March 7 (Bloomberg) -- The death toll from more than three weeks of protests in Venezuela rose to 19 as opposition and government supporters held rival marches and the Organization of American States hosted a closed-door meeting on the crisis.
Tear gas filled the air in the upscale Altamira neighborhood of Caracas yesterday, sending a crowd fleeing for cover. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said on state television that a national guard officer in Caracas was killed by a sniper, along with one other person.
Fueled initially by frustration over shortages of goods and 56 percent inflation in a country with the world’s biggest oil reserves, the opposition has managed to keep the protests alive for three weeks, through a six-day national holiday and ceremonies to commemorate the death of former President Hugo Chavez. Maduro has called the protesters “fascists” and “saboteurs” seeking to overthrow his government.
“Those who have started this violence are a minority, a tiny group belonging to the opposition and they are putting the rest of the opposition in a dire situation,” Maduro said in an interview with CNN broadcast yesterday.
Police and national guard troops have clashed with protesters on a daily basis in parts of Caracas and cities including San Cristobal, Valencia and Barquisimeto. A hundred protesters at a burning barricade in Plaza Altamira went running when national guardsmen appeared from behind them shooting tear gas last night. About 40 people rushed into an apartment building while national guard kept watch outside.
“We want to create chaos, to bring things to a complete stop,” protesting student Luis Miranda, 20, said. “If we set up barricades in every state of the country, we can stop people from moving around and we can achieve a national strike.”
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said a group of its experts have asked Venezuela to respond to “allegations of arbitrary detention and excessive use of force” against protesters and journalists.
“We are deeply disturbed by the allegations of multiple cases of arbitrary detention of protesters,” according to a statement posted on the office’s website. “Some were reportedly beaten -- and in some cases severely tortured -- by security forces, taken to military facilities, kept in incommunicado detention, and denied access to legal assistance.”
Maduro earlier this week rejected any mediation effort by the OAS after Panama President Ricardo Martinelli called for the Washington-based organization to discuss the crisis. On March 5, Maduro retaliated by cutting diplomatic and commercial ties with the Central American nation, saying he wouldn’t “accept anyone conspiring against our country.”
The OAS scheduled a private meeting yesterday to take up the issue. Calls to the OAS by Bloomberg News seeking comment on the meeting weren’t answered.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Venezuela is seeking support from neighboring nations to stabilize the country through the Unasur and Mercosur blocs, neither of which include the U.S.
The South American country is “confronting a situation that is not about peaceful protests but violent ones” supported by the U.S., Jaua said in an e-mailed statement sent yesterday. “It’s the state’s duty to re-establish order with proportional force, as we have been doing.”
Amid a shortage of dollars that has helped fuel scarcity of goods, Maduro promised Feb. 19 when he signed a new currency law to make it easier for companies and individuals to buy greenbacks. The government will start up a new foreign exchange swap market known as Sicad 2 on March 10, Economy Vice President Rafael Ramirez said on state television last night, without offering details.
“We have created all the mechanisms so foreign currency isn’t an issue for our economy, so it’s not a restriction,” he said.
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