Yesterday, National Youth Day in Venezuela, a number of student marches were organized throughout the country, convened by both the opposition and government supporters. According to local human rights group PROVEA, these protests were largely peaceful until yesterday afternoon, when clashes broke out between protesters and police, as well as between pro- and anti-government groups.
Things were particularly tense in Caracas, and at least three people were killed in the resulting violence. Some 26 others were wounded, and more than 70 were detained by authorities, according to official figures.
El Nacional reports that opposition student groups demonstrated outside the attorney general’s office, demanding the release of their peers who had been arrested in previous protests last week. When some began throwing stones at police and the building’s windows, the situation escalated further. Witnesses told the paper that unidentified men began firing into the crowd, and that it was unclear whether they were police or not. One student was killed, and at least three others were treated for gunshot wounds at a nearby hospital.
Also killed during the clash in front of the Attorney General’s office yesterday afternoon was a 40 year-old off-duty police officer, who has also been identified as a member of one of the various militant Chavista groups based in Caracas’ 23 de Enero neighborhood. In a statement yesterday, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello called his death “an act of the fascist right.”
Protests continued throughout the afternoon and evening, and another student was shot and killed in protests in the wealthy neighborhood of Chacao.
Sifting through the media reports on yesterday’s demonstrations is made difficult by conflicting accounts of the violence. As occurred following the protests in the wake of presidential elections last April, opposition members and government supporters are blaming each other for the clashes, with both sides posting videos and photos online to support their cases.
The opposition is focusing blame on the Chavista collectives. Members of these organizations are frequently armed, and their 23 de Enero stronghold has been described by critics as a “micro-state” that is largely outside of state control. Pointing to the deaths in Caracas, and to similar intimidation tactics used by vigilantes in the city of Merida, the opposition is clamoring for the government to crack down on them.
The government, for its part, blames hard-line members of the opposition for fueling violent and confrontational demonstrations. Opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has emerged as the primary leader of the protests, and has been open about his wish to drive President Nicolas Maduro out of power. In an interview with Reuters yesterday, Lopez stressed that he supports peaceful protest only, but admitted that his hope was that the mobilizations would force Maduro to resign. As the AP notes, Lopez’s approach differs from the more conciliatory tactics of opposition leader and Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles, and has been interpreted by many as a challenge to Capriles’ “meek leadership.”
At the same time, however, Lopez’s remarks have added fuel to the government’s attempts to frame him as a “coup-seeking” destabilizing force. As El Universal reports, last night a Caracas judge ordered Lopez’s arrest on a laundry list of charges, ranging from conspiracy and incitement to commit crimes to public intimidation and terrorism.
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