Venezuela: Vandalism bill hits millions, Maduro proposes peace conference

Thursday, February 27, 2014
March for peace and in support of the government, Caracas, February 22.

Millions of dollars worth of damages to public property may have been caused by a wave of violence across Venezuela, according to government sources.

The assessment comes after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called for a “National Peace Conference” as a means of resolving the on-going violent opposition protests in Venezuela.

Protests began two weeks ago after opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called supporters onto the streets to force the “exit” of President Nicolas Maduro. Lopez is currently in custody and being investigated for inciting violent acts.

Some opposition marches have been peaceful, and have incorporated complaints over shortages, inflation and high crime. But an extremist sector of the opposition has engaged in a strategy of street blockades and nightly riots in an attempt to undermine the government.

The total price tag of public damages could have already topped Bs10 million (about A$1.8 million), science minister Manuel Fernandez stated on February 24. He pointed to a spate of attacks on public property over previous two days for raising earlier estimates.

Fernandez said: “In [the Caracas neighbourhood of] Altamira, they attacked a radio station, in Maracaibo they attacked two trucks full of cell phones, a telephone exchange in Barquisimeto, and an administrative office and a commercial operator.”

A worker installing lines for the state-owned telecommunications company CANTV was also attacked on the job, the minister said.

Fernandez didn't rule out the possibility of the cost of damages continuing to rise. On February 25, the government announced that Bs7.5 million of public funds had been set aside to repair infrastructure in Caracas.

Wave of destruction

Along with at least 12 deaths and hundreds of injuries, public buildings and government-run pro-poor social missions have been hit during opposition demonstrations and street clashes. Many of Venezuela's major cities are also pock-marked with scarred patches of road where barricades were erected and often set on fire.

On February 12, violent opposition groups attacked the attorney general's office in Carabobo Park, Caracas. Photographs of the scene showed the building's exterior was damaged. A building belonging to the government-owned Fundacaracas organisation was also attacked by opposition groups that day.

Since then, offices of the state-owned energy company Corpoelec has been targeted in Carabobo, while government offices have been attacked in Tachira.

On February 12, electric substation in Tachira's capital of San Cristobal was hit with molotov cocktails. Energy minister Jesse Chacon said Corpoelec assets have also been vandalised in Anzoategui and Bolivar states.

Public health services have become another casualty of the violence. Government-run medical clinics being struck across the country.

The widespread attacks have curtailed access to healthcare nationwide, health minister Francisco Armada said. Speaking to state media on February 24, Armada described the attacks as “absurd, contradictory and senseless”, stating the slew of attacks appear to be aimed at Cuban medical workers.

Armada said the disturbances had taken a toll on the distribution of medicine. “We have been strengthening distribution systems, however, in some cases ... medicine distribution has been limited thanks to recent protests,” he said.

State media have also come under attack. Over the past two weeks, the headquarters of public broadcaster VTV have been repeatedly vandalised.

State-run food programs Mercal and Pdval have also been hit, with vehicles belonging to the two groups torched in recent days. Five vehicles belonging to CANTV have also been set ablaze in Barquisimeto, Lara state.

Public transport has also become another target for anti-government groups, with at least 40 metropolitan buses being vandalised during the wave of violence. A handful of bus routes in the capital of Caracas have been suspended, including around the affluent areas of Chacao and Altamira.

The environmental ministry has also said its offices in Merida were besieged on February 24. A press release from the ministry said “masked men” attacked the offices. Five vehicles were damaged and the offices were “ransacked”, according to the ministry.

Environment minister Miguel Leonardo Rodriguez described the attack as “terrorism”. He said: “Throughout the afternoon and evening these groups besieged our offices in Merida, causing environmental damage and fires.”

Businesses have likewise suffered, with almost daily reports of stores being ransacked. On February 25, Merida's police force reported that an upmarket shopping centre had been assaulted by an armed group. When police arrived they were met with gunfire, and blocked from accessing the shopping centre by rows of barricades.

However, demonstrations remain the most intense in Tachira state, which borders Colombia, where retail stores, a supermarket, dance club and other businesses have been looted.

