Deaths in Venezuela Unrest Hit 103 as Vote Nears — Keep Protesting or Accept Cuban-Style Communism — “The ones who have fallen fighting repression motivate us to keep fighting.”

CARACAS, Venezuela — Days before a polarizing vote to start rewriting its constitution, Venezuela is convulsing to a rhythm of daytime strikes and nocturnal clashes. Five deaths reported from violence in the 24 hours through late Thursday drove the death toll from nearly four months of unrest above 100.

Most of the dead in anti-government protests that began in early April have been young men killed by gunfire. The toll also includes looters, police allegedly attacked by protesters and civilians killed in accidents related to roadblocks set up during demonstrations.

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[Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

The count by the county’s chief prosecutor has been highly politicized, with the opposition and other government agencies reporting varying tolls and causes of death that focus blame on the other side.

When Neomar Lander, 17, was rushed bloody and lifeless to a hospital in early June, officials came out within hours to say he had been killed by a homemade bomb he was carrying. Opposition leaders maintained he was hit by a canister of tear gas fired by National Guard troops standing above the bridge where he was found dead.

“They try to question the humanity of the other side as a political tactic, and I think that ends up discouraging and dismaying people,” said David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela.

 Constituent Assembly vote on Sunday

The protests began following a Supreme Court ruling that stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its remaining powers. Though quickly reversed, the decision ignited a protest movement against socialist President Nicolas Maduro fueled by anger over triple-digit inflation, hours-long lines to buy basic food items and deadly medical shortages.

Addressing a multitude of government supporters dressed in red Thursday, Maduro called on Venezuelans to vote in Sunday’s controversial election for delegates to an assembly that is to rewrite the constitution.

He posed the vote as a choice that Venezuelans must make between being either “a free country or a colony of the empire” — Maduro’s term for the United States.

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Earlier, officials announced a host of security measures that were being enacted including an order that no political protests be held between through Tuesday. The opposition called for a mass demonstration in Caracas on Friday, raising the potential for further clashes amid the rising tensions. Washington ordered relatives of U.S. diplomats to leave the Venezuelan capital ahead of the divisive vote.

Opposition leaders are urging Venezuelans to boycott the vote, saying the election rules were rigged to guarantee Maduro a majority and arguing that a new constitution could replace democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.

The mounting deaths of demonstrators have now become a separate source of outrage for the young people who march during the day and assemble nightly to fight police officers and national guardsmen at improvised barricades across the country.

“The ones who have fallen fighting repression motivate us to keep fighting,” said Sandra Fernandez, a 21-year-old university student.

Fears of open civil conflict have prompted an exodus of thousands of Venezuelans into neighbouring Colombia [Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters]

The country’s chief prosecutor reported Thursday on Twitter that a 16-year-old was killed at a protest in the capital overnight and a 23-year-old man died at a demonstration in Merida state. A 49-year-old man in Carababo, west of Caracas, was reported killed during a protest Thursday afternoon, and a 16-year-old died from a head wound suffered Wednesday at a protest in the capital. Late Thursday, a 30-year-old man was reported killed during a protest in the southwestern town of Merida.

The four killings pushed the death toll of the political crisis to 102. The oil-rich South American country, which was in the second day of a two-day general strike that shuttered businesses nationwide, has also seen thousands of injuries and arrests.

The chief prosecutor’s office has released little information about the victims of the unrest, but at least 44 are believed to have been shot while participating in protests. Many of those deaths are blamed on armed motorcycle gangs of government supporters known as “colectivos” who are often seen shooting indiscriminately at protesters while police and soldiers stand by.

“The level of impunity is extremely high, and that continues on to a situation like this,” Smilde said.

Compared to a spate of protests that left 43 dead on both sides in 2014, Smilde said, “This time around most of it is coming from government forces, either National Guard and police or ‘colectivos’ that are aligned with the government.”

Security forces have been accused of excessive force but have used mostly non-lethal arms, a tactic that has kept protest deaths relatively low in comparison with the overall level of violence in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates. An average of 78 people a day died violently last year in this country of 31.5 million, according the non-governmental Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

According to an Associated Press review of prosecutors’ reports, the victims of the political unrest have overwhelmingly been male, with only six women killed. They are also mostly young, averaging 27 years old. The youngest was 14 and the oldest 54. At least 22 were students. A handful were police or soldiers. Sixty-nine of the deaths were from gunshots.

Just 21 of the killings have resulted in an arrest or orders for apprehension issued, with nearly half those coming against security forces.

Lander’s mother, Zugeimar Armas, who has kept her son’s room intact since his death in early June, said that regardless of whether her son was killed by the National Guard or an improvised bomb, she blames the government.

“What need does a 17-year-old boy have to be in the streets?” she asked.

___

Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP writers Jorge Rueda in Caracas and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.

