Mérida / Santa Elena de Uairén, 24th March 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) - Several more have died in Venezuela’s political violence, while the opposition has again rejected talks to end the conflict.
Yesterday, 23 March, a pregnant woman was shot and killed while trying to get home in Los Teques, Miranda State. Adriana Urquiola, 28, got off a bus whose route was obstructed by a protest barricade and had begun to walk past the blockade when she was shot twice. Investigations are underway as to where the shots originated from.
Francisco Garces, the pro-government mayor of the municipality, lamented the tragedy and noted that Urquiola would not have been caught in such circumstances if transit had not been impeded by street barricades.
The incident took place within a short distance of the state’s capital, presided over by opposition governor Henrique Capriles, whose municipal police force (PoliMiranda) has been known to protect opposition marches and protests under his direction.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua condemned the absence of PoliMiranda at the scene of the barricades, and accused Capriles of encouraging violence in Los Teques by allowing the roadblocks to continue unchecked.
Urquiola was not the only victim of violence this weekend. On Friday Argenis Hernandez, 26, was shot in the abdomen by a lone man on a motorcycle who tried to cross the barricade where Hernandez was situated in Valencia. Conflicting reports indicate the barricade activists may have tried to detain the motorcyclist before the shots were fired. Hernandez died that night in a nearby hospital, local media report.
On Sunday Jesus Orlando Labrador, 40, an employee of the state-owned telephone company CANTV was shot while transiting an area seized by protestors in Mérida. Video footage shows a group of masked men firing long-range guns on the roof of a residential building behind opposition barricades. However the local opposition mayor denounces that alleged pro-government armed civilians were on the scene.
This morning Miguel Antonio Parra, 42, a sergeant of the GNB (National Guard) was shot in the neck and killed while clearing debris from a blockade, also in Mérida. This act was also linked to snipers and brings the GNB death toll up to 6 since protests turned violent in February.
Also in Mérida, a policeman, Silvino Flores, was shot twice from above, but not killed while he took part in a neighborhood cleanup of a street barricade on a major avenue this morning. Meanwhile a lieutenant, Oscar Salas Escobar, suffered craneal trauma after an explosion occurred within the barricade he was attempting to clear, in Táchira state on Sunday.
Since the protests turned violent in February, at least 34 people have died. The government’s call for dialogue has grown increasingly urgent.
Last Tuesday president Nicolas Maduro called upon UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, to facilitate peace talks within the country and to help call an end to the violence. A number of representatives are expected to arrive this week to Venezuela. The European Union voiced its confidence today in UNASUR’s ability to seek solutions between the Venezuelan government and the opposition.
While the deaths have called the attention of many international organizations and institutions, there have been other disturbances.
Maduro cited on Friday that protesters have caused an approximate $10 billion dollars in damage, including the vandalization of fifteen universities, most recently the UNEFA in Táchira state, completely burnt by violent opposition groups last Tuesday.
Maduro promised 98 million bolivars to rebuild the UNEFA as well as 50 million for the 14 other universities that were harmed by what authorities call “far-right” groups.
While addressing a crowd on Saturday he said, “It’s incredible. Never in the history of Venezuela has a political sector dared to burn and destroy a university. If this counterrevolution achieves its objectives, what would their policies be towards culture, towards youth?”
He also condemned the absence of reporting on the subject, saying “None of the television agencies or the 82 newspapers of America said anything about the burning of a public university in Venezuela.”
He called upon foreign minister Elias Jaua to prepare a formal report to put before leading international institutions, to draw attention to the damage that, in his words, has been widely overlooked by the media.
Other government officials cited 29 stoplights torn down in the Southeastern city of Puerto Ordaz, at least 5,000 trees cut and burned to create blockades, attacks on a number of subsidized supermarkets, and the burning of multiple public transportation vehicles and food distributing vehicles all over the country.
Both opposition and government supporters took to the streets of the capital on Saturday in support of their respective political positions in the current conflict.
Thousands of pro-government students gathered in the central Plaza Venezuela to denounce the destruction of the UNEFA campus in Táchira state by what are considered to be far-right groups.
The crowd was addressed by President Maduro, who lambasted the violence of such groups, and criticized the “silence” of private and international media over these acts.
