Army clears Caracas of demonstrators protesting against crime, food shortages and presence of Cuban advisers in government
Venezuelan troops have stormed a Caracas square to evict protesters who turned it into a stronghold during six weeks of demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro.
National Guard soldiers fired teargas and turned water cannons on hundreds of demonstrators who hurled rocks and petrol bombs before abandoning Plaza Altamira, in affluent east Caracas, which has been the scene of daily clashes.
Soldiers rode into the square on motorbikes and rounded up about a dozen demonstrators, witnesses said. One protester flashed a “V” for victory as he was driven away while another shouted for help. The troops then began demolishing protesters’ barricades, apparently carrying out Maduro’s vow to retake the square.
“We are going to carry on liberating spaces taken by the protesters,” the 51-year-old successor to late leader Hugo Chávez said in a speech at a pro-government rally in Caracas on Sunday.
Militant opposition leaders and students have been urging Venezuelans on to the streets to protest against issues ranging from crime and shortages of goods to the presence of Cuban advisers in Venezuela’s army and other state institutions.
Earlier on Sunday, thousands marched towards the Carlota military airbase in the latest demonstration against the socialist government. The protests began in early February.
“I spend five or six hours in a queue just to buy two packets of flour or two bottles of cooking oil,” said pensioner Pedro Perez, 64, who took part in the opposition rally. “Also, I’m protesting over insecurity and the lies this government tells Venezuelans, bringing Cuban soldiers here … This is an ungovernable country, we can’t carry on like this.”
In another day of rallies around the country, thousands of government supporters marched peacefully in Caracas to praise the government’s food welfare policies. “We are going to strengthen the brotherhood between the Venezuelan and Cuban peoples,” Maduro told the rally in response to the opposition march’s anti-Cuba slogans.
Venezuela supplies more than 100,000 barrels a day of oil to Cuba, for which it is partly paid by the presence of more than 30,000 medics, sports trainers and others from the Communist-ruled Caribbean island.
Outside Caracas, opposition party Popular Will said members of the armed forces had beaten several politicians who were trying to visit imprisoned protest leader Leopoldo Lopez at the Ramo Verde jail about an hour from the capital. Lopez, who heads the Popular Will party, was arrested last month on charges of fomenting violence.
In a handwritten interview with pro-opposition newspaper El Universal, Lopez, 42, said he had developed a strict regime of exercise, studies and writing from his prison cell. “I try to be disciplined because I’m aware that in jail, the main tools of my struggle are my mind and spirit,” he said.
Despite the turbulence in Caracas and other cities around Venezuela, Maduro seems in little danger of being toppled by a “Venezuelan spring”.
The armed forces seem firmly behind him, the numbers of protesters are far fewer than a wave of demonstrations against Chávez a decade ago, and opposition leaders are divided over the wisdom of street tactics.
However, Maduro has come under pressure from foreign governments and rights groups over excessive use of force from his security forces. Twenty-one officers have been arrested over allegations of brutality.
A prominent local pollster and analyst, Luis Vicente León, said on Sunday that both the government and the opposition’s approval ratings had suffered from the recent troubles. “Many people have asked, ‘who’s winning’? My answer is, ‘no one’,” León wrote in a local newspaper, saying the social and economic crisis had hit Maduro’s popularity while the opposition’s credibility was also suffering.
León referred to data that he said proved that, but did not give numbers. Most pollsters are preferring to keep findings private at the moment due to the tense political situation.