CARACAS, Venezuela: The start of a weeklong string of holidays leading up to the March 5 anniversary of former President Hugo Chavez’s death did not completely pull protesters from the streets Thursday as the government apparently hoped.
Hundreds of students rallied on a leafy street in east Caracas demanding an end to the government crackdown on protests and the release of those jailed in recent weeks. When some of the protesters later moved toward a major highway, government security forces fired with tear gas.
In Valencia, about 170 km west of the capital, protesters manned burning street barricades and clashed with police.
President Nicolas Maduro announced this week that he was adding Thursday and Friday to the already scheduled long Carnival weekend that includes Monday and Tuesday off, and many people interpreted it as an attempt to calm tensions.
Thursday’s student protest was intended to send the government a message that demonstrators would not be distracted by a vacation.
“They want to demobilize us with this decree that joins Carnival with these two days commemorating the Caracazo,” said student leader Juan Requesens, using the common term for a wave of anti-government protests in 1989.
“Maduro is mistaken,” he added. “We’re going to continue in the street, we’re not going to leave our democratic fight for six days at the beach.”
What began as student-led demonstrations this month in several cities have taken a toll that the government puts at 16 dead. The mostly middle class opposition joined the protests, but for the most part they have not expanded to poorer neighborhoods where Maduro’s support base resides.
The roadblocks, mostly in middle class neighborhoods, have become just another irritation for some already frustrated by food shortages, soaring crime rates and inflation that hit 56 percent last year.
“I’m fed up. I have an empty refrigerator and I can’t even go to the supermarket because of this barricade,” said Alma Castillo, a 33-year-old homemaker in Caracas. “I’m not a Chavista, but it’s not fair that our own neighbors do this to us. The protest has to be organized and peaceful.”
Protesters blocked streets in Valencia Thursday after clashes with police the night before in a working class neighborhood left a bus and another vehicle burned.
Others in the well-off municipality of San Diego lined up for hours to buy scare basic necessities.
“This shouldn’t continue like this,” said engineer Armando Rodriguez, accompanied by his wife and two young children. They waited four hours to buy two chickens, which like corn flour, cooking oil and toilet paper have become hard to find.