Venezuela's growing middle-class revolt

Venezuela's now nearly month-long street protests began with students, but has moved into the suburbs where a growing number of middle-class Venezuelans are showing their anger over the rampant crime and runaway inflation.

It began with students, but the nearly month-long street protests have moved into the suburbs

An opposition demonstrator runs with a makeshift shield during clashes with police at Altamira Square, across the street from the Canadian Embassy, in Caracas on Thursday. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters)

On Monday, Venezuelans woke up to find barricades of pipes, trash and branches burning in the streets.

Improvised roadblocks, cutting off neighbourhoods from each other and from the central core of certain cities, appeared simultaneously in eight states of Venezuela, most of them in middle-class areas, and show no signs of letting up.

Even the start of a week-long national holiday on Thursday, to culminate in the March 5 anniversary of former president Hugo Chavez's death from cancer, has not stopped the demonstrations — or the government's tear-gas response.

What began almost a month ago as a student protest over a sexual assault in the western state of Táchira has now spread throughout the country and into the wealthier communities where people are fed up with rampant crime, a shortage of things like toilet paper and inflation running at over 50 per cent.

Maria Lopez, a 37-year-old accountant, explained the reasons why she joined the students. "I'm tired of queuing to buy, I'm tired of kidnappings and the violence that continues each day."

Nancy Garcia, a college professor, said that her two children came out to protest, and after seeing what happened to other young students she decided to join as well.

The month-long clashes between, initially, the student demonstrators and the security forces of President Nicolas Maduro have left, as of Friday,17 people dead directly from the violence and over 260 injured, the government said.

But to get the full idea of how ubiquitous these protests have become, look at Altamira, a small but wealthy enclave in the capital Caracas that has become a hotbed of opposition activism.

Just a few steps separates the Canadian Embassy in Caracas from Altamira Square, the place that, for almost three consecutive weeks, has been a centre of protest, tear gas and demands by students and middle-class professionals alike.

On the wall of the embassy is a hand-painted "No to dictatorship" that stands like a silent witness to the struggles of the day.

Neighbour against neighbour

In Caracas, the road blocks have left some neighbourhoods entirely cut off from the rest of the city, and they have divided the country as well – neighbour against neighbour in some instances.

Those taking over the streets say they are doing this because they have nowhere else to raise their grievances. But the tactic is not sitting well with everyone.

"It's not fair the closing of the streets," says Ligia Alvarez, 62. "I agree with the demonstrations. But what is the point if we are hostages in our own homes."

The fact that these demonstrations are mostly taking place in wealthier neighbourhoods is also pitting rich against poor to some extent.

"There is a little group, a little rich group, but they are not the majority," says Omar Gutierrez a resident of Petare, one of Caracas's toughest slums. "We want peace and quiet and move forward with this government that has brought us prosperity."

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures to his red-shirted supporters during a rally in Caracas on Feb. 18. Tens of thousands of opposition protesters also flooded the streets of Venezuela's capital that day after troops arrested opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. (Reuters)

The wealth gap in this country is the dividing line that brought the late Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution to power 15 years ago.

It is a revolution his chosen successor, Maduro, is hoping to continue. But he won a six-year term last April with only 50.6 per cent of the vote, just beating out Governor Henrique Capriles at 49.1 per cent, and it seems clear that the election battles are nowhere near being resolved.

President Maduro has denounced the protests, the worst since he took power 11 months ago, as "a fascist coup d'etat," and has been blaming his traditional enemies, Washington and former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, for stirring things up.

For his part, Uribe has called the government crackdown as bad as what is taking place in Syria.

Shuttering the media

The government is also cracking down on the media.

National television is not showing many of the disturbances. And the signal from international news network NTN24, based in Colombia, was shut off national subscription television by direct order of Maduro himself.

He has also taken legal action to boot CNN, one of the few North American outlets in Venezuela, out the country and restrict its reporting.

Two weeks ago, following some of the worst of the initial violence, Twitter reported that the government was blocking some of the images being tweeted by its users.

The government denied the accusation. Twitter penetration in Venezuela is the fourth-highest in the world.

According to the human rights group Foro Penal Venezolano, 732 people have been arrested across the country and 33 tortured.

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is shoved into a National Guard armoured vehicle in Caracas on Feb. 18. A U.S.-educated economist, he was charged with fomenting violence in connection with the street protests and turned himself over to police. (Jorge Silva / Reuters)

The government denies any torture, but the accusations from both sides are mounting.

Last week, the international group Human Rights Watch said, "Venezuelan security forces have used excessive and unlawful force against protesters on multiple occasions since February 12, including beating detainees and shooting at crowds of unarmed people."

Following the first protests on Feb. 5, there were accusations that pro-government, pro-Chavista groups called colectivos, basically armed militia on motorcycles who had played a role in bringing Chavez to power, attacked civilians and broke into private residences.

In the spike in violence surrounding the massive Feb. 12 march in Caracas, a well-known colectivo leader was shot and killed during a counter-demonstration, and the group was blamed for starting the violence in which two people were killed.


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