Venezuela’s worst unrest for a decade shows little sign of letting up. Three weeks into anti-government protests, more than a dozen people have been killed, either from excesses attributed to security personnel or in clashes with supporters of President Nicolas Maduro, in various parts of the country.
Sporadic demonstrations by students began in the Tachira region’s capital of San Cristobal in angry reaction to an attempted rape.
Protesters then also called on Maduro to disarm pro-government gangs and address national issues ranging from crime to shortages of basic consumer goods.
The demonstrations are the biggest challenge to the 10-month-old government which followed the death of cult-status leader Hugo Chavez.
Maduro has accused the opposition of bringing in “mercenaries” to fuel the violence and has called it an opposition-led “economic war”.
The economically-challenged oil-rich state has attained the unenviable record in South America of 56 percent inflation. Currency controls are a major contributor, with the official exchange rate for the bolivar of between six and 11.3 to the US dollar, but a black market rate that is the official rate multiplied by 12.
Chavez introduced these controls years ago, to limit hard currency leaving Venezuela. This means that businesses don’t have enough dollars, for instance, to pay for imports; result: prices rise and shortages.
The president invited mayors and governors to a gathering aimed at opening up communications between both sides. Accustomed to making speeches that run for hours and that are aired by the socialist state broadcasters, he made light of one notable absentee.
Maduro, 51, said: “I would have liked for [Henrique] Capriles Radonsky to attend. He wanted to speak for an hour on a national newscast. That’s difficult. He would have to win the presidency some day if he wants to speak that long.”
Henrique Capriles only narrowly lost last year’s presidential election to Maduro.
Condemning the administration as ‘abusing human rights’, Capriles, 41, said: “I am not going to a meeting with the federal council to help him save face. I’m not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic. I am not the musician. The boat is sinking, and I am the one who is playing the music? No sir, Nicolas, you are not going to use me.”
The opposition continue to urge that protests remain peaceful, and demand the government release jailed leader Leopoldo Lopez, 42, a Harvard-educated economist whose imprisonment has enhanced his political appeal. He is more to the right than Capriles, who calls himself market-friendly but of the centre-left.