Venezuela’s opposition supporters maintained the momentum of three weeks of protests today with marches through Caracas, as the government turned to China and Russia for financial help.
Oil Minister and Economy Vice President Rafael Ramirez signed finance deals with the two countries, President Nicolas Maduro said on his Twitter account.
Ramirez “comes from China with very good news about economic and financial support,” Maduro said, without giving any details.
Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, headed a women’s march today to honor Venezuelans killed during three weeks of demonstrations and demand the release of detained protesters, including her husband. Students protesting about rising crime, shortages of basic goods and the world’s fastest inflation also joined the march.
The death toll from the protests that began Feb. 12 has climbed to 18, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said yesterday.
The government is preparing to commemorate the first anniversary of former President Hugo Chavez’s death tomorrow. Maduro said March 1 on Venezuelan state television that fighter jets flying over Caracas on Feb. 28 were preparing for a special event in the name of Chavez.
The opposition has rejected overtures from Maduro to meet to discuss the crisis, while the president and his top officials have continued to accuse protesters of trying to stage a coup. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon yesterday called for “reduced tensions” in Venezuela following a meeting with Jaua in Geneva.
“If the protests do not slow down, dialogue is the only way to resolve the crisis,” said Gregory Weeks, a Latin America specialist who chairs the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “But it is not clear who would be in the position to mediate since both sides are so polarized.”
Opposition leader Antonio Ledezma compared the protests to events in Ukraine, with civilians taking the most active role, in an interview broadcast on Cafe CNN today.
“There is no change without rebellion,” Ledezma wrote in his Twitter account. “Long live the rebellion for these brave citizens.”
Voluntad Popular published a statement by four former Latin American presidents, including Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, criticizing “disproportionate repression” by security forces and calling for talks to resolve the crisis.
The daily marches and regular clashes have been the biggest sustained challenge to Maduro’s 11-month-old government.
Norma Romero, a 68-year-old retired college professor, says she spends five hours most days waiting in line to buy sugar and other staples.
“On a normal day, someone messages you that there’s toilet paper at this place and you run over,” Romero said. “When you arrive, there’s a line of 100 to 150 people and you have to be in line for 3 hours. Sometimes there’s nothing anywhere.”
Opposition leader Lopez, jailed two weeks ago for inciting violence, issued a statement this week demanding the liberation of all political prisoners, justice for deaths and abuses at recent protests and the resignation of those responsible for what he called human rights violations. He said protests will “intensify” if the opposition’s calls aren’t heeded.
Maduro has taken steps to address a dollar shortage that has crimped imports, causing scarcities of everything from toilet paper to medicines. Economic growth will slow this year to 0.5 percent from an estimated 1.2 percent in 2013, in both instances falling short of the Latin American average, according to analysts polled by Bloomberg in early February.
Today marks the final day of a six-day holiday weekend declared by Maduro to combine the annual Carnival festival with a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of riots in Caracas in which government troops opened fire on protesters. Venezuelans typically use the holiday to visit relatives outside Caracas or go to the beach.
“It seems the government is still trying to see whether Carnival will make the protests dissipate,” Weeks said. “My sense is that the Maduro administration is just hoping that the protest will go away, otherwise they seem to have no strategy.”