Massive street protests raise the pressure on Venezuelan leader.
Government responds with subway traffic jam
CARACAS, VENEZUELA | Tens of thousands of demonstrators shut down much of Venezuela’s capital on Thursday, blocking the city’s main artery to protest what they call an attempted coup by the socialist administration of President Nicolas Maduro.
Many carried signs reading “No to Dictatorship” as they crowded the principal highway that cuts from Caracas’ wealthy eastern section to downtown. Later in the day, a group of younger protesters clashed with police who turned the crowd away from the city center with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.
Protests have been held nearly every day in the oil-rich South American country since the Supreme Court issued a ruling nullifying the works of the opposition-dominated national legislature last week. The court pulled back that decision after it came under heavy criticism, but opposition leaders said the attempt to invalidate a branch of power revealed the administration’s true dictatorial nature.
Dubbed a “traffic jam against the coup,” Thursday’s demonstration was an attempt to show the government that the opposition will not let up pressure until early national elections are called. Many of those who braved the choking tropical heat under umbrellas and baseball caps said they also participated in a smaller and more violent Tuesday protest that led to handful of serious injuries and arrests.
“When I left this morning, my grandkids said: ‘Grandma, aren’t you scared?’ But I told them you cannot let yourself be intimidated. You have to get rid of this government,” said Asusena Aquilera, a 57-yearold retired finance worker who said she is struggling to get enough to eat amid food shortages.
The government responded to Thursday’s march by creating a traffic jam of its own, closing more than a dozen Caracas subway stations and staging its own counterprotest in the heart of the city. Many streets were blocked off in the early morning, and some workers decided to stay home after seeing the traffic snarls.
Bodyguards escorted opposition leaders through the crowds at the opposition protest. Government supporters wearing red shirts and carrying pipes were idling motorcycles at the outskirts of the march.
Last week’s court ruling led to an outcry from the international community over what some countries said was a turn toward dictatorship. The Organization of America States issued its strongest warning yet to Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist leader Hugo Chavez, and several countries around the region recalled their ambassadors. Even Venezuela’s most recognizable international movie star, Edgar Ramirez, joined the calls for protests.
On Wednesday lawmakers, some still injured from the previous day’s protest, began a symbolic process of removing Supreme Court justices.
Later that day, the president of a leading Venezuelan opposition party took refuge at the residence of the Chilean ambassador in Caracas and asked for protection.
The Chilean Foreign Ministry said Roberto Enriquez, president of the COPEI Christian Democrat opposition party, had been granted guest status there. The party said other COPEI leaders had been arrested in recent days and accused of treason. Human rights groups say Venezuela is holding more than 100 political prisoners.
Caracas saw two similarly large anti-government demonstrations last fall, but protesters on Thursday said they thought this time might be different, with steady protests combined with escalating international criticism and rapidly worsening shortages.
“This time we are not going to let up the pressure. I can’t believe the government has been sitting with its arms crossed watching this country just fall apart,” maintenance worker Freddy Munoz said as he ate a tamarind slush to cool down.
Tear gas was fired on demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday. Protests have erupted nearly every day in the South American country since the Supreme Court issued a ruling nullifying congress last week.
Venezuelans who fear socialist President Nicolas Maduro is trying to form a dictatorship chased away riot police during a protest Thursday in Caracas.