Venezuela’s opposition and the government were accusing each other of bloodletting on Wednesday after student-led protests paralyzed the capital and turned into one of the most significant demonstrations against the 11-month administration of President Nicolás Maduro.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said a protester and a government supporter were both shot and killed Wednesday. In the evening, an additional opposition protestors was killed in an upscale district of Caracas, the mayor of Chacao told local media. In addition, the government confirmed at least 23 people had been injured.
The protests were launched by university students chafing under sporadic food shortages and soaring crime and inflation but have grown in recent days. Maduro helped fuel the confrontation by announcing a counterprotest Wednesday — the 200th anniversary of the “Battle of Victory,” which was fought by student troops. About 100 people also protested in South Florida against the government.
Junior Muñoz, a student activist with the “13 de Marzo” movement in the university town of Merida, where the protests began last week, said there’s a growing sense of unease.
“There have been run-ins with the police and run-ins with government supporters,” he said. “We’re getting close to something other than a peaceful march.”
Muñoz said government-backed gangs, known as colectivos, have been harassing protesters. In recent days, a colectivo known as the Tupamaros had snatched a student organizer off the street and turned him over to authorities, Muñoz said.
While the vast majority of protesters marched and chanted through Caracas peacefully on Wednesday, groups of masked students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, according to witnesses. Photographs on social networks appeared to show a student protester who had either been killed or injured in the melee.
At a time when the opposition has been battered at the polls, politicians capitalized on the mass protests. Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who ran against Maduro last year, joined the crowds in the capital.
“I came to give you my infinite support,” Capriles told the students. “I call on the government to stop its repression and violence against the youth who are protesting on the streets of Venezuela.”
Former Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, who has been an increasingly vocal critic of what he sees as Capriles’ timidity, was also at the protests.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua blamed Lopez for the violence.
“The state has no excuse not to punish the assassin,” he wrote on Twitter.
Speaking to supporters on Wednesday, Maduro said a “Nazi fascist faction” within the opposition “wants to take the country down the path of violence and chaos.”
While some protest organizers said they would stay on the street until they see changes, it’s too soon to tell if the discontent will have staying power.
How the government responds to the growing unrest could be critical, the Stratfor intelligence firm said in a statement.
“The government cannot afford to crack down too hard without risking even worse unrest in the future,” the group said. “For its part, the mainstream opposition must walk a careful line between supporting the sentiment behind open unrest and being seen as destabilizing the country.”
Despite being oil-rich, Venezuela is facing a host of problems. It has the highest inflation in the hemisphere — in excess of 56 percent in 2013 — and one of the highest homicide rates in the region.
It’s those problems — and the administration’s inability to solve them — that are fueling the protests, said Jackson Vera, a student organizer in Tachira, a state along the Colombian border.
“We are going to stay on the street until the government takes real measures,” he said. “If they’re not willing to step up to the plate, they need to get out of the way. Of course, we know that’s not going to happen.”
Muñoz said he knows three people who have been killed in robberies during the last month — two students and one university worker.
Since narrowly winning office in the wake of the cancer death of President Hugo Chávez in March, Maduro has struggled to fill his successor’s shoes. After the January murder of Monica Spear — a popular actress and former beauty queen — Maduro vowed to roll out an anti-crime proposal, but the country is still waiting.
He has also devalued the currency and loosened exchange controls to fight the shortage of everything from flour to toilet paper but with little effect thus far.
The Venezuelan protests were mirrored in South Florida, where about a hundred people gathered at the El Arepazo restaurant in Doral, waving tricolor flags and chanting, “The government will fall.”
But Venezuelans in South Florida have unique reasons for protesting. In what many see as an effort to punish the opposition, Venezuela closed its Miami consulate in 2012. More recently, it slashed the amount of U.S. dollars that Venezuelans have access to if they visit Florida. Now, many Venezuelans are flying into Atlanta to skirt the regulations, locals said.
Beatriz Olavarría, an opposition activist, said the show of solidarity was a sign of how tense the situation is in Venezuela.
“Things in the country are heating up and we’re like an echo chamber here,” she said. “Whatever happens there, we feel it here.”