Massive protests in Venezuela lead to violence, uncertainty

Anti-government protestors clashed with Venezuelan security forces and pro-administration gangs Wednesday, turning what was supposed to be a massive peaceful march into a chaotic scene of tear gas and hurled debris that left at least two dead and cast a shadow over the future of the beleaguered South American nation.

Even before the last protestors had made it home Wednesday night, the opposition was calling for more protests on Thursday, as it tries to force the socialist administration to call new elections.

Violence struck early in the day Wednesday, when a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in the Caracas neighborhood of San Bernardino as opposition protestors were gathering for what was being called the “mother of all marches.” Local media reported that a 23-year-old woman was also murdered in the border state of Táchira.

As protestors tried to punch into downtown Caracas to deliver a list of their demands, which include general elections, security forces threw up barricades and broke up the crowds with tear gas.

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Isabella Antica, 48, had huddled on a side street after the Bolivarian National Guard had rushed the group she was protesting with.

“We were marching without weapons, peacefully,” she said. “The [guards] came after us and kept following us, shooting tear gas canisters at us and we were trapped … This is an injustice.”

In downtown Caracas, President Nicolás Maduro held his own rally, telling thousands of red-clad supporters that they had helped stop a Washington-backed coup.

“We have triumphed once again,” he said. “Glory be to this brave country.”

The new wave of protests began early this month after a compliant Supreme Court tried to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress — only backtracking amid international pressure. Days later, the comptroller’s office, also firmly in the hands of the ruling party, barred opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from holding office for 15 years.

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Among opposition demands: removal of Supreme Court judges, release of more than 100 political prisoners, delivery of humanitarian aid and new elections.

Despite government obstacles Wednesday — including roadblocks and shutting down public transportation — the opposition turnout was impressive. Aerial photographs and news coverage showed what appeared to be tens of thousands of people in the capital, clogging intersections and shutting down major arteries. Organizers claim more than a million people marched nationwide.

In Caracas, protestors gathered in 26 spots before heading toward the city’s center. As they were blocked by security forces, pockets of the city began to resemble war zones. Protestors tried to force their way through police lines using rocks and sticks, and fashioned homemade gas masks out of water bottles stuffed with cotton. Crowds lit fires at intersections in hopes of countering the effects of tear gas. Meanwhile, pro-administration gangs known as colectivos patrolled swathes of the city.

In western Caracas, Gladys Mera, 71, was wearing a red shirt emblazoned with the face of former President Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to an undisclosed form of cancer in 2013.

Mera said the country should rally behind Chávez’s handpicked successor, Maduro, who she called the country’s democratically elected leader and who took power shortly after his predecessor’s death.

“I came to march to defend the country and defend the president who we voted for,” she said. “We don’t want [people] to come here and try to oust him.”

The chaos comes as Maduro is struggling to hold onto power in a country mired in an economic, social and political crisis that features rampant crime and food shortages.

The country is overly reliant on oil sales, and as crude prices and corruption have hollowed out the economy, the administration has dramatically scaled back imports of even basic goods, leading to hunger and rising tensions.

On Tuesday, 11 Latin American nations asked Venezuela to hold elections to overcome the crisis, and the Trump administration asked Maduro and his camp to use restraint during Wednesday’s protests.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Associated Press that Washington is “concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard.”

Almagro fires back

Maduro, who narrowly won election in 2013, often accuses his foes — including the Organization of American States and Washington — of trying to oust him before his term ends in 2019.

Speaking at the Miami Herald Wednesday, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro rejected the idea that the Venezuelan government is the victim of an international plot, saying the country had been “crushed by dictatorship.”

“I have not seen a country going down so fast at every level — politically, economically, socially — everything completely collapsed,” Almagro said. “What the country needs is democracy, and democracy has to come from free elections.”

While the opposition accuses the socialist administration of resorting to unnecessary violence to silence its critics, Maduro says it’s the opposition that has turned to looting and confrontation to generate chaos.

If Wednesday’s deaths are confirmed, it would bring the body-count related to the recent wave of protests to eight.

It’s unclear what the opposition’s next steps might be. But for many in Venezuela, street protests represent the only way forward.

“My 3-year-old son deserves a better Venezuela, one that has medicine,” said Winni Escalona, 21, who was demonstrating in eastern Caracas. “I always protest and I will stay on the streets until Maduro leaves.”

Miami Herald reporter Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.

Venezuela a major funder of Trump inauguration

(AP) — President Nicolas Maduro may be struggling to feed Venezuela but his socialist administration still managed to make a $500,000 donation to Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Records from Trump’s inaugural committee released Wednesday show that Citgo Petroleum, a U.S. affiliate of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, was one of the biggest corporate donors to the swearing-in ceremony.

PDVSA recently offered up a nearly 50 percent stake in Citgo as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan from Russian firm Rosneft. The deal drew criticism from Republicans who worry it sets the stage for Vladimir Putin to take control of American oil.

Even while accusing the U.S. of trying to overthrow him, Maduro has been careful not to antagonize Trump. But Trump has recently stepped up his criticism of Venezuela’s government.