Venezuelan Opposition Keeps Pressure on GovernmentPietro D. Pitts and Jose Orozco
Opposition supporters marched in Caracas today, vowing to maintain pressure President Nicolas Maduro’s government as an extended six-day holiday failed to damp demonstrations that have killed 18 people.
Protesters set up barricades before sunset with chunks of concrete, trees, wire and trash in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas today. Young men with their faces covered prepared Molotov cocktails near an effigy of Maduro and a sign comparing the leader to the Biblical Judas. Earlier in the day demonstrators marched to the headquarters of the Organization of American States.
“You can’t talk of peace while a violent war is waged against citizens protesting peacefully,” opposition leader Antonio Ledezma said. “You can’t talk of dialogue when that dialogue tries to hide the brutal repression of students who have been victims, when there are political prisoners.”
Today’s demonstration by the opposition maintains the momentum of three-week-old protests against rising crime, the world’s fastest inflation and shortages of basic goods. United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called for “reduced tensions” and “meaningful dialogue” in the country after meeting Foreign Minister Elias Jaua in Geneva.
Jaua said today that the death toll from the protests had risen to 18 and 73 people remain detained on allegations including homicide and destruction of public property. Security forces have been attacked by small-arms fire, with 51 officers injured, Jaua said.
“This aggression against democracy is political and ideological and its objective is to overthrow a legitimately established government,” Jaua, speaking from a UN meeting in Geneva, said on state television.
Maduro, writing on Twitter, congratulated Jaua for his speech against what he called a “fascist coup.”
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, jailed two weeks ago for inciting violence, issued a statement late yesterday read by Carlos Vecchio, political coordinator for opposition party Voluntad Popular, in a Youtube video.
Lopez demanded 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 also asks for prison sentences for those allegedly guilty of exchange rate fraud.
“If the government does not respond to our democratic, just and constitutional demands, our street protests will continue and intensify,” Lopez said in the statement.
Today’s demonstration came on the fifth day of the Carnival holiday, which Maduro extended by two days this year to include Feb. 27 and 28. Venezuelans typically use the holiday to visit relatives outside Caracas or go to the beach.
“You think we would allow Carnival to be halted?” Maduro said on state television yesterday. “We are defending the right to happiness, life and culture.”
Maduro said Feb. 28 that he was open to meeting with student protesters and opposition leaders. He spoke after the opposition alliance, which has boycotted two meetings with the president, said it would negotiate only when he offers an agenda for talks with a mediator.
“Without a concrete agenda there will be no dialogue in Venezuela,” National Assembly deputy and national coordinator for opposition party Primero Justicia, Julio Borges, said on his Twitter account yesterday.
Authorities released 41 people yesterday who had been detained Feb. 28 in Altamira, including an Italian photo-journalist and a Portuguese national, according to a representative from the office of Alfredo Romero, a lawyer and head of the Venezuelan Penal Forum.
The representative spoke on condition of anonymity citing company policy. Many of the detained were students in their early twenties, the representative said.
Foreign Minister Jaua has asked Suriname for a meeting with members of the Union of South American Nations, or Unasur, to seek solutions to the protests, the Foreign Ministry said March 1 in an e-mailed statement.
“We are sure the Venezuelan people will have a space to look for peace,” Suriname Foreign Minister Winston Lackin said in a statement released by Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry. “For Suriname, as President Pro Tempore of Unasur, it is important that we act immediately and directly to realize a summit for Venezuela.”
Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro last year in elections to succeed former President Hugo Chavez, has called on the Catholic Church to serve as mediator and insisted the government release Lopez.
Amid the discontent, Maduro has taken steps to address a dollar shortage that has crimped imports, causing scarcities of everything from toilet paper to medicines.
The government published rules Feb. 24 allowing companies and individuals to trade dollars in a regulated market. Previously, the central bank was the sole supplier of greenbacks and as foreign reserves fell, less currency was made available to pay for imports. Annual inflation accelerated to 56.3 percent in January, the fastest among 113 world economies tracked by Bloomberg.
Venezuela’s 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.
Venezuela’s benchmark 9.25 percent dollar bond due 2027 fell 1.1 cents on the dollar to 70.84 cents today. Yields on the debt rose 24 basis points, or 0.24 percentage point, to 14.15 percent.