Tensions in Venezuela show no sign of abating as opposition and government dig in
Motions of censure against Supreme Court justices matched by protests and OAS resolutions against Maduro administration, which has responded forcefully
CARACAS — Tens of thousands of Venezuelans shut down much of the capital yesterday and clashed with police to protest what they call an attempted coup by the socialist administration last week. The political tension did not subside in a week despite the Supreme Court’s decision to walk back its Court controversial decision to suspend the National Assembly’s right to legislate. Yesterday’s was the largest opposition demonstration the country has seen in half a year. Many protesters carried signs reading “No More Dictatorship” as they crowded the principal highway that cuts from Caracas’ wealthy eastern section to downtown.
Later in the day, a smaller group confronted lines of riot police who turned the crowd away from the city centre with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Some young protesters covered their faces with bandanas and threw rocks and spent tear-gas canisters. Opposition leaders said more than a dozen protesters were injured in the clashes.
Venezuela has seen near-daily protests since the Supreme Court issued a ruling nullifying congress last week. The court pulled that decision back after it came under heavy criticism, but opposition leaders said the attempt to invalidate a branch of power revealed the administration’s true dictatorial nature.
The government responded to yesterday’s march by creating a traffic jam of its own, closing more than a dozen Caracas metro stations and staging its own counter-protest in the heart of the city. Many streets were blocked off in the early morning and some workers decided to stay home after seeing the traffic snarls.
Bodyguards escorted opposition leaders through the crowds at the opposition protest. Government supporters wearing red shirts and carrying pipes could be seen on idling motorcycles at the outskirts of the march.
Last week’s court ruling led to an outcry from the international community over what some countries said was a turn toward dictatorship. The Organisation of American States (OAS) issued its strongest warning to President Nicolás Maduro yet and several countries around the region recalled their ambassadors. Even Venezuela’s most recognisable international movie star, Edgar Ramírez, joined the calls for protests.
On Wednesday lawmakers, some still injured from the previous day’s protest, began a symbolic process of removing Supreme Court justices. The opposition-controlled Congress is moving to officially censure the seven Supreme Court judges who issued a ruling last week nullifying the lawmaker body.
Any decision Congress reaches will be purely symbolic, as it has been neutered by the ruling socialist party and does not have the power to actually replace judges.
Lawmakers said Wednesday that the judges must be recalled because they supported an attempted coup. Socialist leaders fired back that it was lawmakers who were attempting a “congressional coup.”
Later that day, the president of a leading Venezuelan opposition party took refuge at the residence of the Chilean ambassador in Caracas and asked for protection.
The Chilean Foreign Ministry said Roberto Enríquez, president of the COPEI Christian Democrat opposition party, had been granted guest status there. The party said other COPEI leaders had been arrested in recent days and accused of treason. Human rights groups say Venezuela is holding more than 100 political prisoners.
Caracas saw two similarly large anti-government demonstrations last fall, but protesters on Thursday said they thought this time might be different, with steady protests combined with escalating international criticism and intolerable shortages of food and medicine.
One test will come when Venezuelans take next week off for Easter holidays.
Moderate opposition leader Henrique Capriles said the point is not the protests, it’s the ultimate outcome.
“We’re not taking to the streets because we don’t like Maduro,” he said. “The way we get rid of Maduro is with elections. That is how we change the worst government our country has ever seen.”
At a counter-rally, socialist party heavyweight Diosdado Cabello said the mounting protests were unsustainable.
“Today they gave the people the gift of a traffic jam. These guys are desperate,” he said.
Pressure at the
OAS and Mercosur
The OAS on Monday took its strongest measure yet rebuking Venezuela’s slide toward authoritarianism.
Member countries of the regional body said that last week’s Supreme Court ruling nullifying the opposition-controlled Congress was “incompatible with democratic practice.”
That Venezuelan court ruling was overturned after three days following strong international and domestic criticism.
The Organisation of American States pledged in a statement to continue making diplomatic efforts to address the situation in the economically embattled South American country.
“There is no denying that there has been an alteration of the constitutional order,” said OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro.
The resolution was adopted after a chaotic session that saw Venezuela’s ambassador, Samuel Moncada, leave in protest.
Maduro sharply criticized the Washington-based OAS, saying it “intends to become an inquisition that persecutes Venezuela.”
The Mercosur, from which Venezuela is currently suspended for failing to adopt domestic legislation to the body’s stances, issued a a similar statement, calling on Venezuela to take “immediate concrete measures” to ensure the separation of powers and offering to mediate.
Herald with AP, Reuters