Venezuela's government facing more street protests
CARACAS, Venezuela – Protests against Venezuela's government showed no sign of abating Sunday, February 16, as the fugitive opposition leader whom President Nicolas Maduro blames for sowing unrest broke his silence to urge another demonstration.
The oil-rich country's deep-rooted problems of rising prices and basic goods shortages have sparked almost two weeks of street rallies, spearheaded by students who fear a future without jobs.
The demonstrations have developed into the biggest challenge to the country's socialist rulers since the death of its longtime leader Hugo Chavez from cancer last year.
Venezuela, the OPEC member with the world's largest proven oil reserves, remains mired in a deepening economic crisis that critics blame on policies that Maduro largely inherited from Chavez.
Strict controls on currency and prices have created huge bottlenecks that have fueled inflation and emptied store shelves.
Maduro, an elected socialist whom Chavez handpicked as his successor, has so far failed to put down the threat and on Sunday he hit back at criticism from his predecessor's sworn-foe the United States, saying he would expel three US consular officials.
Maduro also received a provocative challenge from the man he blames for violence during last week's protests in which three people died.
"This Tuesday the 18th, I would like to invite you all to march together from Plaza Venezuela – where on February 12 a glimmer of hope started to burn for change in everyone's interest – to the Justice Ministry," said Leopoldo Lopez, who heads up the country's Popular Will party.
Lopez's statement, in a video posted on his Twitter account, comes after an arrest warrant was issued alleging he was responsible for unrest that broke out during the protests, in which scores were also injured on Wednesday, February 12.
"If anyone has decided to illegally arrest and jail me, you know I will be there to take on the persecution... I have nothing to fear; I have not done anything illegal," he vowed.
Prior to Maduro announcing his intention to expel the three US officials, Venezuela dismissed comments made a day earlier by US Secretary of State John Kerry in which he voiced alarm at the arrest and detention of students and activists by security forces.
The foreign ministry in Caracas alleged that the United States was trying to "promote and legitimize efforts to destabilize" the country's democracy.
During a failed two-day coup against Chavez in 2002, the United States expressed support for a non-elected interim leader, a move that deeply undermined Washington's credibility in Latin America.
Problems mount for Maduro
Meanwhile, an estimated 3,000 people took part in an opposition rally in Caracas on Sunday and a fresh rally is planned for Monday, February 17.
Maduro has accused right-wing infiltrators of fomenting unrest but students have said groups of hooded assailants backed by the government are responsible for the clashes.
"We are going to continue in the streets, without violence," Gabriela Arellano, a student leader from the University of the Andes, told Sunday's crowd, demanding that Maduro disarm the "collectives," a reference to civilian support groups organized by the government when Chavez ruled.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in last year's election to succeed the late Chavez, said it was "obvious" that the government was trying to create something to distract attention from the country's huge economic problems.
"There is so much unhappiness out there," he said, referring to inflation of more than 50 percent and a major uptick in violent crime.
The students are demanding the release of jailed protesters and solutions to the inflation problems and shortages of food and other basic necessities.
Even within the opposition, however, opinion has been divided on whether the protests are a viable strategy.
The government in turn has claimed that some media outlets, including Spain's ABC, broadcast footage of the unrest which according to Caracas were misrepresentations or images from past conflicts in other countries. – Rappler.com