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The Economist

How to deal with Venezuela

Sanctions should target officials, not the country

VENEZUELA claims to have more oil than Saudi Arabia, yet its citizens are hungry. An astonishing 93% of them say they cannot afford the food they need, and three-quarters have lost weight in the past year. The regime that caused this preventable tragedy professes great love for the poor. Yet its officials have embezzled billions, making Venezuela the most corrupt country in Latin America, as well as the most ineptly governed. It is a textbook example of why democracy matters: people with bad governments should be able to throw the bums out. That is perhaps why President Nicolás Maduro is so eager to smother what little is left of democracy in Venezuela.

On July 30th, barring a last-minute change of mind, Mr Maduro will hold a rigged election to rubber-stamp the creation of a hand-picked constituent assembly whose aim is to perpetuate his unpopular state-socialist regime (see article). It will complete the destruction of the powers of parliament, now controlled by the opposition, and wreck the integrity of a presidential election due next year, which, if it were free and fair, Mr Maduro would surely lose. Opponents say the assembly will install Cuban-style communism. At the very least, its creation will provoke more violence in a country where the streets are already choked with tear gas and littered with buckshot from police shotguns. In almost four months of protests, more than 100 people have died; hundreds more have been locked up for political reasons. All this infuriates Venezuelans. It should alarm the outside world, too.

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By the end of this year Venezuela’s economic collapse since 2012 will be the steepest in modern Latin American history. Income per person is now back where it was in the 1950s. The main cause of this calamity is ideological. Following the lead of his late mentor, Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro spends public money lavishly, especially on his supporters. Weak oil prices and inept management mean he cannot pay his bills. So he prints money and blames speculators for the resulting inflation, which is expected to exceed 1,000% this year. The black-market price for US dollars is now about 900 times the official rate. Price controls and the expropriation of private firms have led to shortages of food and medicine. With hospitals bare of supplies, the maternal mortality rate jumped by 66% last year. Officials flagrantly profiteer from their access to hard currency and basic goods. Venezuela has become a favoured route for drug-trafficking and is awash with arms.

Some left-wingers, such as Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, imagine that Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” is a promising experiment in social justice. Tell that to the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled to neighbouring countries. As the crisis worsens, their number will rise. That makes Venezuela’s government a threat to the region as well as its own people.

What can be done? The best solution would be a negotiated transition. Mr Maduro would finish his term but would respect the constitution and parliament, free political prisoners and guarantee that overdue regional elections, and the presidential contest next year, take place fairly. However, an attempt at such a negotiation failed last year, and there is no sign that Mr Maduro and his cronies will voluntarily surrender power.

Those who want to save Venezuela have limited influence, but they are not helpless. The opposition, a variegated alliance long on personal ambition and short of cohesion, needs to do far more to become a credible alternative government. That includes agreeing on a single leader. Some in the opposition think all that is needed to trigger the regime’s collapse is to ramp up the protests. That looks fanciful. Mr Maduro can still count on the army, with which he co-governs. In Venezuela’s command economy he controls such money as there is, and retains the backing of a quarter of Venezuelans—enough to put his own people on the streets. And he has the advice of Cuba’s security officials, who are experts in selective repression.

Aim at the regime, not its victims

Latin America has at last woken up to the threat. Venezuela is far more isolated than it was, having been suspended from the Mercosur trade group. But it was able to avoid a similar suspension from the Organisation of American States (OAS) last month with the backing of its ideological allies and some Caribbean island-states to which it offers cheap oil. The United States should have applied more diplomatic muscle to sway the vote at the OAS. President Donald Trump is now considering broad sanctions such as barring the import of Venezuelan oil, or banning American companies from working in Venezuela’s oil industry. That would be a mistake: Mr Maduro would find new buyers for his oil within months. In the meantime, ordinary people would suffer more than the regime’s loyalists. And broad sanctions might strengthen the regime, because Mr Maduro’s empty claim that he faces “economic warfare” from “imperial” America would at last have some substance.

More promisingly, on July 26th the Trump administration announced individual sanctions on a further 13 Venezuelan officials involved in the constituent assembly, or suspected of corruption or abusing human rights. These officials have had visas withdrawn, and American banks and firms are barred from doing business with them. This effort could be intensified by pressing banks to disclose embarrassing information about officials who have stashed stolen public funds abroad. The European Union and Latin America should join this effort.

It will not, in itself, force the regime to change. But the stick of individual sanctions should be combined with the offer of negotiations, brokered by foreign governments. Any final deal may have to include legal immunity for senior Venezuelan officials. That is distasteful, but may be necessary to achieve a peaceful transition back to democracy.

The alternative could be a slide into generalised violence, for which Mr Maduro would be squarely responsible. Already there are signs of anarchy, with radicals on both sides slipping loose from their leaders’ control. Rather than a second Cuba or a tropical China, chavista Venezuela, with its corruption, gangs and ineptitude, risks becoming something much worse.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Venezuela’s agony”
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One Response to “Deaths in Venezuela Unrest Hit 103 as Vote Nears — Keep Protesting or Accept Cuban-Style Communism — “The ones who have fallen fighting repression motivate us to keep fighting.””

  1. Brittius Says:

    Reblogged this on Brittius.

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