Opposing marches on Saturday come after president Nicolás Maduro played down protest movement on Friday
Venezuelans have taken to the streets for the second time in ten days in opposing marches for and against the Maduro administration. The government has asked women to rally around the presidential palace, while the opposition has called on supporters to protest against the country’s mounting street crime and to demand the disarmament of violent pro-government groups.
What began two weeks ago in the western state of Táchira as a student-led street movement demanding that the government address safety concerns on a university campus following the assault of a student soon spread to other cities. In the capital, Caracas, the street marches were spearheaded by opposition leader Leopoldo López, who called for protests to continue until the president, Nicolás Maduro stepped down from power. López currently awaits trial in a military jail.
Since the protests began, 10 people have died, 137 have been injured and 104 arrested, according to government figures.
In a press conference with foreign media on Friday, Maduro said the protests – the worst since his razor-thin election victory against Henrique Capriles last April – are only occurring in 18 of the country’s 335 municipalities, all of which, he contends, are under opposition rule.
Maduro reiterated that the events of the last two weeks are a coup-in-the-making backed by the US and financed by Colombia’s ex-president Álvaro Uribe, whom Maduro accuses López of working closely with. The proof of his allegations, he says, “will soon come to light”.
But as Venezuelans take to the streets again it is hard to predict whether the march will be the last, or if it will serve to inject new energy into an opposition that has been dispersed over the last couple of nights by National Guard troops firing rubber bullets and teargas and tearing down the camps students set up on street corners.
In San Cristóbal, the state-capital of Táchira, where military action was felt the strongest, troops and tanks took to the streets on Wednesday to disperse crowds and to clear debris that was blocking the city’s main roads. According to locals, the internet remained down until Friday.
In another effort to neutralise mounting tensions, the minister of energy, Rafael Ramirez, has banned fuel distribution to areas he considers “under-siege”.
Human Rights Watch has issued a statement condemning the systematic violation of personal freedom and the unlawful imprisonment of civilians.
Adding to the uncertainty reigning in the streets of Venezuela is the complete media blackout. Private and public TV stations in the country have given little coverage to the street protests, or even to the incarceration of López, who now awaits trial in a military prison on the outskirts of Caracas on charges of sedition.
In the most flagrant demonstration of state censorship yet, several members of a CNN team had their journalist accreditation revoked and left the country amid accusations of “contributing with their coverage to psychological warfare”.
But despite accusing the US of meddling in the country’s internal affairs and expelling three US diplomat, Maduro has invited Obama to “a sincere dialogue between equals”.
“Accept the challenge and we will start a high-level dialogue and put the truth on the table,” Maduro said in a nationwide TV address.
Michael Shifter, head of the US thinktank Inter-American Dialogue, says that despite the government’s severe weaknesses, it does not appear to be on the verge of collapse.
“Given the gravity of the current situation, it is not surprising that more and more Venezuelans are prepared to take to the streets to express their profound discontent with the government’s ineptitude and the country’s rapid descent,” he said.
“It is not clear what can be accomplished through this approach. It depends very much on what the government does now – both in dealing with sustained protests and Venezuela’s deepening economic distress. If there is no relief on the economic front, it is likely that the protests will only intensify… Any reconciliation or even meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition forces seems like a long way off.”