In recent days, footage that shows an attack on a community television station in Tachira has emerged. The video appears to show two masked figures douse the building in fuel and set it alight on February 19.

Push for peace

In response, President Nicolas Maduro has proposed a “national peace conference incorporating “all the social and political sectors of the country” could create the dialogue necessary to resolve the situation.

Maduro made the proposal at a large “march for peace” in Caracas on February 22.

The president said: “It will be a conference for peace. We’ve got to neutralise these violent groups.” Maduro said it could be held over several meetings with representatives from different social sectors such as workers, students, and artists and intellectuals.

The government views the violent protests and riots as part of a “coup attempt” being orchestrated by the conservative opposition.

On February 22, Maduro welcomed the decision of opposition leader Henrique Capriles to attend a meeting with him and the country’s state governors in the Federal Government Council.

Maduro also said he was open to “dialogue” with the United States, who he accuses of supporting the opposition’s protests. Maduro said he was willing to designate an ambassador to Washington, “So that the U.S. hears the truth about Venezuela and respects our people”.

On February 16, Maduro had expelled three US consular officials from Venezuela for alleged “conspiracy” with the opposition.

However Maduro also told supporters: “If due to the circumstances of fascist violence [the opposition] take power, I authorise you to go onto the streets and defend the nation, to rescue every millimetre of the homeland”.

Capriles made a list of opposition “demands” to the government during an opposition march in Caracas also on February 22. One of these was that all “students and youths” allegedly arrested during recent protests and violence be released, along with Leopoldo Lopez and Ivan Simonovis, a police captain convicted for his role in the killings during the April 2002 coup.

A second demand was “the ceasing of persecution, repression, and so that exiles can return to the country,” and the “disarmament of paramilitaries” that the opposition blames for the violence.

The government denies charges of repression, saying it is maintaining public order against riots and street barricades — and is investigating any reported cases of abuses by officials. Maduro has also publicly warned Chavistas not to engage in violent acts.

Capriles also made calls to violent opposition sectors to halt their actions, saying that they “make it easy for the government”.

“What do you achieve closing yourselves in within your own street? It’s in the government’s interest that the protests are in Altamira [a wealthy area of Caracas] and not Catia [a working class area of Caracas]”.

'Developing coup'

On February 23, Maduro gave an interview to Latin American television network Telesur, where he gave his impression of the situation in Venezuela.

He said: “It’s not another conspiracy plan or another day of street barricades, it’s a developing state coup, decided in the circles of power in the United States, conjured with the business elites of Venezuela, and directed and driven in the streets by a sector of the Venezuelan extreme right-wing.”

Maduro said the alleged plan to remove the government from power was born before late president Hugo Chavez died in March last year, and was intensified with an “economic war” and “electricity sabotage”.

Maduro also referred to Capriles’ refusal to recognise his narrow victory in presidential election in April last year, and the eleven pro-government civilians who were then killed after Capriles called on supporters to “drain their rage”.

Maduro said a national and international media campaign by the opposition was currently being used to “annul” the state’s constitutional right to maintain public order and defend citizens under attack from violent groups.

He also said there were groups in Colombia financing the far-right’s activities in Venezuela to create a “civil war” and provoke “US intervention”. Maduro has previously accused former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe of involvement in the alleged plot.

Maduro cited a recent poll by private Venezuelan firm International Consulting Services (ICS), which found that 81% of Venezuelans consider that the protests in Venezuela “have been violent”.

Another poll, undertaken by private consultancy firm Hinterlaces, found only 29% of Venezuelans feel that the government should be forced from office through street actions.

Meanwhile 29% feel a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency should be organised in 2016, and 42% feel that Maduro should be allowed to serve out his full mandate uninterrupted, until 2019.

As such, Vicente Rangel highlighted that 71% of the country feels that Venezuela’s political future should be decided through the constitutional electoral process.

“The vote is [part of] Venezuelan culture and the majority support stability and hope over chaos and uncertainty,” he said.

[Compiled from articles on Venezuela Analysis.]

From GLW issue 999