Venezuela’s Wild West Reinforces Protest Barricades

Robert Mendoza drags a tree trunk to the barricade at the entrance of his neighborhood in San Cristobal as the birthplace of Venezuela’s month-long protest movement braces for an all-out assault by the National Guard.

“We’ve got to be prepared. Next time they are really coming for us,” Mendoza, a 17-year-old student, said in front of the wall of metal sheets, old washing machines and garbage bags. “We have to carry on this fight until the government resigns.”

The city of 700,000 in the foothills of the Andes mountains has maintained the pressure on the government of President Nicolas Maduro even as the protest movement wanes in the nation’s capital, Caracas. The arrest of San Cristobal’s mayor on March 19 led protesters to reinforce their barricades in response to concerns the president plans to push ahead with his pledge to “pacify” the whole country.

“The government is scared that the protests led by students and some political parties will expand into poorer sectors and the trade unions, destabilizing the government,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a London-based political risk analyst at IHS Global Insight consultancy. “That is why Maduro’s government has militarized San Cristobal and Caracas.”

Security forces won’t find it easy to retake the town. Three-inch-long metal spikes hammered into asphalt mark the start of the first line of defense in northern neighborhoods such as Pueblo Nuevo, Carabobo and Libertador. Another 150 meters further back is a second barricade, with spotters on the roofs warning of police attacks.

Rebel Headquarters

Trained paramedics rush the injured to the field hospital at the rebel headquarters on Carabobo Avenue, while women prepare communal lunches for the fighters in nearby houses. Pictures of three protesters who lost their lives in the past six weeks of skirmishes adorn a makeshift chapel by the hospital tent.

“Everyone supports each other here,” Christopher Vivas, an emergency relief student at the Tachira Experimental University said March 17 while having his head stitched up for the second time in two weeks. “We build the barricades and fight the police. The community gives us food, medicine, and a place to rest.”

Protesters last night burned down a regional environment ministry building in San Cristobal and damaged a nearby gasoline station.

Death Toll

Protests erupted in San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state, on Feb. 4, when students demonstrated against the lack of security at Andes University, according to Gaby Arellano, the school’s student union leader. The protests have since spread across the country, fueled by the world’s highest inflation, shortages of basic goods and rising crime.

Clashes have left at least 31 people dead, according to Public Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, including six members of the security forces.

The San Cristobal protests have spread to the agricultural towns in the surrounding area, where smuggling of subsidized goods into Colombia has aggravated shortages. The National Guard sent reinforcements of armored vehicles and motorbikes on March 19 to Rubio, a coffee-growing town of 70,000 that is 40 kilometers (24.9 miles) from the Colombian border, after residents barricaded city entrances and pelted the local guard barracks with stones.

Pimpinero and Bachaquero

Price controls make basic products in Venezuela up to 10 times cheaper than in Colombia, feeding a contraband industry that leaves supermarket shelves bare. Nationwide, more than one in four basic products are out of stock at any given time, according to the central bank, with shortages most severe in western states close to the border.

“The only three jobs here are: motorbike taxi driver, pimpinero and bachaquero,” said Eric Sanchez, a protester from Rubio’s community college, referring to gasoline and food smugglers.

Protests started because of a “lack of opportunities” and continue out of a desire to overthrow the government, he said while hiding from the National Guard in a house of a retired school teacher.

As violence escalates, rocks and tear gas are being replaced by guns, said Jeickson, a protester who refused to give his last name because he was afraid of retaliation from the government.

Bullets Flying

“Bullets are flying from both sides, the fear is now real,” Jeickson said, while standing outside a barricade rebuilt last night after the National Guard attack in San Cristobal’s Pueblo Nuevo.

Rising casualties are making it harder for the security forces to respond calmly, said Lieutenant Colonel Jose Torrealba, head of the National Guard’s urban forces in Tachira.

“Deaths of their comrades are making troops angry,” he said outside of San Cristobal’s Armed Forces University on March 18, as soldiers in riot gear supported by Chinese-made armored vehicles tried to breach a protester barricade defended by a hail of Molotov cocktails. “Our response is measured and limited and our goal is to protect state property and uphold the rights of citizens who want to carry on with their normal lives.”

A soldier who suffered a bullet wound in the skirmish outside the university in San Cristobal on March 18 died the next day, according to the Interior Ministry. The government responded by arresting the city’s opposition mayor, Daniel Ceballos, on accusations of fomenting rebellion.

In an attempt to defuse the protests, the government is resupplying local shops.

Food Supply

Toilet paper, corn flour and cooking oil were readily available in rationed quantities in San Cristobal’s supermarkets this week. Those who wanted milk and sugar had to sleep outside state supermarkets to get a ticket for one of 220 daily passes to the Bicentenario chain.

Maduro said last month that lines and shortages in Tachira have been caused by the barricades, which prevent food trucks from reaching the shops.

None of these products were in the shops earlier this year, according to local residents.

While resupplying stores will help calm the protests for now, deeper economic reforms are needed to reduce the problem of shortages and inflation behind the social discontent, Moya-Ocampos said.

Exchange System

“Protests are calming, but won’t disappear,” he said by telephone March 20. “A new wave of protests will come. The government knows it doesn’t control the situation on the streets.”

To increase the supply of dollars to importers and reduce shortages, the government will begin a new foreign currency market on Mar. 24 that will allow companies and individuals to trade greenbacks for a price determined by supply and demand and approved by the central bank, economy Vice President Rafael Ramirez said yesterday.

Mendoza says the repression of what were initially peaceful protests has made Maduro’s attempt to change the economic system redundant.

“If we keep living with fear nothing will ever change,” the student said at his barricades in the El Lobo district of San Cristobal. “We prefer to die in an army attack than for an iPhone in an armed robbery outside our homes.”

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