The death toll has risen to 13 and more than 150 have been injured in clashes between pro and anti-government protesters in an increasingly divided Venezuela.
Small, sporadic protests began to spring up across Venezuela earlier this month, encouraged by opposition leaders Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo Lopez. The turmoil escalated on Feb. 12, when opposition marches turned violent and three were killed.
The anti-government protesters, who were mostly university students at first but constitute a broader array of people, are rising up against escalating crime rates, political corruption, major goods shortages and extreme inflation (56.3 percent over the past year) in the oil-rich country under socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s government. The protesters are demanding Maduro’s resignation.
Maduro, who narrowly won the presidential election 10 months ago and replaced late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, said right wing “fascists” are orchestrating uprisings to spark violence and create international outrage. He said the protesters are seeking a coup similar to the brief ousting of Chavez in 2002.
The opposition accuses the National Guard of attacking and shooting at protesters, as well as beating up and menacing some of them. Maduro said he won’t reign in security forces on the streets until the opposition accepts his invitation for dialogue.
Maduro called for a national peace conference for Wednesday, Feb. 26 among mayors, governors and leading lawmakers, but many rejected his request.
Lopez is being held in a prison in Caracas after turning himself into authorities last week. The government blames him for inciting the ongoing conflicts, and he has been charged with arson and conspiracy (former charges of murder and terrorism were dropped). In a statement, Amnesty International called these charges “a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent in the country,” according to CNN.
Another opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, has become the new face of the anti-government movement. Though Capriles has criticized Lopez’s strategy that garnered mostly middle-class support, he vowed to put those differences aside and led a demonstration of 50,000 protesters on Saturday in the biggest rally yet.
On Monday, protesters in Caracas, the capital, and other cities, piled furniture, tree limbs, chain-link fence, sewer grates and washing machines to block roads in an action against the government. Many are criticizing Maduro’s reaction to the protests, including the deployment of soldiers and sending fighter jets to make low, intimidating passes over the protesters.
President Obama said at a news conference last Wednesday, “Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people.”
This past Tuesday, in a contradictory move, Maduro proposed a Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S. to kick-start talks about the protests.
Maduro is also unhappy with the way some of the media are covering the protests. The government revoked or denied press credentials for CNN journalists in the country on Friday on the grounds that they were spreading “war propaganda.” The journalists have been asked to leave several times, but are still continuing to cover the protests.
“We hope the government will reconsider its decision. Meanwhile, we will continue reporting on Venezuela in the fair, accurate and balanced manner we are known for,” said CNN en Espanol in a statement.
Editor’s Note: Information from CNN, The New York Times and BBC News was used in this report.