Venezuelan students gather thousands of protesters

The streets of Caracas have been once again the stage of mass protests despite seven days of Carnival.

EWALD SCHARFENBERG. El País. 03- 10- 2014.

Last Sunday, tenths of thousands of people took to the streets once more to keep the pressure on the government of Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro.

The student movement, which since April 12th has led protests throughout the country that have claimed 18 lives, called a demonstration that started in four different points of the city – symbolizing the student’s four main demands – and then gathered in Chacaito’s Brión Square.

Although mass protests have occurred in the last several days and Sunday’s demonstration only went through middle-class neighborhoods traditionally aligned with the opposition, high attendance to the event was considered a victory for the opposition in yet another skirmish of what could be called Battle of Carnival in Venezuela.

The government, challenged by focalized riots for almost three weeks, assumed that Carnival vacations – which traditionally have been seized by Venezuelans as an opportunity to go to the beach or go hiking – would dissolve the protests and unmask the leaders organizing them.

In order to reinforce that awaited ‘freezing effect’, president Maduro announced his decision to extent the holidays three more days to include Ash Wednesday, which coincides with the first anniversary of the passing of former President Hugo Chávez.

That the students were able to fill the streets of Caracas and other cities around the country, such as Mérida and Barquisimeto, on the Sunday before a major holiday – made all the more tempting by the offer of seven days off from work – speaks volumes of the movement’s organization and political abilities.

Enfrentamientos después de las protestas. / RODRIGO ABD (AP)

Clashes after protests. / RODRIGO ABD (AP)

On the final leg of the demonstration, the president of the University Student Council of the oldest and most important public university in the country, Central University of Venezuela, Juan Requesens, assured that the students were “not tired, and [they] will never get tired: the student movement is committed to the country; that’s what motivates [them] to keep taking the streets.”

Requesens, the event’s only speaker, also used his half-hour speech to publicly answer the invitation extended by several government authorities – including President Maduro and Vice President Jorge Arreaza – to hold a round table with the protesting students.

The student leader seemed willing to attend a meeting with the Revolution’s high officers as long as some conditions are met, such as a mandatory, media-wide broadcast of the event, the adoption of an agreed agenda, and the disclosure of who will be the other attendees.

However, Requesens assured that if the government intends to make them “go to Miraflores to demobilize the people” – making reference to Venezuela’s Presidential Palace – they would not be attending.

Almost simultaneously, President Maduro addressed the nation in a televised event.

In Paseo de Los Próceres, a long track used for military parades located in southeastern Caracas, the head-of-state attempted to rekindle a holiday celebration that seemed already lost.

President Maduro congratulated himself all the same, assuring that “the Venezuelan people has triumphed, because happiness and peace have triumphed”, and that “Venezuela is at peace and its people enjoy its rivers, mountains, and beaches.”

However, social media users and tourism agencies have acknowledged that traditional vacation spots have received a fairly modest amount of visitors this year.

Protests supporting the opposition have been registered even in traditional tourist destinations like Margarita Island and Colonia Tovar – a town founded by German immigrants in the XIX century and located just outside Caracas.

Roadblocks in Colonia Tovar – in which visitors were also involved – were dispersed by police forces with tear gas.

On Sunday, groups of protesters that separated from the opposition’s main demonstration clashed with anti-riot forces in Las Mercedes, Santa Fe and Altamira, areas located in the Venezuelan capital.

In Mérida – capital of the State of the same name and an important college town – protesters were able to fend off ‘chavista’ groups from their barricades.

In San Cristóbal, in the Andean state of Táchira, protesters seemed to control many areas of the city.

The fact that tourism during Carnival fell in relation to previous years doesn’t mean that would-be tourists are joining the protests.

In fact, many Venezuelans decided to stay at home as a result of the high cost of life, food shortages, or the fear of rampant insecurity in highways and of the roadblocks set up by protesters.

Shortages of several staple products have been more harshly felt over the last few days as a big part of the already insufficient fleet of trucks used to distribute food and supplies has been used during the holidays. In other cases the supply has been interrupted by barricades or through the threat of violence – as is the case in Táchira.

The government of President Maduro has appeared hesitant regarding the way in which protests could be quenched; and seems to be more interested in controlling the way the crisis is perceived rather than actually resolving it.

On Friday, 41 people were arrested by National Guardsmen after protests were dispersed in Altamira’s Plaza Francia, an opposition stronghold.

Even though State media alerted that “8 international terrorists” were captured during the raid, it was later known that, in reality, there were only two foreigners detained, one of them being an Italian photojournalist, Francesca Comissari.

After being kept in custody for a day, she was taken to court and later released without charges.

Once released, however, the reporter denounced that her photographic equipment – confiscated by the military – was not returned to her.

On Sunday, the government also decried that a right-wing campaign was being advanced on social networking platforms to urge celebrities to comment on the Venezuelan situation during the Oscars Awards ceremony, held in Los Angeles, California.

This annual event obtains some of the highest ratings in Venezuela, a nation addicted to pageantry and celebrities.

As a precaution, Venevisión, the biggest commercial TV network in the country and part of the powerful Organización Cisneros, announced that they wouldn’t air the show – the first time in decades.

Although they argued that financial difficulties were the only reason behind this decision, since 2004, Venevisión has famously tried to avoid any kind of friction with the Venezuelan government.

Source: SHARFENBERG, EWALD.  “Los estudiantes venezolanos reúnen a miles de manifestantes”. El País. 03-03-2014.

Translated by #infoVnzla