Venezuela: Local protests with a global flavor

The epicenter of the student protests in Venezuela has been barricades in Caracas and other cities. But with a large and growing community of exiles, the nation’s troubles have rippled across the globe like few other crises.

During last weekend’s national march, more than 130 solidarity protests flared up around the world — from massive gatherings in Manhattan to modest demonstrations in Iceland and Egypt. In South Florida, there have been dozens of rallies and marches since the Venezuelan protests began in earnest on Feb. 12.

Jani Mendez, 38, has been helping organize nightly prayer vigils at Bayside in Miami that are attracting hundreds of people, and has been collecting first-aid kits for demonstrators back home.

She said there is a growing sense of desperation.

“It’s sad to say, but I don’t know how much difference we’re making,” she said. “We need to do something drastic. We do all this, but I don’t see any action.”

With student-led protests in their second week, the body count continues to rise. By some estimates, at least 13 people have been killed — some of them deliberately by security forces, opposition groups say. And while local news media coverage has been muted, the protests are taking place in one of the most digitally rich environments in the hemisphere. Shaky images of violence clog Twitter accounts that are seen as quickly in Madrid as in Maracaibo.

Isadora Zubillaga, who handles international affairs for the opposition Voluntad Popular political party, said the globalization of the protests is directly linked with the deteriorating economic and security situation at home. Venezuela saw the region’s highest inflation and lowest economic growth last year. And it’s also among the most murderous countries on the planet.

“The exodus has been massive,” Zubillaga said. “And it’s growing, but nobody knows by how much.”

The government has not provided migration figures since 1996, but a 2011 study found that more than 530,000 Venezuelans had left the country since 2000. Some estimate that as many as 1 million might be living abroad.

But the global presence of Venezuelans isn’t always translating into global empathy for the protesters’ cause. Despite calls from the United States, Panama, Peru and Colombia for dialogue and peace, many of the region’s leaders have stayed mum.

“We’re facing a complicit silence from governments but profound solidarity from the people,” said Lorent Saleh, a well-known student leader in Venezuela who is currently living in Colombia because he faces multiple arrest warrants back home.

He said there is clear evidence of human-rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings, but that the international community has turned its back on the protesters.

For its part, the Venezuelan government touts the vocal backing of allies like Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Russia.

The global spotlight comes as Maduro has called for a broad-based “National Peace Conference” on Wednesday that would include civil society, political and religious leaders. But it is unclear who will show up.

One of the opposition’s main leaders, Leopoldo López, has been in jail since last week, and Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles has suggested he will skip the meeting unless the administration agrees to basic conditions such as the release of prisoners and disarming government-backed gangs known as colectivos.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has also offered to meet with leaders on both sides to ease tensions, according to The Associated Press. The Carter Center mediated talks between Venezuela’s government and opposition after a 2002 coup against then-President Hugo Chávez.

But the gears of international diplomacy do seem to be moving. The United Nations has become more vocal about the Venezuelan government’s heavy-handed approach, and on Tuesday Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said he had asked the Organization of American States to call a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Venezuela.

U.S. lawmakers are also weighing in. On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he would favor punishing Venezuelan officials who have had a hand in attacking peaceful protesters.

“We should be considering targeted sanctions against those in the Maduro government who are using violence,” he told CNN, “whether that’s visa revocations or targeted freezing of monetary accounts here in the United States. Those are strong messages that are not interventionist but are about human rights and democracy.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, said the U.S. government should grant more political asylum requests and reconsider deportation orders for Venezuelans in light of the turmoil. But he stopped short of calling for sanctions. Venezuela’s biggest oil customer is the United States, but Garcia said limiting oil imports from the South American country might give more political ammunition to Maduro.

“We have to be clear that we don’t end up playing the Goliath to Mr. Maduro’s search to be David,” Garcia said at a news conference in Miami.

Venezuela accuses the U.S. of backing the protesters in hopes of sparking a coup, and Maduro expelled three U.S. consular officials last week on allegations that they were “conspiring” with student leaders. But in an about-face Monday, he announced he would appoint an ambassador to the United States, even though the two countries have not had them since 2010.

Even so, the U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that it was ejecting three Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation, and suggested that it was premature to talk about an ambassador-level exchange.

“We have indicated our readiness to develop a more constructive relationship with Venezuela. We’ve said many months ago that could include an exchange of ambassadors. But Venezuela also needs to show seriousness for us to be able to move forward,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “And recent actions, including expelling three of our diplomats, continue to make that difficult.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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