Caracas Protests Shrink After Maduro’s Army Use Threat

Protests in the capital of Venezuela faltered after President Nicolas Maduro threatened to use the military to “liberate” middle-class districts from makeshift barricades.

A march against alleged Cuban infiltration of Venezuela’s armed forces attracted a few thousand people in the eastern borough of Chacao, the heart of the monthlong anti-government protests that have taken 28 lives. Similar rallies in past weeks drew more than 10,000 people.

Later in the afternoon, National Guard troops in Chacao dispersed a few hundred protesters with tear gas and water cannons as residents shouted “assassins” from surrounding apartment blocks and removed manhole covers to block the advance of Chinese-made armored trucks.

“Prepare yourself, we are coming for you,” Maduro warned protesters in an address to thousands of soldiers gathered in support of the president yesterday. He then played John Lennon’s song, “Give Peace a Chance.”

Stronger police response and fatigue from daily marches have drained some of the momentum from the protest movement, said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization.

Protests Criminalized

“Venezuela has been experiencing a progressive criminalization of protest over the past couple of years, with repression rarely seen under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez,” Smilde said by e-mail from Caracas today. “As the inherent flaws of economic policies and political model” make Chavez’s revolution “increasingly fragile, the government seems more willing to rely on force.”

Central Bank President Nelson Merentes said today Venezuela’s economy “is a crisis.”

“You’ve got inflation, you have shortages and growth that’s not robust,” he said in an interview on the local Televen network. “Venezuela has the ability to overcome this not-so-good patch.”

Consumer prices rose 57 percent in the 12 months to February and the central bank stopped publishing new data on scarcity after last month’s report showed that more than one in four basic goods were unavailable in shops.

Currency System

To reduce shortages of imported goods, the central bank is starting a new foreign currency system this week that will allow companies and individuals to buy and sell dollars at a price determined by supply and demand, Merentes said.

To cut contraband of subsidized products, Maduro said today the government will begin a biometric census on March 22 to issue citizens electronic cards for food purchases in state supermarkets. The so-called Secure Supply Card is to protect the people from speculators and not a way to ration food, the president told a rally of supporters in the capital.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he’s ready to talk to Maduro about ending protests after boycotting at least two other meetings with the president over the past month. “This debate needs to happen,” Capriles said in a separate interview on Televen.

Opposition parties and students have vowed to continue protesting across the country until Maduro releases political prisoners, improves the supply of products and ends police repression. The president has called the protesters “fascists,” charging them with attempting a “slow-motion coup” against him with help from the U.S.