Monday 29 December 2014

Chavez legacy disputed in Venezuela

Published 05/03/2014 | 06:27

Demonstrators stand behind a barricade during an anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela a year after the death of Hugo Chavez (AP)
Demonstrators stand behind a barricade during an anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela a year after the death of Hugo Chavez (AP)

Hugo Chavez always said his socialist project would last decades, but a year after the Venezuelan president's death even some of his most fervent supporters are having their doubts.

The desperation of Venezuelans is growing along with the length of the queues outside state-run markets that reflect the economy's downward spiral and helped trigger a wave of protests in mid-February which have claimed more than a dozen lives.

"When the head of household is absent, as we say around here, things start to get out of control," said Pablo Nieves, a community leader in the poor 23 de Enero district of Caracas.

"If he were still with us, it would have never gotten to this."

President Nicolas Maduro, the hand-picked successor of Mr Chavez, organised 10 days of commemorative activities to mark today's anniversary of the larger-than-life leader's death from cancer aged 58.

A civilian-military parade is to be followed by speeches by allied presidents expected to include Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua as well as the debut on state TV of director Oliver Stone's documentary My Friend Hugo.

But while comrades may laud the man who transformed Venezuela during a 14-year reign by championing its poor, many do not agree with Mr Nieves that Mr Chavez could mend its compounding woes.

And many blame mismanagement by Mr Chavez himself.

The opposition did not call any protests for today in the capital, though Foro Penal, which provides lawyers for detainees, did announce a march in the central industrial city of Valencia.

In a stalemate, the opposition is struggling to broaden its support base against the socialist government that has been aided in repressing demonstrations by menacing "collectives" of motorcycle-riding thugs.

The protesters blame the "collectives" for some of the 18 deaths the government says the unrest has reaped.

More than 1,000 protesters have been detained and 72 people face charges, including eight members of the SEBIN political police.

Mr Maduro's government, meanwhile, has shown itself unable to halt 56% annual inflation and crippling currency controls that have fuelled a growing scarcity of consumer basics - from milk to flour to cooking oil.

The central bank's scarcity index was its highest-ever in January at 28%.

This nation with the world's largest proven oil reserves is becoming, to some, as destitute as Cuba, the socialist ally whose economy it helps prop up with oil shipments.

Former import-export and oil executives are driving cabs while workers from other collapsed industries struggle to find new lines of work.

Tens of thousands have emigrated, and not just in search of economic opportunities. They flee one of the world's worst violent crime rates and a health care system nearing collapse.

Students have engaged National Guardsmen in the nearly nightly cat-and-mouse street battles since the unrest exploded on February 12.

They have turned the wealthy Caracas district of Altamira into ground zero, honeycombing its centre with debris barricades. But most protesters have been peaceful.

Mr Maduro has tried to engage the opposition in a "peace dialogue" but it refuses, demanding he first release all political detainees, including senior opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, disarm the gangs that menace protesters and kick out the Cubans it claims pull the strings in the government and military.

The government, in turn, accuses the United States of fomenting the unrest and it expelled three US diplomats last month.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that his government is being blamed for things it never did.

Press Association

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