheduled for Thursday. Most opposition parties and anti-government student groups have boycotted previous peace talks.
This week, opposition mayors signed an agreement to continue to refuse to negotiate with the government unless five prerequisites are met by the Maduro administration.
In a meeting with Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles and Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) head Ramon Guillermo Aveledo in Caracas, the mayors demanded the government release all opposition demonstrators and far-right figure Leopoldo Lopez, deliver “justice” to victims of recent unrest, lower crime, end food shortages and allow opposition figures to deliver a cadena – an official announcement that all broadcasters are required by law to carry live. The cadena is normally reserved for the president to deliver important announcements.
On the streets, anti-government protesters and armed opposition groups also remained defiant.
In Caracas, the opposition march heading for the ombudsman's office turned violent when security forces blocked their route.
Maduro had previously ordered security forces to keep the opposition march from entering the city centre, where one month ago anti-government protests descended into deadly violence.
Today, opposition groups clashed with security forces near a university campus, throwing stones and molotovs cocktails. After around three hours of fighting, police and the national guard (GNB) dispersed the group, using tear gas and water cannons.
Rallies turned deadly in Carabobo state, with at least two unrelated deaths. The first casualty was opposition student Jesus Acosta. Initial reports suggested a sniper may have fired on the student. Opposition groups have blamed Chavistas in the area, while the state governor has claimed the bullet came from the opposition.
Later in the day an army captain, Ramso Bracho reportedly died from a gunshot wound. According to Carabobo governor Francisco Amelicach, Bracho was killed during clashes with “terrorist criminals”.
There are also unconfirmed reports of a third death in Carabobo. The mayor of the state capital Valencia has stated via Twitter that 42 year old Guillermo Sanchez was hit by a stray bullet from clashes near his home. According to Mayor Miguel Cocchiola, Sanchez wasn't involved in the fighting at the time of the shooting, but was painting his house when he was hit.
The two confirmed killings bring the death total toll from the six weeks of violence to at least 25.
Another death took place earlier this week. In San Cristobal, Tachira, pro-opposition student Daniel Tinoco was reportedly shot on Monday night. The city's opposition mayor Daniel Ceballos took to Twitter to blame “armed groups” for the killing. An official investigation has been launched.
Along with the deaths, more than 300 have been injured during the disturbances, including at least 81 members of security forces. Approximately 1300 people have been arrested. Around 92 remain behind bars, while more than 700 have already been released without charge, according to the latest figures available at the time of writing. Among the arrestees are 14 security force personnel, mostly in relation to allegations of excessive use of force. The largest number of arrests have been reported in Miranda state, which is adjacent to the capital district.
The ombudsman's office is also currently investigating 44 cases of possible human rights violations – many of which allegedly relate to arrests and detentions of demonstrators and barricaders. Today, Ombudswoman Gabriela Ramirez was also set to meet with representatives from the right-wing newspaper El Nacional.
Ramirez has accused the newspaper of misrepresenting a statement she made over the weekend. On Sunday, the newspaper ran a headline stating Ramirez “justifies torture”. The headline has since been changed in the online edition.
Semi-permanent protests continue in at least six of Venezuela's major cities, though today Venezuela's Supreme Court ordered the removal of barricades in two Caracas municipalities.
The court called on the mayors of Baruta and El Hatillo to take action to “immediately remove” barricades blocking roads in their municipalities. The court found that the barricades were impeding free movement and posed a public safety hazard.
However clashes have continued to flare in the city's east, including in the affluent Caracas neighbourhood of Altamira.
In the nearby Chacao area, the offices of the Department of Housing and Habitat was vandalised on Tuesday night, while barricades were burned by opposition demonstrators in the street.
Maduro has condemned the incident, and accused the attackers of “trying to capture and kill some workers and destroy facilities”.
“It's vandalism, it's terrorism and will be fought as vandalism and terrorism with the weight of the law,” Maduro told state broadcaster VTV.
On Tuesday, interior minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres stated that a number of demonstrators detained by the government in Caracas had admitted to being paid to operate barricades. According to Rodriguez, the detainees stated they had been paid Bs5000 each week by an unidentified third party.
Opposition Violence in the Andes
The Andean cities of Merida and San Cristobal remain largely paralysed by violent groups, many of which are armed with weapons ranging from molotov cocktails to home-made bazookas and small firearms.
In Merida, the main thoroughfares of Los Proceres and Avenue Las Americas have been blocked for over a week by fortified barricades. Some of the roadblocks are rigged with improvised traps such as caltrops and barbed wire strung across the road. The latter tactic led to the decapitation of a motorcyclist last month.
The opposition have also been pouring petrol on roads, and setting it alight when security forces approach.
Police and the GNB have repeatedly clashed with opposition groups while trying to dismantle the barricades on Merida's main roads since the weekend.
On Tuesday afternoon, opposition groups fought with security forces until late in the day. Twitter users claiming to be linked to the opposition reported 16 injuries.
Many of the city's businesses remain closed for most of the day, while many neighbourhoods have been cut off from public transport.
Merida's public buses haven't operated since the weekend, after two buses were hijacked by opposition groups, who threatened to torch the vehicles. The driver of one of the buses, Robin Flores, was kidnapped along with his vehicle.
Flores told state media he was beaten until he fell unconscious, and his bus was damaged by his assailants. The opposition group demanded cash, and threatened to torch the bus.
“These are not peaceful students, they are criminals who aren't considerate of people who work and have a family in need,” Flores stated.
Both the vehicles have been returned to their owners, but most of the city's buses remain off the roads due to safety concerns.
Today, the state head of the Bolivarian Transport Union Eladio Vergara stated that opposition violence has “forced” at least 70% of drivers to stay at home over the last two days. However, some lines haven't been in operation for almost a month, according to Vergara.
“Today and yesterday between 20 and 30% of buses went to work,” Vergara stated.
“Most of us are owners of those buses, and if we don't work, there's no food at home,” the union head stated.
Vergara also responded to rumours that transport workers are on strike.
“There is no definite transport strike, but we can say there is a forced stoppage,” Vergara stated.
The city's main bus terminal also remains closed, due to barricades in the area. Clashes were reported near the long distance terminal earlier this week.
More violence has also been reported in Lara state.
On Monday, a violent group attacked a governmnt run Mercal market with rocks in Lara, vandalising the exterior of the building. According to local media reports, the same group had tried to reach a CDI medical centre earlier in the day, but was blocked by community groups and the GNB.
However, more violence erupted in the state's capital, Barquisimeto on Tuesday. Opposition barricaders fought with security forces for more than five hours near a university in Barquisimeto. According to right-wing newspaper El Universal, the opposition group repelled the first attempt by security forces to disperse them, after the group of students torched eight vehicles near the campus. Between 30 and 50 injures were reported, according to El Universal.