Thousands march in Venezuela against government

Bruno Cirelli
Aprile 20, 2017

Maduro's opponents are vowing to stage the "mother of all protests" calling for his ouster, after two weeks of violent demonstrations that have left five people dead and dozens wounded.

Venezuela braced for rival demonstrations Wednesday for and against President Nicolas Maduro, whose moves to tighten his grip on power have triggered deadly unrest and escalated the country's political and economic crisis.

But you'd never be able to tell from the information published by Venezuelan official sources - including the vice-president, Telesur, and VTV - that have been reporting exclusively on pro-government rallies in which large numbers of people participated, including some who sing and dance "in defense of peace". Venezuela's neighbors have condemned the violence and have called on the government to hold elections to bring back democracy to the country.

The opposition has repeatedly accused the government of sending groups of armed thugs to attack protesters.

Marches have repeatedly ended in clashes between demonstrators and security forces, with rock-throwing youths squaring off against tear-gas-lobbing security forces in confused melees that drag on well into the evening. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay on Monday signed a joint statement asking for the Venezuelan government "to guarantee the right to peaceful demonstration", and avoid violence against protesters. The US has also slapped sanctions on Maduro's vice president, Tareck El Aissami, for alleged drug trafficking.

Among opposition demands are that the Supreme Court judges be removed, the release of more than 200 political prisoners, delivery of humanitarian aid and new elections.

Maduro said Wednesday he was willing to face his opponents at the ballot box. There's also criticism that the government isn't doing enough to restrain the collectives - motorcycle-driving militants - that have operated like shock troops firing on protesters as security forces stand by.

Thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets since the Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly of its last vestiges of power almost three weeks ago, a decision it later reversed. Protesters had hoped to converge on the office of the state ombudsman, a guarantor of human rights, but as in previous attempts they were blocked by the National Guard.

Pressure on Maduro has increased as falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports has aggravated a financial crisis, creating severe shortages of food and medicine in the state-led economy. Although she doesn't expect change overnight, she said protesting is the only option she has after what she says are abuses committed by the government. An investigation has been opened to determine who is behind the plan.

A short block away from where the opposition was gathering, a sea of red-shirted government supporters marched by calmly, some dancing to a salsa band that tried to provide a dose of normalcy to an otherwise tense situation.

Demonstrators clash with the police during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas.

They included state workers like Leidy Marquez, who was bused in from Tachira state on the other side of teh country. Further, the turmoil presents national security threats to the United States, which have yet to be realized fully by the current administration: an increase in migrants and political asylum-seekers from Venezuela to the United States, an increased flow of narcotics from the Andes region via Venezuela, and the very real possibility that Citgo, the US subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), could end up in the hands of the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft.

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