Mass protest in Venezuela de­mand­ing end of ‘dic­ta­tor­ship’

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Joshua Goodman and Han­nah Dreier

CARA­CAS, VENEZUELA >> Anti-government protesters jammed the streets of Venezuela’s cap­i­tal on Wed­nes­day on the heels of a de­ci­sion by congress to open a po­lit­i­cal trial against Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, whose al­lies have blocked moves for a re­call elec­tion.

Tens of thou­sands of de­mon­stra­tors shut down Cara­cas’ main high­way, and schools and shops were closed as protesters oc­cu­pied other key points around the city to de­mand the ouster of Maduro, who many Venezue­lans blame for triple-digit in­fla­tion and short­ages of food, medicines and other ba­sic goods.

Protesters also ral­lied in other ma­jor cities in what op­po­si­tion leaders were call­ing “the takeover of Venezuela.”

“Maduro has shown how scared he is that the peo­ple will ex­press them­selves,” op­po­si­tion leader Hen­rique Capriles said.

The protests come af­ter elec­toral author­i­ties blocked a re­call cam­paign against the deeply un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent last week. The face­off es­ca­lated on Tues­day when the op­po­si­tion-led leg­is­la­ture voted to put Maduro on trial, ac­cus­ing him of ef­fec­tively stag­ing a coup.

Op­po­si­tion leg­is­la­tors ar­gued that Venezuela’s leader has ef­fec­tively aban­doned the pres­i­dency by ne­glect­ing his job. Sev­eral also ques­tioned whether he was a dual Colom­bian na­tional and there­fore in­el­i­gi­ble to hold Venezuela’s high­est of­fice — an old, un­proven claim.

Government sup­port­ers staged a much smaller protest in the heart of Cara­cas.

Op­po­si­tion leaders ended Wed­nes­day’s na­tional day of protest with call for a gen­eral strike on Fri­day. They also threat­ened to march on the pres­i­den­tial palace in the heart of the city on Nov. 3 if the government con­tin­ues to block the re­call ef­fort.

The op­po­si­tion has not been al­lowed to protest in front of the pres­i­den­tial palace since a mas­sive march there helped pre­cip­i­tate a short-lived coup against for­mer Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez in 2002.

Lo­cal news me­dia re­ported the use of tear gas and clashes with po­lice in provin­cial cap­i­tals that left sev­eral wounded. In a video from the border state of Tachira, a young man shouted in the face of soldier in riot gear main­tain­ing a line against a crowd of masked pro­tester.

“I’m go­ing hun­gry! If you’re go­ing to shoot me be­cause I’m hun­gry, shoot me,” the pro­tester said.

Some said they had been un­able to get to Cara­cas on Wed­nes­day as the government shut down roads and metro sta­tions.

De­spite the cri­sis grip­ping the coun­try, the protest had a gen­er­ally light, car­ni­val­like at­mos­phere, with young peo­ple play­ing in­stru­ments, and sit­ting causally on the city’s main high­way. One stu­dent pro­tester dressed as Lady Jus­tice, with a scale and white blind­fold.

Vic­to­ria Ro­driguez, 18, said she hopes to cast her first vote for the cam­paign to re­call Maduro. A re­cent high school grad­u­ate, she said she feels like she’s liv­ing in an emp­ty­ing coun­try; 15 of her 25 class­mates have al­ready left since grad­u­at­ing in July.

She said she is frus­trated that op­po­si­tion leaders haven’t called for more dra­matic ac­tion, like sleep­ing on the high­way overnight or at­tempt­ing to par­a­lyze the cap­i­tal for days at a time.

“Peo­ple are tired of go­ing to the streets and then go­ing home,” she said. “The op­po­si­tion is let­ting the streets go cold. They are giv­ing the government too much time to ma­neu­ver.”

Congress was ex­pected to take up the is­sue of Maduro’s re­spon­si­bil­ity for the coun­try’s wors­en­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic cri­sis Thurs­day. The re­sult of that de­bate is un­likely to have much im­pact, how­ever.

Unlike other coun­tries in Latin Amer­ica such as Brazil, where Dilma Rouss­eff was re­moved from the pres­i­dency in August, Venezuela’s Na­tional As­sem­bly can’t im­peach the pres­i­dent. That power lies with the Supreme Court, which has never voted against Maduro.

Even as tem­pers flare, the government and op­po­si­tion have agreed on an at­tempt at di­a­logue to defuse the cri­sis.

Talks spon­sored by the Vat­i­can and other South Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments are set to be­gin Sun­day in the Caribbean is­land of Mar­garita. Maduro, who met with Pope Fran­cis pri­vately at the Vat­i­can on Mon­day, said he will travel to Mar­garita to per­son­ally launch the talks.

But the two sides have tried di­a­logue dur­ing pre­vi­ous crises, and the op­po­si­tion has scant hope for a break­through. Al­though Venezue­lans over­whelm­ingly blame Maduro for their eco­nomic woes the rul­ing party is in firm con­trol of institutions like the mil­i­tary and has shown no in­ter­est in yield­ing to the op­po­si­tion.

ARI­ANA CUBILLOS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple take a high­way dur­ing a protest against Venezuela’s Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro in Cara­cas, Venezuela, Wed­nes­day. Venezuela’s stand­off deep­ened af­ter congress voted to open a po­lit­i­cal trial against Maduro for break­ing the con­sti­tu­tional or­der and op­po­si­tion leaders called for mass demon­stra­tions on Wed­nes­day to drive the leader from of­fice.

ARI­ANA CUBILLOS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Univer­sity stu­dents protest against Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, in Cara­cas, Venezuela, Wed­nes­day.

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