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Venezuela death toll rises as unrest is worst in a decade



By Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne

(Reuters) - Anti-government demonstrators put up barricades and set fire to trash in Caracas on Monday despite calls from within the opposition to rein in protests that have led to 13 deaths in Venezuela's worst unrest for a decade.

Traffic in the capital slowed to a crawl and many people stayed home as protesters burned trash and piled debris along main avenues a day after opposition leader Henrique Capriles called on them to keep demonstrations peaceful.

"We know we're bothering people but we have to wake up Venezuela!" student Pablo Herrera, 23, said next to a barricade in the affluent Los Palos Grandes district of Caracas.

Authorities in the convulsed border state of Tachira confirmed another death: a man who fell from his second-storey apartment after being hit by a bullet from a nearby protest.

The demonstrations are the biggest challenge to President Nicolas Maduro's 10-month-old government, though there is no sign they could topple him or affect the OPEC member's oil shipments. Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves.

The government says 529 people have been charged over the unrest, with most given warnings but 45 kept behind bars. About 150 people have been injured, authorities say.

Capriles, 41, spurned an invitation to meet Maduro in the afternoon as part of a gathering of mayors and governors that some had hoped would open up communications between both sides.

"This is a dying government ... I'm not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic," he told reporters. "Miraflores (presidential palace) is not the place to talk about peace, it's the center of operations for abuses of human rights."

Capriles and other opposition figureheads are demanding that the government release imprisoned protest leader Leopoldo Lopez and about a dozen jailed student demonstrators.

They also want Maduro to disarm pro-government gangs and address national issues ranging from crime to shortages of basic goods. Hardline student protesters, though, are demanding that Maduro step down, less than a year into his term.

"If there's one thing these violent protests have done, it's unite 'Chavismo'," Maduro told state television, using the term for government supporters coined during the 14-year rule of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

The president, a 51-year-old former union activist who has made preserving Chavez's legacy the centerpiece of his rule, accuses opponents of planning a coup backed by Washington.

ACCUSATIONS FLY

Addressing a rally of pro-government motorbike riders on Monday, Maduro accused the opposition of bringing in "mercenaries" to fuel the violence, including one man from the Middle East who was detained with 11 telephones.

Prices of Venezuela's bonds surged as much as 4 percent on Monday, though this was largely due to the announcement of a new currency exchange platform that investors believe will strengthen government finances.

In a rare stance for a Socialist Party official, the governor of turbulent Tachira state criticized the government's response to the protests and called for Lopez's release.

"It's a matter of peace; all of those in jail for political motives should be sent home," said Jose Vielma, referring to Lopez and another well-known opposition-linked prisoner.

Socialist Party leaders have for years avoided making comments that could appear to be diverging from the party line, making Vielma's comment all the more uncommon.

The protests have hit the border state Tachira harder than any other, with gangs of student demonstrators now the de facto authorities in some parts of its principal cities.

Even though Maduro has sent in troops to restore order, transport is frequently disrupted by improvised roadblocks that charge tolls to those seeking passage and throw rocks at those who attempt to move on without paying.

Supermarkets in Tachira are opening only for several hours in the morning, with supplies of food limited because delivery trucks cannot get through.

The nationwide wave of protests began with sporadic demonstrations in Tachira's capital of San Cristobal due to outrage over an attempted rape, sparking student protests around the region.

PROTESTS GRIND ON

Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist and firebrand opposition leader, rode the coattails of those protests to create a nationwide effort called "La Salida" or "The Exit" meant to end Maduro's rule.

The government said on Monday that 13 people had died in incidents directly related to the unrest, most from gunshots. Some 30 more, however, have also died from illnesses not attended to properly due to the protests, Maduro said.

Roadblocks of burning trash and clashes between rock-throwing students and tear-gas-lobbing troops have shown no sign of forcing Maduro from power but have become an annoyance for the mostly well-to-do neighborhoods where they take place.

"This is brutality. We are fighting for our freedom because when we go to the supermarket there's no flour, there's no sugar," said Yesenia Alvarado, 29, an architect, at the upscale Plaza Altamira where a barricade was blocking traffic.

As she spoke, a man driving a pickup tried to force his way through the barricade, at one point getting out and piling debris into the back of the truck. Angry demonstrators restored the barricade and prevented him from moving ahead.

Residents of Caracas' poorer west side have staged only a few minor demonstrations, though government critics there have joined traditional protests of banging pots and pans at their windows during Maduro's hours-long television broadcasts.

The wave of violence has shifted attention away from economic troubles including inflation of 56 percent, slowing growth, and shortages of staples such as milk and flour.

The opposition blames these problems on Chavez's economic legacy of nationalizations, currency controls and constant confrontation with businesses.

