Venezuela Opposition March Ends After Police Scuffles

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Supporters of Venezuela’s political opposition marched in Caracas on Saturday to protest product shortages and demand a change in government. The demonstration came barely a year after a wave of protests led to the deaths of 43 people.

Several thousand opposition supporters began marching at a starting point in eastern Caracas in the morning, many banging pots and pans, blowing whistles, waving Venezuelan flags and chanting “resistance.” The rally ended prematurely at about 2 p.m. Caracas time after scuffles broke out near the march between police and a small group of students, with opposition governor Henrique Capriles canceling his planned speech.

Gabriel Hernandez, a 24-year-old systems engineer student at Central University in Caracas, who was draped in a Venezuelan flag, said he protested all last year and now was back on the streets again.

“People are waiting for the call,” he said, adding that Saturday’s turnout wasn’t as large as he saw last year. “Everything is worse. People are mad about the situation, but they are also disappointed by the politicians.”

Faced with the world’s fastest inflation and plummeting oil prices, President Nicolas Maduro has cracked down on the opposition since succeeding his late mentor, Hugo Chavez, in April 2013. The authorities have jailed three opposition leaders, including Leopoldo Lopez, for allegedly instigating violence in last year’s nationwide, anti-government protests.

“Venezuela is moving closer to a political crisis with the moderate opposition now openly endorsing active protest for this weekend -- the first after the failed demonstrations in February 2014,” Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America strategy at Jefferies LLC, said in a note to clients on Jan. 23.

‘Apathetic’ Citizens

Some people at the demonstration worried about the low turnout.

“There’s not a lot of people,” Diana Colorado, a 45-year-old electric engineer from Caracas, said at the march. “Everyone has become apathetic. They’ve lost faith in the politicians. The change they’d been hoping for never came.”

At the Chacaito plaza where the opposition rally ended, a block from where Lopez was arrested last year, about a hundred young protesters remained at 2:45 p.m. and were surrounded by about twice as many riot police as they chanted “resistance.”

Maduro, who spoke for an hour at a government “March of the Undefeated” on Friday afternoon in downtown Caracas, blamed opponents for waging an “economic coup” against his government and asked the national assembly to start an investigation. He also warned food distributors to start working to restock shelves.

‘Final Call’

“We don’t threaten anyone, but this is the final call I’m making to the capitalist distributors to respect the economy and people. Enough already!” Maduro said, adding that he was prepared to take tough measures to restore economic prosperity.

“When I take difficult measures, which I will take, I need the support of the people in the streets,” Maduro said. “Can I count on your support? I am going all the way. We’re going to defeat the economic war.”

Anmary Herrera, 28, a human resources worker for state natural gas distributor PDV Gas Communal in eastern Sucre state, took a 12-hour bus ride to show her support for Maduro.

“The revolution calls,” she said Friday in an interview at the government march. “We’re showing that despite everything, we still support the president. There are lines everywhere, but the opposition is only casting the blame. They want to see that he doesn’t succeed.”

Blaming Others

In a national address on Jan. 21, Maduro blamed “criminal gangs,” “economic sabotage” and private business interests for food shortages and spiraling prices. He said the country would introduce a new currency system for non-essential imports while maintaining the primary rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar for food and medicine.

“We’re entering a situation of collapse, and it’s our obligation, our responsibility to say it and propose solutions,” opposition governor and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said Jan. 14 as he urged supporters to resume peaceful protests. “Today in the shopping lines, the people are living the consequences of the politics of irresponsibility.”

Social protests and looting could threaten political stability if they intensify, Diego Moya-Ocampos, a London-based political risk consultant at IHS Inc., said in a note to clients on Friday.

Maduro said on state television that he would travel to Saudi Arabia again on Saturday to pay his respects on the death of King Abdullah. He was in the Middle Eastern country just last week on a world tour of oil-producing countries to lobby for actions to reverse declining oil prices and stabilize the market.