Death toll in Venezuela civil unrest hits 100
CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Days before a polarizing vote to start rewriting its constitution, Venezuela is convulsing to a rhythm of daytime strikes and nocturnal clashes. The most recent violence drove the death toll from months of unrest to 100 on Thursday.
Most of the dead in anti-government protests that began in April are young men killed by gunfire. The toll also includes looters; police allegedly attacked by protesters; and civilians killed in accidents related to roadblocks set up during demonstrations.
The count has been highly politicized, with the opposition and other government agencies reporting varying tolls and causes of death that focus blame on the other side.
The protests began over moves by President Nicolas Maduro’s government to restrict the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
But the mounting deaths of demonstrators has become a separate source of outrage for the young people who march during the day and assemble nightly to fight the police and national guardsmen at improvised barricades across the country.
“The ones who have fallen fighting repression motivate us to keep fighting,” said Sandra Fernandez, a 21-year-old university student.
The country’s chief prosecutor reported Thursday on Twitter that a 16-year-old was killed at a protest in the capital overnight, while a 23-year-old man was slain at a demonstration in Merida state.
The two killings pushed to the century mark the human toll of a political crisis that has brought the oil-rich South American country almost four months of near-daily protests, thousands of injuries and arrests and a two-day general strike that shuttered businesses nationwide this week.
Opposition leaders have called on supporters to convene in the capital Friday at the end of a 48hour general strike that began Wednesday. On Sunday the government holds a vote that will start a process of rewriting the constitution by electing members of a special assembly to reshape the charter.
The opposition is boycotting that vote, saying the election rules were rigged to guarantee Maduro a majority and arguing that a new constitution could replace democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.
The chief prosecutor’s office has released little information about the victims of the unrest, but at least 44 are believed to have been shot while participating in protests. Many of those deaths are blamed on armed motorcycle gangs of government supporters known as “colectivos” who are often seen shooting indiscriminately at protesters while police and troops stand by.
“The level of impunity is extremely high, and that continues on to a situation like this,” said David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, left, and his wife Cilia Flores, right, greet supporters upon their arrival to rally in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday.
A supporter of Nicolas Maduro holds a photo of Hugo Chávez during a rally in Caracas Thursday.