They say socialism has crippled private enterprise and weakened state institutions while spawning a nepotistic elite that enriches itself with the country's oil wealth.

Maduro calls it an "economic war" led by the opposition. The former bus driver calls himself the "son" of Chavez and has vowed to continue the generous public spending that helped reduce poverty and propelled the late president to repeated election victories over 14 years.

The White House, responding to Maduro's call last week for dialogue with Washington, urged him on Monday to begin talks with his own people instead.

(Additional reporting by Javier Farias in San Cristobal and Girish Gupta and Diego Ore in Caracas; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Join the discussion

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vtmilitia February 24 2014 at 8:08 PM

Socialism in action.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
roofus1944 February 24 2014 at 8:20 PM

Old Hugo had many millions of dollars stashed away when he died! I wonder how he was able to accumulate such a fortune which I assume his family now has? I also wonder how much Maduro has been able to stash away in his ten months or so in office added to whatever he scored under ole Hugo?

Flag Reply +1 rate up
leearlenew February 24 2014 at 8:25 PM

This is long overdue. I hope Cuba is next. Remember CITCO, that was once a part of Cities Service Oil and Gas. Its now owned by Socialist Venezuela. Who sold it to them? Boon Pickens. What did he do with the money, well a part went to build the Boon Pickens Stadium Expansion at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Why do I know, because I was one of the thousands kicked out of CSOG, because of the junk-bond takeover. Know your history. Let's hope Venezuela is returned to the People. It's now held by the Mob, just like North Korea and China.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
gavel95 February 24 2014 at 8:08 PM

Hey, Brian and Andrew, you missed the big story. The Russian flagship Moskva and several other Russian warships are at anchor in La Guaira, the port serving Caracas! They are there at the request of the Maduro government to prop up his corrupt government. There are thousands of Cuban troops in Venezuela supporting the Maduro regime. This is not a student revolt..this is
a Latin Spring.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
welcome lourdes February 24 2014 at 8:02 PM

This is what happens in a Socialist government. There is no freedom to manifest and voice your opinion.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
1 reply
vtmilitia welcome lourdes February 24 2014 at 8:10 PM

ENOUGH OUT OF YOU, NOW SHUT UP !

Flag Reply 0 rate up
stepnet3 February 24 2014 at 7:58 PM

Scenes from Venezuela and Kiev are coming soon to an America near you!

Flag Reply +4 rate up
2 replies
thefacts22 stepnet3 February 24 2014 at 8:10 PM

Is very possible

Flag Reply 0 rate up
vtmilitia stepnet3 February 24 2014 at 8:11 PM

Guns, check
Ammo, check
Bible, check.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
jevans7188 February 24 2014 at 7:46 PM

America....look long and hard at what is happening in Venezuela these days, as that is exactly what will be America's future if more despotic Democrats like Obama are elected to office!

Flag Reply +5 rate up
dracura94 February 24 2014 at 7:41 PM

I look at Venezuala and wonder why the U. S. A. doesn't send them a crate full of cheap handguns, some ammo, some leftover Haloween and Thanksgiving wares and $450 for fountain drinks.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
hey February 24 2014 at 8:51 PM

it is about time the citizens are rising up and kicking the gov. in the butt, this what the Cubans should have done instead of running away like cowards. countries belong to the citizens and if you run and hide and let a few monsters take over you have only yourself to blame

Flag Reply +5 rate up
1 reply
saultydog42 hey February 24 2014 at 9:04 PM

If this is the facts, where are American people? all we can do is sit back and criticize other countries when our own is doing more to socialize america that any other countries damages.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
1 reply
trishholmeide saultydog42 February 24 2014 at 9:29 PM

Hold on a minute. We stil have a chance to restore the rule of law here without bloodshed--that's what our constitution is for to help us have peaceful turn over in our government. Don't be in such a rush to see blood in the streets--it might be mine or yours or our kids'.

Flag +2 rate up
jrp1947 February 25 2014 at 1:16 AM

corrupt governments are starting to fall so when does it start here in the states. Obama is about to bring down the executive branch and congress will fall shortly thereafter when all the bribery and payoffs start coming to light. California is already starting it's own down fall witht eh arrest of members of our legislature and more to follow. Got protection for your family or are you going to go weaponless like the government wants.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
yfarris jrp1947 February 25 2014 at 4:09 PM

I'm still trying to figure out how I wuold buy a nuclear weapon to fight the U.S. government, rifles and psitols sure won't do the job. But keep wearing the contorted 2nd amendment around you neck if it bring your some comfort. Political corruption is as old as the hills, where have you been the last 50 years?

Flag Reply 0 rate up
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