He also underlined his government’s respect for “those who want to talk, shout, [and] express opinions, because that’s what democracy is for.”
“Those that are in favor of violence are a minority within a minority. I again call on the opposition to incorporate themselves into dialogue. I open the doors to Miraflores (presidential palace) without conditions, without an agenda,” Maduro stated.
During the speech, the crowd shouted slogans such as “we are the majority” and “they won’t return,” in reference to the elite that governed Venezuela before Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998.
Meanwhile, in the wealthy Chacao district to the east of Caracas, the opposition gathered in a demonstration “for freedom”.
Among the aims of the march was to denounce the recent arrest of two opposition mayors, one of whom has been imprisoned. Authorities say the mayors were supporting the on-going violence and street barricades in their municipalities.
However the march also highlighted divisions within the opposition’s leadership. Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles left the event early, and did not formally address the crowd.
Speaking to press, Capriles emphasized the “social” character that he argues the protests must have in order to gain mass support. “We’ve not just come in name of those who are being persecuted, but also of our people that are suffering …that can’t get food or medicine,” he claimed.
Meanwhile the more hard-line opposition leadership, which appeared to have overall control of the event, made a series of fiery speeches to thousands of supporters.
“Maduro wants to turn Venezuela into a giant jail, well, go for it! The new parliament of Venezuela is the Ramo Verde jail,” said metropolitan mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma, in reference to the prison where the two mayors and hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez are being held. Lopez handed himself over to authorities last month after public prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest on a variety of charges including incitement to violent acts.
Ledezma also declared, “If you want dialogue, free the students [sic] and mayors that are under arrest”. The release of Lopez and other figures that the opposition claims are “political prisoners” is one of several conditions the opposition has laid down in order to consider entering talks with the government to end the violence.
Some moderate opposition figures have disagreed with this argument, advocating that dialogue with the government be entered “without conditions”, however for now they appear to remain a minority voice within the opposition.
Meanwhile several opposition figures that authorities are searching for in connection with the violence made a public appearance at Saturday’s demonstration. They included Carlos Vecchio, a leader of Leopoldo Lopez’s Popular Will party, and retired general Antonio Rivero, who gave advice to street barricade activists on how to “neutralize” motorcyclists with steel wires. The tactic has lead to several deaths.
One of the key speeches at the march was made by Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, who read out a letter from her husband demanding Maduro’s resignation.
“If you [Maduro] resign then all Venezuelans can advance towards democracy and freedom…If you resign we can have a sovereign country, free of foreign interests and the intervention and submission of the Cuban regime,” Lopez argued in the letter.
The current unrest began after Leopoldo Lopez, along with right-wing parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado, launched a strategy called “The Exit” in late January, in which they called on supporters to “light up the streets of Venezuela with struggle”.
Judicial authorities are currently investigating evidence that Corina Machado has also instigated acts of violence, as part of a decision over whether to strip her of parliamentary immunity and charge her for crimes related to the disturbances.
Attorney General: “We are investigating abuses”
In an interview on Sunday night with private TV channel Televen, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz responded to the opposition’s accusations that the state has repressed protests and committed human rights abuses during the disturbances.
“There have been abuses, we’re not going to deny it,” Ortega Diaz stated, adding that these incidents were isolated and did not respond to direction from above.
Of some 20,000 National Guard deployed in the country, along with regional and local police forces, she said that the Attorney General’s office had received 60 denouncements of abuses and excess use of force by officers. Of the cases she said, “The Attorney General’s office is investigating,” and reported that 15 officials had been arrested so far in connection with the incidents.
“Whoever has committed a crime must assume their responsibility,” stated Ortega Diaz, underlining the state’s role in investigating all acts of violence.
The top public lawyer warned against calls in Venezuela “seeking to depose a legitimately constituted government” and that there existed a campaign “to make Venezuela look like a violator of human rights”.
Ortega Diaz also reminded viewers that public property, state employees and police officers had been victims of the violence, and that five National Guard officers and one public prosecutor were among the dead.
The Attorney General recalled that earlier this month the Ombudsman and judicial authorities received a class “A” rating for their human rights protection policies in a recent United Nations meeting of national human rights organizations in Geneva.
The status is granted to governmental human rights bodies which are held as fully complying with the Paris Principles, the international standards which guide and frame the work of national human rights institutions.