21 Feb 2014

Is Venezuela burning while world watches Ukraine?

As the violence in Ukraine threatens to take the country to the brink of civil war, on the other side of the world unrest in Venezuela threatens to do the same.

While the attention of Europe has been focused on the increasing violence in Ukraine, protests in Venezuela are also threatening to spiral out of control with six people now confirmed dead already in the past week.

On Wednesday night, the Venezuelan capital Caracas saw its worst night of violence since anti-government protests began nearly three weeks ago.

Human Rights Watch reported further outbreaks of violence overnight in the capital, where a new protest march is planned to take place tomorrow. It also claimed international media were being accused of under-reporting the crisis.

Protesters erected burning barricades around Altamira Square in the wealthier east of the city, where security forces fired teargas and bullets and chased youths, who hurled Molotov cocktails and blocked roads with burning piles of trash.

Alongside them, protesters have alleged government-backed “colectivos” (described as paramilitary gangs on motorbikes) have shot at people with live ammunition, while government officials have accused protesters of using sharpshooters to target rallies in support of President Nicolas Maduro, from rooftops and elsewhere.

‘Change depends on every one of us. Don’t give up!’Lilian Tintori

Elsewhere in Venezuela Alexis Martinez, a supporter of the socialist president, was shot dead, becoming the sixth fatality in more than a week of violence.

Martinez was the brother of a ruling Socialist party legislator, in the central city of Barquisimeto. A local journalist said he was shot in the chest while passing an opposition protest.

Scores of people have been injured or arrested since the violence broke out eight days ago, in what has become the most serious unrest since President Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela in April 2013.

Across the country provincial cities including Valencia, Merida, San Cristobal, Maracaibo and Puerto Ordaz have also seen an escalation in violence.

Meanwhile, Leopoldo Lopez, the 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist and leader of the Popular Will opposition party, who handed himself in to authorities on Tuesday in front of his supporters to face charges of inciting violence, will remain in custody pending further hearings, his lawyer told Human Rights Watch yesterday.

Before handing himself over to the authorities, Mr Lopez gave a speech to thousands of supporters at a protest rally in which he said he hoped his arrest would wake the country up to its “unjust justice” and denied the charges against him.

At the same time government supporters wearing red held a rival march and headed to the presidential palace to rally in support of the president.

Mr Lopez is being held in Caracas’ Ramo Verde military jail. Yesterday, his wife Lilian Tintori took to Twitter urging supporters: “Change depends on every one of us. Don’t give up!”

Rampant inflation and food shortages

The protesters, most of them middle-class students, have called on Maduro to resign, and blame his government for violent crime, rampant inflation, shortages of goods and food, and alleged repression of opponents.

The number of murders in Venezuela last year was estimated at 24,700 by non-governmental organisation Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Violence Watch).

That makes Venezuela among the most violent countries in the world along with Honduras, El Salvador, Ivory Coast, and Jamaica.

Inflation, which has leapt to 56 per cent, has been linked to severe currency controls introduced by the country last year that have limited imports and exacerbated shortages from newsprint to car parts and food.

Opposition leaders have said the currency controls are symptomatic of a failing economic system created by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, one that faces slowing growth, soaring prices and continuing shortages of staple products.

With almost 28,000 murders in 2013, Venezuela is now considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world, despite government attempts to crack down on crime. 

Read more: is Venezuela the most dangerous place on earth?

Maduro has blamed opposition forces and ideological opponents in Washington for waging an “economic war” on Venezuela, though officials widely recognise that the currency controls are rife with corruption.

Countries around Latin America are reported to be watching closely. Political allies such as Cuba, which receives Venezuelan oil on preferential terms, have denounced the protests as “coup attempt,” similar to those of 2002 which briefly toppled Chavez from power, while other nations have called for dialogue between the two sides.

Maduro has accused Lopez and “small fascist groups” of being in league with the US government and want a coup and of trying to instigate a coup. Earlier this week, the Caracas government expelled three US diplomats for “conspiring” against it.

US President Barack Obama has criticised Maduro’s government for arresting protesters and urged it to focus on addressing the “legitimate grievances” of its people.

Legitimate grievances

The Venezuelan government responded with a statement in which it accused the US of “a new and gross interference” in its internal affairs.

“Independent governments and the people of the world want the US government to explain why it funds, encourages and defends opposition leaders who promote violence in our country,” the government statement added.

While Lopez has won admiration among opposition supporters frustrated by 15 years of electoral losses, other opposition leaders have called him a dangerous hothead.

He has frequently squabbled with fellow opposition leaders and was involved in the 2002 coup, even helping arrest a minister.

Venezuela’s main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in last year’s presidential election, has previously said he disagrees with Lopez’s street tactics but backs protesters’ grievances and has condemned the government response.