Venezuelan Government, Opposition Divided Over March Turnout, Violence

The Venezuelan government and opposition have issued starkly different accounts of Thursday’s massive rallies in Caracas, amid allegations of violence.

By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
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The opposition says as many as 2 million of its supporters rallied in Caracas Thursday, though the government has put turnout at closer to 30,000. (Ultimas Noticias)
The opposition says as many as 2 million of its supporters rallied in Caracas Thursday, though the government has put turnout at closer to 30,000. (Ultimas Noticias)

Puebla, Mexico, September 2nd, 2016 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan government and opposition have issued starkly different accounts of Thursday’s massive rallies in Caracas, amid allegations of violence.

National Assembly head and senior opposition figure Henry Ramos Allup claimed around midday there were no reports of any violence by anti-government protesters, who flooded Caracas throughout the day.

“We didn’t even have fireworks,” he told private newspaper El Nacional, adding the protest was entirely peaceful.

However, state media has reported that opposition protests turned violent later in the day. According to AVN, “small groups” tried to block a major thoroughfare in the city, sparking clashes with security forces.

In an interview with Venezuelanalysis, teleSUR correspondent Cody Weedle said the violence began after the main protest ended.

“So at that point the rally had ended and some who remained had moved to the highway … the police and military moved to stop them from advancing on the highway, and and everything was fine for a bit,” he said.

Weedle continued, “Then they started throwing rocks and bottles at police.”

Footage captured by Reuters showed protesters hurling stones at riot police. Officers responded with a volley of tear gas.

After the highway was cleared by police, Weedle said demonstrators tried to erect barricades nearby. As he tried to leave, the demonstrators turned against him, shoved him to the ground and started producing stones. He said he feared for his life, but was saved at the last minute by a group of bystanders that pulled him from the mob.

“While most of the protesters were peaceful during the day, they were some who were set on reviving the guarimbas of 2014 I think. They we're trying to use the same tactics,” he said.

The guarimbas were street barricades used by government detractors to shut down cities across Venezuela. The campaign prompted a wave of violence nationwide, leaving dozens dead.

Outside Caracas, there were a handful of reports of violence. In Aragua state, a bus carrying government supporters was allegedly attacked by unknown assailants, according to community media outlet TatuyTV.

President Nicolas Maduro also claimed 92 “paramilitaries” were captured outside the presidential palace in Caracas, though the allegations haven’t been independently verified.

Opposition group Foro Penal reported 119 people were detained nationwide, though 60 had been released by late Thursday. They also reported at least one alleged case of pro-government groups attacking opposition protesters.

Turnout

The government and opposition have also issued contradictory estimates of turnout. While opposition leaders have estimated as many as 2 million Venezuelans turned out to protest against the government in Caracas alone, foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez put the figure closer to 30,000.

Thousands also turned out at a pro-government rally in Caracas, where Maduro called for peace.

“Do they want democracy? We will have democracy, but if they try to come at me with a coup, with ambushes and violence, the revolution will respond,” he said.

Thursday’s rallies were long anticipated by both sides of Venezuela’s political divide. The opposition said it called the rallies to demand a presidential recall referendum before the end of the year. Venezuela’s electoral authorities enraged opposition leaders earlier this year, when they announced the referendum was unlikely to take place before January.

The timing of the referendum will determine whether the ruling socialist party, the PSUV, remains in power until 2018. If the vote takes place before January 10, Maduro could be forced from power, and snap elections would take place. However, if the referendum is put off until after that date, and the Yes vote wins, Maduro’s vice president will serve out the rest of the president’s term.

Both the government and opposition have accused each other of dragging their feet, and slowing preparations for the vote.