Venezuela Police Killed As Maduro Takes Protest Camps

A Venezuelan national police officer died from a gunshot wound after security forces raided four tented protest camps in eastern Caracas yesterday as the country’s economic crisis deepened and support for President Nicolas Maduro tumbled.

National guardsmen arrested 243 students who had been sleeping in the camps for the past month, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said yesterday on state television. The raids triggered a fresh wave of street barricades and demonstrations.

“We are particularly concerned at the reported excessive use of force by the authorities in response to protests,” the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement posted on the website today. The Commissioner repeated her “call to the Government to ensure that people are not penalized for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly.”

The raids came 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 economy’s woes, said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

Street Protests

“Since the protests began, every time things calm down the government has taken new actions to set them off again,” Carrasquero said yesterday by telephone. “The government has an interest in maintaining street protests because they take attention away from the economic crisis.”

Clashes yesterday left at least four others injured including two police officers, Chacao Mayor Ramon Muchacho wrote on his Twitter account. Maduro said the officer killed was shot by a sniper.

“There were paid mercenaries among the protesters we captured in the camps of violence and death,” Maduro said yesterday on state television. “Some are mercenaries paid to do evil, others are fools.”

The raids sparked fresh demonstrations. Residents close to an encampment near a UN office in eastern Chacao banged pots and pans in the early hours of yesterday after explosions were heard in the area. Traffic was brought to a standstill yesterday morning in the neighborhood as demonstrators set up roadblocks.

Calming Down

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 national police increased patrols in the area and arrested protesters, according to Muchacho.

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.

Colombia stopped natural gas sales to Venezuela last week to preserve fuel during the periodic regional dry spell known as El Nino. The last electricity crisis prompted by El Nino in 2009 contributed to six straight quarters of negative economic growth in Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves.

Economic Crisis

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.

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.

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