Hunger strikers say government thugs attacked them

| Apr. 9, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by GlobalPost

About 40 hunger strikers camped out in Venezuela's capital city of Caracas came under attack Monday night by what they described as a large group of armed, pro-government activists, leaving at least half a dozen injured after shots were fired.

Demanding clean April 14 presidential elections, the hunger strikers this weekend set up mattresses on a roundabout in a wealthy Caracas district, many of them without eating now for three days.

But some 50 motorbikes descended on their camp, their riders clad in the crimson of late President Hugo Chavez's socialist party followers, protesters told GlobalPost.

The police and socialist party officials did not respond to GlobalPost's requests for comment.

But witnesses and images posted to the internet told of a violent attack, signaling tensions are high during the bitter but brief campaigns to succeed Chavez.

"They were using bikes belonging to the government," said Henry Linares, an 18-year-old student who was taking part in the hunger strike. "They robbed us of our stuff. We have around 10 students injured but we're continuing the fight."

Linares' friend and fellow protester Esteban Galup added: "There were around 50 motorcyclists. They surrounded us."

The protesters said they took refuge at a nearby McDonald's as police and medical assistance arrived.

The students accuse the country's electoral council of a pro-government bias and are calling for a fair election this Sunday, as acting President Nicolas Maduro runs against opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

In Venezuela, after 14 years of Chavez's rule, pro-government still means pro-“Chavismo” — a philosophy that has relied on the country's oil wealth to reduce poverty through a bevy of welfare programs while, opponents say, also muzzling dissent and wrecking the economy. International watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch accused Chavez of stacking the electoral council and the courts with supporters and intimidating or arresting judges suspected of straying from the government line.

Sunday's election and the short campaign preceding it come in the wake of Chavez's death from cancer on March 5.

Unlike in the United States, Venezuelan law calls for a new election after a president dies rather than filling the top executive post with the vice president.

In December, before leaving for an emergency cancer surgery in Cuba, Chavez anointed his faithful deputy Maduro as his preferred heir. That's likely to win Maduro the presidency, according to pollsters.

"We're here demanding that the elections are clean, just and free," said 22-year-old Vanessa Eisig, lying on a mattress alongside other hunger strikers over the weekend. "That's why we're having this hunger strike."

Twitter users posted dramatic messages and pictures of the attack. "We need help," wrote one organizer, Gaby Arellano. "The situation is severe." Her message was accompanied by an image of a protester with blood pouring from a wound on his head.

Varios heridos, necesitamos ayuda, la situación es grave…

— GABY ARELLANO (@GabyarellanoM13) April 9, 2013

Maduro immediately took to the country's airwaves and blamed the attack on a "small, violent group, financed by the US government."

Like his political mentor had done for years before him, Maduro has repeated claims that Washington is working to destabilize the Venezuelan government.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol has ordered an investigation into the attacks.