Venezuela's protests careen into week 5

| Mar. 12, 2014 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by GlobalPost

Gentilina Radaelli is sweeping away shards of glass from an advertising billboard that rioters have ripped from its base and flung into a major avenue. A fallen tree and a metal bar are tangled with it to complete the barricade.

“This is anarchy,” says Radaelli, a 54-year-old auditor who works in the square. “This isn’t protest; It’s vandalism.”

Around 150 yards south, a public transport information kiosk sits in the middle of the road, burned out the previous night by protesters and left to form another barricade.

Burning kiosk in Caracas' Plaza Altamira

— Girish Gupta (@jammastergirish) March 9, 2014

Putrid remnants of the nightly bouts between rioters and government security forces have turned this once posh plaza into a wasteland. Smoke from protesters’ smoldering barricades and gas bombs as well as the police’s tear gas seep into neighboring apartments and upscale bars serving $30 cocktails.

For an entire month, demonstrators have come out by the tens of thousands across Venezuela to rail against economic and social problems, including shortages of basic goods and some of the world’s highest inflation and violent crime rates. On Wednesday, they prompted mobs of counter-protesters to take to the streets as they had done before, in a show of support for the leftist government. The crisis is the biggest test yet for President Nicolas Maduro, but it could well cement his presidency if the opposition continues to falter.

Protest-related deaths are mounting on both sides of the political divide, and both sides appear to seek to inflate figures. As many as three people were reported killed in Wednesday's protests, including a National Guard captain who died from gunshot in the northern state of Carabobo, according to the state's governor, who called the assailants "terrorist delinquents."

That raised the death toll to at least 25, according to collated government and opposition numbers. Previous victims include a motorcyclist who was decapitated by wire strung across a road and numerous people attempting to clear barricades from the streets. One barricade-buster was a Chilean middle-aged woman who became the first known foreigner killed in Venezuela’s grinding crisis.

Here in the Chacao district of Caracas, half a dozen barricades immediately surround Plaza Altamira. Cars make U-turns as they approach the roadblocks, opting to drive the wrong way down surrounding one-way streets.

Many locals in this traditional pro-opposition outpost are getting fed up. Clashes appear to be cleaving the opposition both at ground level and in its upper political echelons.

“I’m an opposition supporter but these protests are stupid,” said 47-year-old lawyer Jose Luis, who refused to give his last name.

Standing next to a roadblock, he said, “They seem to think that because the government is bad, this is good. It’s not. It’s just as stupid as the currency controls, the shortages and everything else that’s going wrong here.”

The turnout for the evening riots here has been dwindling, leaving primarily the hard-core government haters on the streets. Only some are from the lower classes. The majority are wealthier teenage or young-adult residents of Altamira, many of whom tote iPhones and BlackBerrys. As the sun begins to go down, they fill their Molotov cocktails, gear up their makeshift shields and gas masks, and march toward the waiting National Guard.

“This is the only way we can make our voice heard,” said Kayley Piñango, a 21-year-old student standing near the burning kiosk. “We have no opportunities so we have to do things like this.”

The protesters’ demands are vague and diffuse. They all want change and many are seeking an end to the Maduro government — but few can see any realistic means of achieving any of it.

As well as arguments among the demonstrators, rifts are emerging in opposition political circles.

Indeed, many in the opposition see the violent protests as counterproductive, playing into government hands by allowing the Maduro administration to accuse the opposition he often calls "fascist" of inciting violence. It was under that pretext that the authorities imprisoned Leopoldo Lopez, a prominent opposition leader who called on his followers to join in peaceful marches.

“People seem to think that if somebody rejects violence, including the barricades, it means they are supporting Maduro,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a Venezuelan pollster. “That’s crazy.”

He doesn’t believe the opposition has a plan. “They have no clear leadership,” he said, despite strong attempts to take the reins by politicians like Lopez, and another popular leader, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

After the destruction of the kiosk in Altamira, the authorities suspended local buses. That will hit hardest those who cannot afford to drive in Caracas — the government’s traditional support base whom Capriles is working carefully to attract. Backed by a disparate opposition bloc, Capriles lost by a hair in last April’s presidential election to Maduro, who had been Hugo Chavez’s preferred successor but has proved to be less popular than the late “Comandante.”

“The protest movement has set in motion a real political crisis,” wrote blogger Francisco Toro. “A toxic wedge now separates factions that had managed a grudging cooperation for the last six years.”

Tourism Minister Andres Izarra, as well as others prominent in government including Maduro, tweeted pictures of the burning kiosk in the square, which is in the wealthy district Chacao.

It took more than a decade of rule by Chavez for the opposition to unite behind Capriles. More hardline opposition politician Lopez remains in jail and continues to call for more protests.

Maduro has called for dialogue between his government and the opposition. Some talks have already taken place, though the primary opposition leaders have not participated after Capriles said that he was not up for a government “photo opportunity.” An umbrella opposition group has agreed to talks in principle, though with caveats such as wanting them broadcast live.

The United States, the United Nations and the Catholic Church have also urged Venezuela peacefully negotiate an end to the crisis.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called a conference Wednesday of neighboring nations in South America’s UNASUR group to address the violence in Venezuela, the region’s biggest oil exporter.

Meanwhile, Maduro told CNN in a recent interview that he was “sleeping like a baby,” unconcerned about the protests.

Capriles admitted that the opposition has lessons to learn. “We’ve got to take a look at ourselves,” he said. “I’ll be first to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes again.”

Few in the streets are interested in the political party heads.

“I’m disappointed in the politicians right now,” said Silvana Lezama, a 20-year-old student who manned barricades in Caracas’ El Cafetal district.

“They say they support us but keep saying we shouldn't build the barricades. I understand they’re an inconvenience but they’re the only way of making people realize that they can’t keep going on with life like nothing is wrong.”

“I’ve realized this isn’t about politics. It’s about Venezuela,” she said.