Warnings of violence as Venezuela braces for protests

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Caracas (AFP) – Latin American powers warned against violence in Venezuela as it braces for big protests on Wednesday in a deadly political and economic crisis.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos expressed “serious concern” about the Venezuelan army’s role, after his and 10 other countries urged peaceful demonstrations.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro rallied the military and civilian militia on Monday as he vowed to resist the opposition’s efforts to remove him from office.

“We view with serious concern the militarization of Venezuelan society. We call for good sense,” Santos, winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote on Twitter.

– Rival protests –

The center-right opposition is demanding elections to remove Maduro and protesting moves by authorities to tighten his grip on power.

It has vowed that the latest in a series of demonstrations on Wednesday will be “the mother of all protests,” in the words of senior lawmaker Freddy Guevara.

At least five protesters have been killed in clashes with police this month, according to Venezuelan authorities.

Maduro has in turn called on his supporters to rally in defiance.

He said he would send troops into the streets to police the protests and expand the pro-government civilian “Bolivarian militia.”

“The whole of Caracas will be held by the revolutionary forces,” said lawmaker Diosdado Cabello, one of Maduro’s most powerful allies.

Venezuela suffered its last major wave of unrest in 2014, when 43 people were killed in anti-government riots.

The country has seen three attempted military coups since 1992.

– ‘Vandalism’ –

Pressure on Maduro has risen in an economic crisis aggravated by a fall in prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports, which has triggered severe shortages of food and medicine.

Late on Monday, 11 regional powers including Argentina, Brazil and Mexico bewailed the deaths of protesters in recent clashes.

They urged Venezuelan authorities to “guarantee the right to peaceful protest as enshrined in the constitution and to prevent any violent action against the demonstrators.”

The opposition has accused police of repression and the government of sending groups of armed thugs to beat up protesters.

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez responded to the 11 countries’ statement by accusing them of “double standards” for defending what she called “opposition vandalism and violence.”

– ‘Repression’ –

Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez on Monday declared the army’s “unconditional loyalty” to Maduro.

Opposition congressional leader Julio Borges reiterated his side’s call for the military to rally to the opposition cause.

“Tomorrow Venezuela will be in the streets, peacefully, and it is the moment for the armed forces to demonstrate that they are with the constitution and with the people,” he told reporters.

“The abuses need to stop, the harassment needs to stop, the repression needs to stop. The armed forces must let Maduro’s government know that the situation in Venezuela is unsustainable.”

– ‘Intimidation’ –

International campaign group Human Rights Watch said Tuesday the strengthening of the militia aimed to intimidate the opposition.

“We know of no other similar case in Latin America of a government arming urban militias,” the group’s Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco told a news conference in Washington.

“By that I mean delinquents, gangs that act with total impunity and intimidate citizens, with power to shoot and make arrests.”

Venezuelan opposition deputy Marco Bozo (C) clashes with riot police at a protest in Caracas on March 30, 2017
Copyright AFP/File JUAN BARRETO
The Venezuelan crisis
Copyright AFP Nicolas RAMALLO, Gustavo IZUS
A demonstrator protesting against President Nicolas Maduro’s government throws back a tear gas grenade at riot police in Caracas on April 10, 2017
Copyright AFP JUAN BARRETO