Wednesday 17 January 2018

Chavez mourned amid more protests

Police officers fire tear gas at demonstrators during clashes in Caracas (AP)
Police officers fire tear gas at demonstrators during clashes in Caracas (AP)
Nicolas Maduro bows his head during a military parade commemorating the anniversary of the death of former president Hugo Chavez (AP)

Thousands of Venezuelans mourned the passing of President Hugo Chavez on the first anniversary of his death.

Meanwhile National Guard troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at anti-government activists who pressed on with street protests yesterday despite the commemorations.

Mr Chavez's successor, President Nicolas Maduro, angrily announced he would break off relations with Panama, which he accused of being a "lackey" of the US in a conspiracy to topple his government through the daily protests that have left at least 18 dead since mid-February.

Mr Maduro said he made the move because Panama asked for the Organisation of American States to study the situation in Venezuela. Mr Maduro considers the OAS to be dominated by Washington.

"We don't accept the interventionism of anyone, because our international policy is a policy of peace, of cooperation, of respect, of the anti-imperialist Latin American union," Mr Maduro said.

Venezuela is mired in economic crisis and daily anti-government demonstrations, and yesterday was no exception as protests erupted in at least six cities.

"The National Guard attacked with a lot of fury against the guys and used tractors to violently take down the barricades," said Mari Marcano, a protester on the tourist island of Margarita.

"They launched a lot of tear gas, shot rubber bullets."

In troubled central Lara state, the leader of a small centre-left opposition party, Hector Alzaul Planchart, was shot dead by unknown assailants as he left his party offices in Barquisimeto.

Despite the protests, for many yesterday's pomp-soaked anniversary of Mr Chavez's passing was a time for sadness and nostalgia.

Thousands gathered at the capital's parade grounds to honour the socialist leader who died of cancer on March 5, 2013.

"This isn't like an anniversary; it's like we're mourning," said Gledis Hernandez, 43, who took her daughter and niece to the memorial parade in Caracas.

She said Mr Chavez gave her a flat when her home was washed away in floods, but "right now we're living in a sad situation".

Vendors hawked Chavez T-shirts, pins and hats. Visitors were given a newspaper upon entering the area with the headline "Chavez lives!" on the front and a cardboard cut-out of Mr Chavez riding a bike tucked within.

Inside, tanks and soldiers paraded before a waving Mr Maduro and military jets screamed overhead.

The military parade, attended by Chavez friends Bolivian president Evo Morales, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and Cuban president Raul Castro among others, kicked off a 10-day commemoration.

Afterwards, they participated in a ceremony at Mr Chavez's hilltop mausoleum, and that was followed by the television premier of Oliver Stone's documentary My Friend Hugo.

Mr Maduro seems in a stalemate with the political opposition. His administration shows no sign of crumbling, but he appears unable to stop the student-led protests.

Instead, he moves ahead with a peace effort that the opposition calls farcical while his foreign minister rebuffs offers for outside mediation.

Inflation in Venezuela hit 56% last year, slashing the buying power of the poor who Mr Chavez lifted above the poverty line using the state's oil profits.

Simple grocery shopping has become a daily odyssey as residents hunt for scarce items like flour, cooking oil and toilet paper, and wait hours in queues when they are lucky enough to find them.

Luisa Teresa Guzman, 64, said she still cries over Mr Chavez. Wearing a red beret, red shirt and red pants at the entrance to the parade grounds, she said Mr Maduro can carry the revolution forward. "That's why Chavez left him there."

But a month of protests has drawn international attention to the country's struggles.

In San Antonio de los Altos, in Miranda state, protesters blocked roads, but were driven off by hundreds of National Guard troops, national police and other authorities with tear gas and rubber bullets.

At least two were injured, one with a bullet wound in the leg and the other with multiple plastic buckshot wounds to the face, said Lyndons Guzman, emergency director in the Carrizal municipality.

Protests were also reported in Valencia, San Cristobal, Merida and Barinas.

Press Association

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