Large protests in Venezuela despite carnival

Thousands of opposition supporters rally across the capital but it is still unclear if they can maintain their momentum.

Caracas, Venezuela – Tens of thousands of opposition supporters have rallied across the capital, in what seems to be their largest show of force since unrest began in February.

But it is unclear whether the protest movement can keep its momentum, or where it can go from here.

“I don’t know what will happen next,” said businesswoman Ana Sosa, as she marched through the upscale Las Mercedes district with her friends on Sunday.

“We are waiting for another plan from the students,” who have played a leading role in ongoing unrest.

The death toll from weeks of protests stands at 18, according to government figures, with at least 260 reported injured.

A total of 863 people have been arrested since February 9, Foro Penal, a non-government organisation, reported, with 30 still behind bars.

Detainees arrested following violent protests on Friday included eight foreigners “held for international terrorism,” state VTV television reported. At least some of the eight were international reporters, including a team from the AP news agency.

The government released 41 detainees on Sunday, including Italian photojournalist Francesca Commissari, arrested on Friday. It was not immediately clear if the whole AP team was part of that group.

At least one National Guard soldier has been killed in the unrest and groups of opposition protesters covering their faces with masks sometimes hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces.

“There are small groups in the opposition bent on causing violence,” said Douglas Caraballo, an electrician celebrating carnival in central Caracas with a friend. “What they are doing is against a legitimate, democratic government.”

Carnival holidays   

Unlike previous opposition mobilisations, President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government did not call a rally on Sunday.

Instead, they urged Venezuelans to go to the beach to enjoy the six-day carnival holiday. 

Opposition supporters said they can not enjoy festivities as the country grapples with high-crime, inflation, food-shortages and what they consider political repression.

Protesters are demanding change. But they do not have a clear path forward

“We don’t want any more negotiations with the government, Maduro must leave,” Ana Frederico, an unemployed computer engineer, said of the socialists who have won 18 out of 19 elections since 1998.

“This is not a revolution, it’s a ‘rob-o-lution’. They are just tricking the poor and giving our money away to the Cubans.

“We will stay in the streets until something happens. There is no going back.”

Others say they want dialogue with the government, but they have conditions, including the release of all prisoners arrested during demonstrations, investigations into alleged human rights abuses, and the disarming of pro-government collectives, before serious talks can begin.

“A coup would be worse than the government that we have right now,” leading opposition politician Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, told Al Jazeera’s Adam Raney on Saturday. “I [do not] want Venezuela to have an all out social explosion. However the conditions are there.”

‘Call for peace’ 

Capriles and other opposition politicians refused to attend a government-sponsored peace conference last week.

Opposition supporters say they are trying to reach-out to lower class backers of the government, but Eleazar Tineo does not trust them.

“Maduro is a working class president,” Tineo, who works in food distribution, said of the former bus driver.

“Illiteracy has dropped massively, so has poverty. There are now free apartments for poor people and we are building new alliances with China, Russia and Latin American countries.”

In an attempt to gain support from different communities, a few thousand opposition marchers made their way to central Caracas where government support runs high.

“You won’t come back,” shouted pedestrians as white-clad protesters blew horns.

The Caracas municipal government organised concerts and face-painting workshops for kids as part of carnival celebrations. Families listened to music and watched hip-hop dancers as protesters passed-by.

Some residents of central high-rises waved posters of deceased socialist President Hugo Chavez and red flags bearing the insignia of PDVSA, the national oil company.

Venezuela holds the world’s largest proven oil reserves and high prices have financed the government’s social spending.

Chavez anniversary  

Opposition supporter insist they are making inroads in poor communities.

“Everyone from the high and low classes are facing the same problems,” said Norina Lugo, an entrepreneur.

Crime, inflation, corruption and shortages are uniting the population in anger, she said. “We are a polarised society but now we are coming together because of the problems.”

Some residents of lower-class neighbourhoods are scared to support the opposition, as they could lose government benefits or face violence from pro-government collectives, opposition supporters said.

Government supporters disagree and many say their lot has improved during the socialist period. With no sign of consensus, and an emboldened opposition, protests are set to continue through carnival.

Government backers will be back on the streets on March 5 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Chavez.

Source: Al Jazeera