Death toll rises in Venezuela amid roadblocks

Consensus and dialogue rare in divided nation as barricades are enforced and fires smoulder around Caracas.

Demonstrators say they will not remove roadblocks until public safety improves [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

Caracas, Venezuela – Opposition activists have erected roadblocks across parts of the capital Caracas, halting transportation in an attempt to escalate the ongoing political standoff.

Demonstrators manning barricades in a suburb in eastern Caracas said on Monday they would not end the blockade until safety improved in one of the most violent countries in Latin America.

“We are protecting ourselves from the military and [armed pro-government] collectives who might try and come here,” said a student covering his face beside piles of rubbish and logs at a blocked intersection.

“I have been robbed many times.”

He spoke to Al Jazeera requesting anonymity.

The death toll from the unrest beginning in early February rose to 13, the government announced on Monday.

In Caracas’s business district, more than 1,000 pro-government motorcycle drivers massed outside the presidential palace, criticising what they consider an opposition plot to destabilise the country and topple the elected government of President Nicolas Maduro.

“The opposition are the ones who are causing problems, not us,” Gusmarly Morillo, the wife of a motorcycle taxi driver, told Al Jazeera as she waited to enter the grounds of Miraflores Palace.

“They [opposition partisans] think we are criminals just because we are poor and live in a slum.”

Lighting rod for anger

Motorcycles are the vehicle of choice for members of pro-government collectives – groups which sometimes use force in what they consider defence of the socialist revolution.

The collectives have become a lightening rod for opposition anger recently.

They are dubbed “shock troops” or “paramilitaries” by government critics who accuse them of attacking student protesters and terrorising middle class areas at the government’s behest.

But Katiuska Aponte, vice president of the Bolivarian Motorcycle Association, said those accusations are unfounded.

“The motorcyclists aren’t all collective members; they’re just workers trying to make a living to feed their families,” she told Al Jazeera.

For members of pro-government collectives, motorcycles are the vehicle of choice [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

“Part of the question of insecurity is coming from groups bent on destabilising the country. They are trying to delegitimise our government. We are here protesting on two wheels in favour of our elected president and in favour of peace.”

Poor communities on the hills around Caracas form the backbone of government support in the capital.

Opposition politicians, including defeated presidential contender Henrique Capriles, have pledged to do more to appeal to lower-class voters.

They want to shake the opposition’s image as representatives of a privileged elites.

But supermarket staff in upscale eastern Caracas did not seem impressed by the roadblocks.

“For us, people who work here but don’t live here, the blockades are a big problem because we can’t get to work easily,” Franklin Moran told Al Jazeera as he and a group of supermarket employees in uniforms watched students guard a barricade.

“If the protests were more symbolic and less disruptive, we would be more likely to support them.”

Students at another blockade nearby claimed they understood the concerns of Caracas’ poor.

“The opposition doesn’t want to take away the missions [centres providing social services] from the poor,” Brian Rubeiro, an opposition protester manning a barricade, told Al Jazeera.

“We want the social programmes, but there needs to be accountability and less corruption.”

Question of collectives

Oil prices rose ten-fold during the socialist period, and the opposition believes much of the massive cash infusion into South America’s largest oil exporter has been squandered.

“In the end, we are all Venezuelans and we want a prosperous future and peace,” Rubeiro said.

Maduro called for a peace dialogue to take place on Wednesday, but students said that could not solve the crisis unless the government starts disarming collectives as a show of good faith.

Capriles refuses to attend talks until Leopoldo Lopez, another opposition politician, is released from jail and the “repression” ends.

There was at least one rare moment of consensus in the deeply divided country on Monday.

Protesters blocking the road near Altamira Square in Caracas let through a group of motorcycle drivers heading to a pro-government rally after the two sides had a discussion.

“Forty Chavistas on motorbikes came through on the way to the demonstration,” Gustavo Ortega, a marketing student and demonstrator, told Al Jazeera.

“We negotiated and let them pass through; it’s the first time I have seen something like this.”

Moments of consensus and dialogue are rare, however, as barricades are enforced and fires smoulder around the city.

Source: Al Jazeera