Deaths rise as po­lar­iz­ing vote nears

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Fabiola Sanchez and Chris­tine Armario

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 nearly four months of un­rest above 100 on Thurs­day.

Most of the dead in anti-gov­ern­ment protests that be­gan in early April have been 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 by the county’s chief pros­e­cu­tor 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.

When Neo­mar Lan­der, 17, was rushed, bloody and life­less, to a hos­pi­tal in early June, of­fi­cials came out within hours to say he had been killed by a home­made bomb he was car­ry­ing. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers main­tained he was hit by a can­is­ter of tear gas fired by Na­tional Guard troops stand­ing above the bridge where he was found dead.

“They try to ques­tion the hu­man­ity of the other side as a po­lit­i­cal tac­tic, and I think that ends up dis­cour­ag­ing and dis­may­ing peo­ple,” said David Smilde, a Tu­lane Univer­sity ex­pert on Venezuela.

The protests be­gan af­ter a Supreme Court rul­ing that stripped the op­po­si­tion­con­trolled Na­tional Assem­bly of its re­main­ing pow­ers. Al­though quickly re­versed, the de­ci­sion ig­nited a protest move­ment against so­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro fu­eled by anger over triple-digit in­fla­tion, hours-long lines to buy ba­sic food items and deadly med­i­cal short­ages.

Ad­dress­ing a mul­ti­tude of gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers dressed in red Thurs­day, Ma- duro called on Venezue­lans to vote in Sun­day’s con­tro­ver­sial elec­tion for del­e­gates to an assem­bly that is to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion.

He posed the vote as a choice that Venezue­lans must make be­tween be­ing ei­ther “a free coun­try or a colony of the em­pire” — Maduro’s term for the United States.

Ear­lier, of­fi­cials an­nounced a host of se­cu­rity mea­sures that were be­ing en­acted, in­clud­ing an or­der that no po­lit­i­cal protests be held through Tues­day. The op­po­si­tion called for a mass demon­stra­tion Fri­day in Cara­cas, rais­ing the po­ten­tial for fur­ther clashes amid the ris­ing ten­sions. Wash­ing­ton or­dered rel­a­tives of U.S. diplo­mats to leave the Venezue­lan cap­i­tal be­fore the di­vi­sive vote.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers are urg­ing Venezue­lans to boy­cott the 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 mount­ing deaths of demon­stra­tors have now be­come a sep­a­rate source of out­rage for the young peo­ple who march dur­ing the day and as­sem­ble nightly to fight po­lice of­fi­cers 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 and a 23-year-old man died at a demon­stra­tion in the state of Merida. A 49-year-old man in Carababo, west of Cara­cas, was re­ported killed dur­ing a protest Thurs­day af­ter­noon, and a 16-year-old died from a head wound suf­fered Wed­nes­day at a protest in the cap­i­tal.

The four killings pushed the death toll of the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis to 102. The oil-rich South Amer­i­can coun­try, which was in the sec­ond day of a two-day gen­eral strike that shut­tered busi­nesses na­tion­wide, has seen thou­sands of in­juries and ar­rests.

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 of­ten are seen shoot­ing in­dis­crim­i­nately at pro­test­ers while po­lice and sol­diers stand by.

“The level of im­punity is ex­tremely high, and that con­tin­ues on to a sit­u­a­tion like this,” Smilde said.

Com­pared with a spate of protests that left 43 dead on both sides in 2014, Smilde said, “This time around most of it is com­ing from gov­ern­ment forces, ei­ther Na­tional Guard and po­lice or colec­tivos that are aligned with the gov­ern­ment.”

Se­cu­rity forces have been ac­cused of ex­ces­sive force but have used mostly non­lethal arms, a tac­tic that has kept protest deaths rel­a­tively low in com­par­i­son with the over­all level of vi­o­lence in a coun­try with one of the world’s high­est homi­cide rates. An av­er­age of 78 peo­ple a day died vi­o­lently last year in this coun­try of 31.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing the non-gov­ern­men­tal Venezue­lan Vi­o­lence Ob­ser­va­tory.

The vic­tims of the po­lit­i­cal un­rest have over­whelm­ingly been male, with only six women killed. They are also mostly young, av­er­ag­ing 27 years old.

Juan Bar­reto, AFP

A mem­ber of Venezuela’s Na­tional Guard grabs a protester dur­ing clashes in Cara­cas on Thurs­day, the sec­ond day of a 48-hour gen­eral strike called by the op­po­si­tion.

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