Protests turn violent in Venezuela amid growing anger
Photo: Girish Gupta

Protests turn violent in Venezuela amid growing anger

Girish Gupta
Video, text and photo: USA Today. Audio: Radio France Internationale | Feb. 16, 2014 | Caracas, Venezuela

Shots rang out and tear gas clouded the air of a wealthy Caracas district Saturday night as protests against the government continued for a fourth consecutive day.

Rioters burned trash and threw stones at police in the city's Plaza Altamira. In return, authorities used water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds numbering more than 1,000.

There is growing anger here at soaring inflation — which is up to 56.3% over the past 12 months — and a murder rate that, according to local NGOs, is one of the world's highest.

"The government is taking us into the slaughterhouse," said Valentina Ortiz, a 33-year-old pediatrician in Plaza Altamira. "We'll just be able to get food and water soon."

Like Ortiz, other protesters vowed to rally until things change.

"It doesn't matter how long it takes, a week, a month. We'll be here every single day," said Jose Pérez, 34. "We are at war."

The protests are the largest faced by President Nicolás Maduro since he came to power last year after the death of Hugo Chávez.

Saturday night's violence erupted after tens of thousands turned out for government and opposition marches during the day, both of which remained peaceful. There was a joyous, festival atmosphere at the pro-government march.

"The Revolution is love, is peace," read many placards, denying claims the government was to blame for the violence.

Maduro has vowed to put an end to the violence.

"I'm not giving up a single millimeter of the power invested in me by the Venezuelan people," Maduro told the crowds, from a brightly-colored stage peppered with the words, "People of Peace."

The 51-year-old president has called the protesters "Nazi fascists" who want to see him toppled from power. He blamed them for the violence.

"We're marching for peace; we don't want violence," said Jackeline Maceas, a 41-year-old administrator clad in a red cap and t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Chávez.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Leopoldo López, a major opposition leader who has backed the protests. The 42-year-old, once touted as the country's next president, is charged with murder and terrorism. Despite the charges, he continues to taunt the government.

"Don't you have the guts to arrest me?" he asked on Twitter, adding perhaps the government was awaiting orders from Havana, Cuba.

Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, said López was a "coward" trying to escape the country.

During the day, students held an anti-government protest in Caracas' Las Mercedes district.

"All of our children are equal, whether opposition or pro-government," said 45-year-old mother Carolina Morales. "The government is to blame for this violence, for provoking the students. The students have to defend themselves against the government's bullets."

David Smilde, a local sociology professor, says that government repression is playing a big part in stoking the protests.

"The protests really gathered steam once they started to be repressed. Students are protesting because they feel Venezuela's democratic spaces are being reduced," Smilde said. "People feel like if they don't do something now democratic spaces for their voices will only be reduced further in the future."

With no looming election, there is little hope that the protests will topple Maduro from power. The unrest also points toward a split within the opposition as Henrique Capriles, the opposition's leader who lost elections against both Maduro and Chávez, has distanced himself from the demonstrations.

Opposition supporters now see little hope in Capriles, and support is growing for more hardline members of the opposition.

"López is more radical than Capriles, and that's what this country needs right now," said protester Tulio Manzini, 22, in Plaza Altamira.