Venezuela split by pro- and anti-Maduro protests

AFP , Sunday 16 Feb 2014

Opposition demonstrators hold a Venezuelan flag in front of a burning barricade during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas February 15, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Supporters and opponents of Venezuela's leftist government staged rival rallies in Caracas Saturday amid spiraling discontent at the country's stubborn inflation and shortage of basic goods.

This was the 12th straight day of street protests, with no end in sight.

Two anti-government protesters and a pro-Maduro demonstrator died in a rally Wednesday in violence that has raised alarm throughout Latin America.

About 3,000 government opponents, mostly college students dressed in white and wrapped in Venezuelan flags, gathered in the affluent Caracas neighborhood of Chacao Saturday and fanned out into nearby streets.

At least 23 people were wounded when riot police hurled tear gas canisters, fired buckshot and deployed water cannon at nightfall to break up an anti-government demonstration, Chacao Mayor Ramon Muchacho wrote in a Twitter message.

Soldiers and police used force to break up a similar anti-government protest late Friday.

"Before, we would not go out on the street because of violent crime," said Isaac Castillo, 27, a student at the private Andres Bello university. "Now, we go out to protest -- and they kill us."

"We young people have no faith, no hope. There are no jobs and even if we get one, it is not enough to make a decent living," Castillo told AFP.

The protesters are angry over rampant crime, rising prices and a lack of essentials like toilet paper in a nation that sits on the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Protesters also demanded the release of some 100 students and other opposition activists, and an end to police repression.

In the United States, dozens of activists, many of them youths, rallied in front of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington waving banners with slogans like "SOS Venezuela," "We say no to dictatorship" and "Venezuela is not alone." Many wore clothing in the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

A handful of pro-government demonstrators held banners at the embassy gates that read "We are with the Bolivarian revolution."

The depth of the unrest was underscored by Maduro's decision to address a counter-rally, and by US Secretary of State John Kerry voicing alarm at the reported arrests.

Kerry said in a statement that reports of Venezuela's leaders arresting scores of anti-government protesters would "have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully," and he called for all parties to work together to resolve tensions.

Speaking before thousands of supporters gathered in downtown Caracas, Maduro accused conservative former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, whom he regards as a US ally and foe of Venezuela, of "funding and directing" the "fascist movements" he blames for the unrest.

Maduro's elected socialist government has also taken Colombian news channel NTN24 off the air, saying it was inciting anti-government violence.

In downtown Caracas, government supporters clad in the bright red that symbolizes the leftist movement of the late Hugo Chavez and Maduro, his handpicked successor, filled several plazas.

Some protesters danced or performed aerobic exercises to the rhythmic beating of drums played by their fellow demonstrators.

Others unfurled huge Venezuelan flags and pictures of Chavez and of South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar.

Maduro says the anti-government protests signal the rumblings of a coup to depose him, and vowed to use force to prevent unauthorized street gatherings.

The president has accused opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez -- currently hiding from a government arrest warrant -- of being one of the main protest supporters.

The latest anti-government movement, backed by some of the country's fractured opposition groups, poses the biggest challenge to Maduro since 2013 election, held after Chavez died of cancer.

A nationwide security crackdown has followed the violence in a country where the economy has been battered by inflation of more than 50 percent.

Seeking to quell the unrest, Maduro unveiled a 10-point plan to crack down on crime late Friday that includes disarming the population, increased police patrols and unspecified "clear rules for television."

Despite its oil wealth, Venezuela has severe economic problems and a deep divide between rich and poor.

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