May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan National Guard troops raided four tented protest camps in eastern Caracas this morning as the country’s economic crisis deepened and support for President Nicolas Maduro tumbled.
National Guard troops arrested 243 students who had been sleeping in the camps for the past month, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said on state television. The raids triggered a fresh wave of roadblocks as well as demonstrations and one police officer was killed.
“There were paid mercenaries among the protesters we captured in the camps of violence and death,” Maduro said on state television. “Some are mercenaries paid to do evil, others are fools. Can it be called a protest when they throw a Molotov at a worker?”
The move comes one day after the government said it would start rationing water in Caracas and electricity in western Zulia state, adding to shortages of everything from toilet paper to flour. Three months of protests against the declining standard of living have cost at least 42 lives. The government is attempting to distract attention from the economic crisis, said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
“Since the protests began, every time things calm down the government has taken new actions to set them off again,” Carrasquero said today by telephone. “The government has an interest in maintaining street protests because they take attention away from the economic crisis.”
Maduro said authorities seized from the camps drugs, firearms used to cause injuries and homicides and money including dollars. Clashes today left one police officer dead from gunshot wounds and two others injured, Chacao municipal Mayor Ramon Muchacho wrote on his Twitter account.
The raids sparked fresh demonstrations. Residents close to an encampment near a United Nations office in the Los Palos Grandes neighborhood of Chacao in eastern Caracas banged pots and pans at about 3:50 a.m. local time after detonations were heard in the area. Traffic was brought to a standstill this morning in the neighborhood as demonstrators set up roadblocks.
Security forces shot tear gas near the Plaza Altamira in Chacao around 12:00 p.m., Mayor Muchacho, a member of the opposition, wrote on his Twitter account. Demonstrators in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, blocked streets with burning tires, television station Globovision reported on its website.
Protests had become more sporadic in Chacao over the past two weeks. Two months ago, most days started with blocked streets and student marches and ended in running skirmishes with the National Guard.
The municipality saw 66 consecutive days of clashes until April 23, when federal police increased patrols in the area and arrested protesters, according to Muchacho.
The protesters “didn’t achieve an immediate change, because that would have been almost impossible to do,” according to John Magdaleno, a political analyst and professor at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas. “But the protests have had results in that the image of the government has deteriorated.”
A poll by Caracas-based Datanalisis published in El Universal newspaper May 5 showed Maduro’s approval rating fell to 37 percent in April from 55.2 percent a year ago, with 59 percent of respondents saying he should not finish his term. Datanalisis director Luis Vicente Leon said he couldn’t confirm the results published by the paper.
Students plan to march on May 10, said 26-year-old Abzara Gomez, who leads a camp that was raided in the Las Mercedes neighborhood of Caracas today.
“The camps have become centers of violent terrorist acts, used as bases to attack public transport and armed forces, under the cover of the supposedly peaceful protests,” Minister Rodriguez said today.
Julio Cesar Rivas, a 26-year-old leader at a raided tent encampment at the Plaza Bolivar in Chacao, said he would concentrate on having detained protesters freed before setting up new camps. He denied that arms or drugs were at the encampment and said the protest had been non-violent.
“The government is trying to drive the students toward violence with the torture and raids,” Rivas said today in a telephone interview. “But we’re intelligent and we have patience. The fight doesn’t have to be violent, but we’re not going to hide. We’ll stay in the streets.”
Amnesty International said on April 1 that it has received dozens of accounts of torture allegedly carried out by security forces since the protests broke out in February.
“We’ll be here until the government falls,” Eligio Escalona, a 22-year-old international relations student, said in an interview on April 22 from the Plaza Bolivar camp as he organized his tent. “We want Maduro and his cabinet to resign.”
Since April 4, Escalona said he would meet up with other students after studying at the Central University in the Venezuelan capital by day to hold talks on liberty, watch political movies and give first aid to people injured by the police during protests in surrounding streets. He was detained in the raid of the camp this morning, Rivas said.
Colombia stopped natural gas sales to Venezuela last week to preserve fuel during the periodic regional dry spell triggered by the El Nino phenomenon. The last electricity crisis prompted by El Nino in 2009 contributed to six straight quarters of negative economic growth in Venezuela.
“We’re running the risk of living a new electricity crisis like the one that started in 2009 if water levels at the Guri dam do not recover in the next four months,” Miguel Lara, a former president of Venezuela’s grid regulator, said yesterday by phone.
The economy will shrink 1 percent this year, according to the median estimate of 13 economists surveyed by Bloomberg last month. This compares with 0.5 percent growth they forecast in February.
The utility “crisis has arrived at a bad moment for the government, as it comes at a critical time for the country,” Datanalisis’s Leon said by telephone from Caracas yesterday. “The problems of shortages of medicines and food are perceived much more acutely by people who are having their water or lights cut off.”
Annual inflation hit 59 percent in March, with prices rising the most in four months as the government carried out the biggest devaluation since currency controls were instituted in 2003.
The central bank has not provided data on product scarcity since January, when it said 28 percent of basic goods were out of stock at any given time. Venezuela’s economy grew 1.3 percent in 2013, down from 5.6 percent in 2012.
Maduro on May 1 accused unidentified officials at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas of instigating protests and roadblocks. Minister Rodriguez on May 2 said 58 foreigners had been arrested since protests broke out and accused former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and former Mexican leader Vicente Fox of working to destabilize the country.
“The protests take attention from the biggest problem the government has, which is scarcity,” Carrasquero said. “It’s even hard to find a bottle of water these days. As people blame Maduro for the shortages, he tries to divert attention by agitating the student protests.”
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