Saturday, February 22, 2014

Venezuela Rocked by Escalating Anti-Government Protests As Maduro Orders Crackdown on Opposition

Amid several days of clashes between police and antigovernment demonstrators in the capital city of Caracas, Venezuela's embattled president has ordered paratroopers to crack down on protests that have been spreading to other cities.

President Nicolas Maduro's opponent from last year's presidential election- Miranda governor Henrique Capriles- hasn't taken as active a role in the demonstrations, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez turned himself over to authorities who were seeking his arrest on charges of fomenting unrest against the state earlier this week. Capriles and others have condemned the Maduro regime's detention of opposition figures, but have cautioned supporters to avoid violence.

Early reports indicate that the death toll is at least eight after antigovernment demonstrators clashed with riot police and masked Tupamaros- masked urban guerillas operating in support of the regime- opened fire on a crowd of protestors last week.

Skyrocketing inflation, rampant crime, government expropriation of businesses and shortages of basic consumer goods such as flour and toilet paper led to a massive antigovernment demonstration in Caracas calling for Maduro's resignation from office on Feb 12th, and angry college students have not let up. Nicolas Maduro, the successor to strongman Hugo Chavez, narrowly won a special presidential election in 2013 after the death of Chavez and has carried on nearly all of Chavez's economic policies. As a result, the country is currently experiencing an inflation rate of more than 56%, one of the highest murder rates in the world and near-constant shortages of basic consumer goods, food and fuel.

According to publications in both Venezuela and the USA, the demonstrations got their start in the Andean border town of San Cristobal, which is home to three universities. After the attempted rape of a female student on one of the university's campus, students demonstrated in public, protesting the lack of adequate security on campus. The police reacted swiftly and harshly, reportedly arresting five demonstrators and sending some of them to a detention facility hundreds of miles away. The police reaction led to an even larger demonstration with students from all three universities in San Cristobal as Venezuelans in other cities joined in, using the demonstrations to protest over unemployment, crime, inflation and curbs on the freedom of the press. Maduro has blamed the demonstrations on 'right wing extremists' and 'foreign agitators' while sending paratroopers to the border city of San Cristobal to crack down on demonstrations there, implying that Colombia has sent agent provocateurs across the border to foment further unrest in western Venezuela.

One of the most widely known casualties in this month's demonstration was former beauty queen Genesis Carmona, who was shot in the head during an antigovernment rally in the city of Valencia- to the west of Caracas. Carmona was a student at the university in Valencia and relatives said that she was a semester away from graduating. In 2013, Carmona served as Miss Turismo Caribobo. Eyewitnesses said that about 50 men brandishing handguns and riding on motorcycles drove up to the assembled students and began firing indiscriminately. Carmona was shot in the head and later died from her wounds at a nearby hospital- cameras recorded her limp body being carried off on a motorcycle to a nearby hospital. Government officials claim the fatal shot was fired by opposition demonstrators.

Relatives described Genesis as apolitical but was likely drawn to the rally by worsening economic conditions in the world's 4th largest oil producing nation. Beauty pageants are to Venezuela what baseball is to the Dominican Republic or College Football to Texas- the country has produced seven Miss Universes, more than any other nation.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's oil minister has announced they are suspending fuel shipments to areas under opposition control [How this is any different from the routine shortages under Chavez and Maduro, I'm not sure- NANESB!] oil minister Rafael Ramirez announced via Twitter on Friday. And speaking of twitter, it was becoming rapidly apparent that the social networking site was at least partially blocked by the Maduro government when users attempted to tweet pictures of the demonstrations and attacks by masked Tupamaro gunmen on motorcycle.

Reports have also been circulating that Cuban president Raul Castro has sent Cuban troops to bolster Maduro's regime- although thousands of Cuban troops were reportedly stationed in Venezuela under Chavez, long before the most recent demonstrations. Even after Chavez's death, Venezuela remains a source of cheap oil for the communist island nation- a supply that could be cut off should Maduro's regime collapse.

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