Latin America
5:05 am
Thu March 13, 2014

Venezuela: A Month Of Unrest And Forecasts Of More

Originally published on Thu March 13, 2014 3:55 pm

As darkness fell Wednesday night in Caracas, the place where student protesters have regularly clashed with security forces was again a battleground. Altamira Square was ablaze with burning garbage, and the thud of tear gas canisters being fired echoed between the buildings.

On the edge of the square, medics treated the wounded, among them an 18-year-old protester who injured his arm as he stumbled when spray from a water cannon hit him.

Trembling with emotion, the teenager — who didn't want his name used — said "the only way this can be resolved is by continuing the struggle. We can't dialogue with an assassin. You can't extend your hand to a hypocrite who says one thing but does another."

These protests began a month ago because of anger over insecurity in the country — it has one of the highest murder rates in the world — and they have quickly morphed to include a host of other grievances.

Inflation, for example, runs at more than 50 percent, and there have been food shortages. Twenty-five people have died in the clashes, including three people who were shot in Valencia on Wednesday night.

One of the more militant opposition leaders, National Assembly member Maria Corina Machado, told the BBC on Wednesday that anti-government groups are increasingly backing the objective of regime change. And there is every indication that positions are hardening on the government side as well.

President Warns Of 'Drastic Measures'

President Nicolas Maduro took to the airwaves in a live broadcast at the exact same time the fighting was kicking off in Altamira.

"I'm going to take drastic measures with all of these sectors that are attacking and killing the Venezuelan people," he said.

More forceful measures were already on display during the day.

Opposition protesters were stopped from marching toward the government ombudsman's office to demand his resignation. Police in full riot gear blocked the way, and then the march devolved into a street battle with opposition members throwing rocks while the security forces fired water cannons.

But pro-government youths marched unimpeded, holding up signs that called for a mano dura — or firm hand — with the opposition groups.

Ana Montenegro was among them.

"There are some members of the opposition who want to overthrow the government, and they can't," Montenegro says. "Our president was constitutionally elected. They are committing acts of violence, and we are not going to allow them to do what they want."

Political polarization here is nothing new. Ever since Hugo Chavez came to power 15 years ago and instituted his Bolivarian Revolution, there has been rabid debate, sporadic protest movements and an attempted coup over the future of the country.

What is different this time is that Chavez is no longer at the helm of Venezuela and some here feel that Maduro, who only squeaked into the presidency in elections after Chavez's death, is vulnerable.

Still, these anti-government demonstrations weren't started and aren't really being led by the conventional political opposition. Like many recent movements in other parts of the world, the protests sprang up on university campuses and have spread through Facebook and Twitter.

So far, most analysts agree that the protesters haven't reached a critical mass yet. And people outside the protest movements — who are also tired of the conditions here — seem conflicted over what should happen next.

A group of motorcycle taxi drivers are standing by the road arguing over the protests. Some are against them, others are for them. None of those interviewed wanted to give their names.

One man says he's not for the protests, after complaining about the food shortages and inflation here.

"Through force, we won't get anywhere," he says. "We don't want a civil war. Change needs to come through the ballot box. I didn't agree with everything Chavez did, but the man knew how to talk and act." Maduro, on the other hand, he says, doesn't know what he is doing.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Crime and an awful economy are driving an antigovernment movement in Venezuela. Yesterday marked one month since demonstrations first erupted there and the death toll grew. A university student, a National Guardsman and another man were fatally shot in the city of Valencia. Twenty-five people have now died during this unrest. Yesterday, in the capital of Caracas, pro and anti-government demonstrators were out in the street in rival marches.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro sent this report from Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: As darkness fell on Caracas last night, the square where student protestors have regularly clashed with security forces was again a battleground. Altamira was ablaze with burning garbage and the thud of tear gas canisters being fired echoed between buildings.

On the edge of the square, medics treated the wounded; among them an 18-year-old protestor who injured his arm after he stumbled when spray from a water cannon hit him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking about President Nicolas Maduro and trembling with emotion, the teenager, who didn't want his name used, said the only way this can be resolved is by continuing the struggle. We can't dialogue with an assassin. You can't extend your hand to a hypocrite who says one thing but does another, he says. These protests began a month ago because of anger over insecurity in the country. It has one of the highest murder rates in the world. And they've quickly morphed to include a host of other grievances, including inflation, running at over 50 percent, and food shortages. Now one of the more militant opposition leaders, National Assembly member Maria Corina Machado, told the BBC yesterday that anti-government groups are increasingly backing the objective of regime change here.

And there is every indication that positions are hardening on the government's side as well. Maduro took to the airwaves in a live broadcast at the exact same time the fighting was kicking off in Altamira.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to take drastic measures with all of these sectors that are attacking and killing the Venezuelan people, he said. More forceful measures were already on display during the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Opposition protestors were stopped from marching towards the government ombudsman's office to demand his resignation. Police in full riot gear blocked the way and then the march devolved into a street battle with opposition members throwing rocks while the security forces fired water cannons.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But pro-government youth walked unimpeded, holding up signs that called for a mano rudo, or a firm hand, with the opposition groups. Ana Montenegro was among them.

ANA MONTENEGRO: (Speaking Spanish)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are some members of the opposition who want to overthrow the government, she says, and they can't. Our president was constitutionally elected. They are committing acts of violence and we are not going to allow them to do what they want, she says. Political polarization here is nothing new. Ever since Hugo Chavez came to power 15 years ago and instituted his Bolivarian revolution, there has been rabid debate, sporadic protest movements and an attempted coup over the future of the country.

What is different this time is that Hugo Chavez is no longer at the helm of Venezuela and some here feel that Maduro, who only squeaked into the presidency in elections after Chavez's death, is vulnerable. Still, these anti-government demonstrations weren't started and aren't really being led by the conventional political opposition.

Like many recent movements in other parts of the world, the protests sprang up on university campuses and other young people's hangouts and have spread through Facebook and Twitter. So far most analysts agree they haven't really galvanized a critical mass yet and people outside the protest movement were also tired of the conditions here and conflicted over what should happen next.

A group of motorcycle taxi drivers are standing by the road arguing over the protests. Some are against them, others are for them. None of those I spoke to wanted to give their names.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm not for the protests, one many says, after complaining about the food shortages and the inflation here. He goes on: Through force we won't get anywhere. We don't want a civil war. Change needs to come through the ballot box. I didn't agree with everything Chavez did, but the man knew how to talk and how to act. He says Maduro, on the other hand, doesn't know what he's doing. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.