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News / Nation & World

Officials say 7 dead in Venezuela protests

The Columbian
Published: April 15, 2013, 5:00pm
3 Photos
An opposition supporter bangs a pot in opposition of interim President Nicolas Maduro during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday.
An opposition supporter bangs a pot in opposition of interim President Nicolas Maduro during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday. Photo Gallery

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s chief prosecutor said Tuesday that seven people have been killed and 61 injured in widespread protests following presidential elections in which the opposition candidate is demanding a recount.

Prosecutor Luisa Ortega did not provide any details about the deaths or injuries or how they occurred. But she said 135 people had been detained.

Shortly after she spoke, however, President-elect Nicolas Maduro said in a nationally televised appearance that he knew of five people shot to death in protests on Monday, two of them in a part of the capital and another in the western state of Tachira.

The chief prosecutor said those killed were humble members of the working class, a suggestion that the opposition might be to blame. And Maduro went further, directly blaming his opponent, Henrique Capriles.

“You are responsible for the dead that we are mourning today,” Maduro said.

Capriles issued a message on Twitter blaming the government he says stole the election.

“The illegitimate one and his government ordered that there be violence to avoid counting the votes,” he said. “They are responsible!”

Maduro was certified the winner of a presidential election Monday amid questions about his ability to lead after squandering a double-digit lead in the race despite an outpouring of sympathy for his party following Chavez’s death.

But protests across the country are posing a challenge even before he deals with Venezuela’s mounting problems.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles is demanding a recount of Sunday’s election that he narrowly lost. As the National Electoral Council proclaimed Maduro the victor, people stood on their balconies in Caracas apartment buildings banging pots and pans in protest. Across town, thousands of students briefly clashed with National Guard troops who fired tear gas and plastic bullets.

Protests continued on Tuesday.

In the city center, a divided district, government supporters tried to drown out the noise by setting off deafening firecrackers. Some drove trucks with megaphones, shouting pro-Chavista slogans through megaphones. Pedestrians shouted “Chavez lives! Maduro continues!”

Anti-Maduro protests also broke out in other regions, including Chavez’s home state of Barinas.

Late Monday, Maduro announced he had met with a newly created “anti-coup” command at the military museum that holds Chavez’s remains. He accused opposition protesters of attacking government clinics and the house of electoral council President Tibisay Lucena, without offering details. He said the government was investigating a possible death.

Maduro isn’t without advantages. The presidency was made immensely stronger by the charismatic Chavez during his 14 years in power, and the ruling socialists will dominate the National Assembly for at least two more years before new elections are held.

Government leaders and military leaders closed ranks around Maduro on Monday in a series of television appearances to defend the official vote count and accuse Capriles of trying to foment violence.

Still, hours before the show of unity, a key Chavista leader showed a flash of discontent.

Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president who many consider Maduro’s chief rival within the “Chavismo” movement, expressed dismay in two Twitter messages after the electoral council president announced the election results. In the first, he called for a “profound self-criticism” within Chavista ranks. In the second, he wrote: “We should look for our faults under the rocks if we have to.”

Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said members of the ruling socialist party PSUV “realize that Maduro is not the man to guarantee continuity of the Chavista movement.”

Cabello expressed disbelief at Capriles’ strong showing, asking why “sectors of the poor population would vote for their exploiters of old.”

That might not be such a mystery.

Among Venezuela’s problems are crumbling infrastructure, persistent shortages of food and medicine, and double-digit inflation. The nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates Venezuela’s homicide rate last year was 73 per 100,000 people, among the world’s worst.

With such a narrow victory, Maduro has little political capital to make the difficult choices some of those problems require, said Risa Grais-Targow, Latin America analyst for the Eurasia Group.

Price and currency controls imposed under Chavez have failed to stem inflation or the flight of dollars and are strangling private firms. But lifting them abruptly could bring economic turmoil and hurt the poor.

Grais-Targow said Maduro will likely focus instead on expanding the myriad of social programs that cemented Chavez’s popularity. But that has become increasingly difficult to balance with the need to spend on redressing Venezuela’s other problems.

The state-oil company that gave billions of dollars to fund social programs is saddled with mounting debt and declining profits. Critics say the company has failed to invest in boosting oil production, which has fallen for years even though Venezuela has the world’s biggest oil reserves.

Throughout the campaign, Maduro blamed Venezuela’s frequent power blackouts on sabotage by government enemies and said food shortages are caused by hoarding by the private sector. So did Chavez before he died, but Sunday’s election results showed that a growing numbers of Venezuelans are no longer buying it.

Maduro, a former bus driver who rose to become foreign minister and vice president under Chavez, offered no ideas of his own for resolving the country’s problems. He did suggest at the news conference Monday night that a Cabinet shake-up was in the works, though he quickly added that he would ratify Vice President Jorge Arreaza, Chavez’s son-in-law, in his post.

In his own Twitter message, Arreaza also hinted that the election results were sobering, though he used softer language than Cabello. “Review and rectify where we have to,” he wrote.Chavez swiftly sidelined those who openly questioned him during his 14 years in power. Maduro’s narrow victory has given him less ability to maintain unity in a movement held together largely by loyalty to the charismatic Chavez.

Its factions include former soldiers like Cabello who joined Chavez in a failed 1992 coup. Maduro comes from the ranks of leftist political and labor groups that united to help elect Chavez president in 1998. Chavez’s relatives, led by his brother Adan, form another bloc.

“His legitimacy comes from the fact that Chavez named him as his successor and other factions were forced to accept it,” said Grais-Targow. “But he faces this landscape where the other main figure, Diosdado Cabello, could elevate his role and have more power. There are also governors who have bases of support and could pose challenges.”

Anger over past Chavista fissures have already surfaced. Adan Chavez blamed two former Chavista politicians for disturbances in Barinas. “They are traitors of the revolution,” Chavez told state television.

Still, the powerful state political apparatus built by Chavez is standing with Maduro.

The National Electoral Council, where four of the five directors are accused by the opposition of having ties to the government, has so far brushed off the demand for a recount. Lucena, the council president, suggested Capriles take his complaints to other channels — presumably the Supreme Court, which is stacked with Chavista sympathizers.

Another thing Maduro may have going for him: Other Chavista leaders lack big bases of their own after years in Chavez’s shadow. That may motivate them to stay united as long as possible.

“His leadership will not be publicly questioned for at least the first year of his government,” said Moya-Ocampos. “After that, if he fails to resolve domestic problems, members of the PSUV and the military will step forward and begin to publicly question his leadership.”

Some politicians and diplomats who have met Maduro, who was Chavez’s foreign minister for six years, describe him as a smooth negotiator.

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Former longtime U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts who attended Chavez’s funeral in representation of the United States and met with Maduro, said he thinks that given the pressures enveloping Maduro, the pragmatist in him will show.

“He has an excellent sense of humor. He connects with people. He’s bright. He’s very easy to underestimate and that’s a mistake for people,” Delahunt said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“His background I think would lead some to believe that he is not prepared. He is prepared. He has excellent political skills,”