by Carly Alvarez | February 26, 2014
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has proposed a national peace conference as opposition leaders in the country call for new anti-government demonstrations and a nationwide presence in the streets.
Pope Francis has also intervened to urge Venezuela to end its ongoing political violence, asking that opposing sides reach reconciliation through dialogue. His plea comes on a day of rival demonstrations in Caracas, a silent march by female opposition activists and a simultaneous pro-government rally held by agricultural workers.
Violence directed at the largely student led protests has increased international attention to the movement, with opposition activists accusing Maduro’s government of enforcing a crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. Maduro insists the opposition is attempting to stage a U.S. funded coup, and consistently refers to protesters as fascists during pro-government rallies.
On February 12, at least two student protesters were shot and killed by an armed gang known as colectivos, who have historically supported Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party. In response to the violence, Maduro banned all unauthorized demonstrations. Protests continued, however, with many citing the country’s extremely high crime and inflation rates, constant shortages of necessities such as toilet paper and basic food supplies, and corruption to back their demand for Maduro’s resignation.
Since the start of the demonstrations this month, at least thirteen have been killed, with more than 147 injured, and over 45 of those arrested remain in prison.
Maduro’s government denied responsibility for the protester deaths and accused key opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, for inciting violence. On February 18, the government issued a warrant for the former mayor’s arrest on counts of terrorism and murder.
Before turning himself in to authorities, Lopez reaffirmed his emphasis on nonviolent action to a crowd of supporters, “I ask you to continue this struggle and stay on the streets, to embrace our right to protest. But do so peacefully and without resorting to violence. I ask that all of us here today, all Venezuelans who want change, to get informed, educated and organized, and to carry out a nonviolent protest, a massive demonstration of free will, hearts and souls of the people who want change.”
On February 21, Venezuelan prosecutors dropped the murder and terrorism charges and formally charged Lopez with arson and conspiracy. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.
Security forces have received widespread criticism for their use of tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and batons against opposition activists throughout the country. The western state of Tachira has experienced the strongest repression, where Maduro sent paratroopers and threatened the region with a curfew.
On February 17, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three American consular officials, claiming they were aiding protesting students. Foreign media has also been targeted; Colombian news channel NTN24 was recently removed from cable and satellite providers after airing footage of anti-government protests. Hours after warning CNN to “rectify” its coverage of the protests, officials revoked or denied press credentials for all of the network’s journalists in the country, accusing them of “leading Venezuela away from peace”.
On February 24, longtime Maduro ally and United Socialist Party member Jose Vielma became the first from within his party to publically criticize the government’s response to recent protests. During an interview with a Caracas radio station, the governor of Tachira denounced the use of violence against protesters, “I am against putting down a peaceful protest with weapons. No one is authorized to use violence.” Vielma also defended the right for citizens to protest and called for the release of Lopez from prison.