Venezuela's poor join protests as turmoil grips Chávez's revolution

Government claims protests bear the hallmarks of US-backed coup plot led by jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López

In pictures - demonstrations sweep across Venezuela

The poor neighbourhood of Petare in western Caracas is not an obvious hotbed of anti-government sentiment. In the past, its residents have been among the major beneficiaries of Venezuela's public health and education campaigns, and an economic policy that resulted in one of the sharpest falls in inequality in the world.

But as demonstrations sweep several major cities, even the people of Petare have taken to the streets to protest again surging inflation, alarming murder rates and shortages of essential commodities.

Jorge Farias, a self-employed motorcycle taxi driver, once voted for the late president Hugo Chávez, but this week he joined opposition rallies.

"This country can't stay like this for much longer. If it's not lack of food, it is the fear of being killed when you step out of your house to go to work", he said. "I would like to wake up without this fear," he added. "I have never seen this country in this state of total collapse. We are going from bad to worse, and we are losing faith".

"Ya esta bueno ya", is phrase which Venezuelans are hearing with increasing frequency. Roughly translated as "Enough already", the slogan captures a wide-spread sense of discontent and growing uncertainty over the country's future.

Scenes of political turmoil have played out for two weeks in cities across Venezuela. Pockets of destruction can be seen in the public squares of Caracas, Valencia, Maracaibo, San Cristobal and Puerto Ordaz. At least five people have died in clashes and dozens have been wounded.

Government officials claim the protests are limited, but the sense of tension – as well as government repression – is escalating. On Wednesday night, groups of protesters across the country were dispersed by National Guard troops firing teargas and rubber bullets in what has been the strongest show of government force so far.

The centre of Valencia – a northern industrial city and Venezuela's third largest – was filled with flames as demonstrators blocked the streets.

In the Altavista area of Puerto Ordaz, in Bolivar state, witnesses said national guard troops fired rubber bullets and teargas to break up a student protest camp, and stood by as about 60 plainclothes government supporters on motorbikes opened fire at protesters. "The tanks, the guard and the motorizados were all shooting at the students. There are several wounded," said Ines Duran, who had been providing food and water to the students. "They have the weapons, we only have sticks and rocks." Despite the increased risk of violence, Farias said he was determined to keep protesting. "I am scared, but I am also scared on a daily basis", he said, adding that he had been the target of multiple robberies. "I am sick of not imagining a better future".

In Caracas, the focus of the unrest has been the streets of the affluent Chacao municipality, where night after night people have gathered to protest against shortages of basic goods, price inflation of more than 50% in a year and street crime that has cost more than 100,000 lives since the late president Chávez took office 15 years ago, ushering in a period of "Bolivarian revolution" that his successor, Nicolás Maduro, continues.

The government has won successive elections on this platform, most recently in municipal polls late last year.

And with an electoral mandate, it says the protests are a US-backed coup-in-the-making, spearheaded by the firebrand opposition leader, Leopoldo López, who is being held in a military jail while he awaits charges for inciting violence.

Maduro has called the street actions "a fascist plan" and has vowed to eradicate them "as one eradicates an infection".

The opposition blames the government for denying people a right to protest, and accuses the ruling camp of escalating the violence through the use of armed militia-like groups, or colectivos, trained by Cubans to control and intimidate demonstrators.

Those on each side of the divide are dismissed as puppets of Washington or pawns of Havana, but the name-calling fails to capture the frustrations that many in opposition feel about national decline – or the passion with which those who support the government are determined to protect the gains made by poorer communities.

Others, who support neither camp, can still find themselves victims of unrest.

William Briceño barely escaped the government building in Chacao where he works before it was ransacked by protesters last week. "I came to work the next day and someone had stolen my computer and several of my belongings," he said, speaking through a shattered office window. "These protests are not the solution. Students say they want dialogue but they destroy everything around them."

Inside the office, his colleagues were working on makeshift desks and kitchen tables: the furniture was looted or destroyed during the protests. The sign outside had been torn down, and in its place graffiti read: "SOS Venezuela".

"Dialogue would be the best way out but the government has refused to acknowledge our problems. Still I can't support or understand where this violence takes us," Briceño said.

Protests are set to continue with another big opposition march scheduled for Saturday. Uncertainty about where this confrontation will lead is palpable, but for those who desire change, the risks are worthwhile.

Elizabeth Rodríguez previously kept her distance from opposition marches, fearing a sudden overthrow would do more harm than good. "But now I feel [Maduro and his supporters] have demonstrated they don't know the way out of this vicious cycle".

Waiting it out until the next election is a luxury she can't afford. Rodriguez has leukemia, and although she could once benefit from government help for her treatment, these days she cannot get hold of the imported medicines she needs. "This has got to come to an end", she says. "If not for me, for the rest of the country".

Others say dialogue is the key.

"This is a long process. Things will change but there will be a lot of repression before it happens because both camps have locked horns", says Juan Garcia, a technician in a clinic. "People are tired of everything, even of these protests, but the government hasn't been able to solve any of our problems".

For the moment, however, the violence appears to be escalating. Whether this leads to a repeat of failed efforts to unseat the government in 2002 and 2004 or a more profound change will be decided in the days and weeks ahead.

For Juan Tavare, a gardener who must cross the city from his poor neighbourhood in Palo Verde to get to work in the affluent neighbourhood of Altamira, it just makes his already tough life more difficult.

"You can feel the discontent everywhere you go", he said.

On Wednesday, as protesters gathered around the main square of Altamira, in Chacao, he left work early and ended up skirting through burning tires and barricades of burning trash blocking the road, narrowly missing a detachment of National Guard troops who opened fire on protesters with teargas and rubber bullets

It took him two hours to walk to his home in Palo Verde, which was relatively calm by comparison. "But where I live you still have to worry about finding food and not being killed by thugs", he said.


Virginia López in Caracas and Jonathan Watts

The GuardianTramp

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