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Thứ Tư, 26 tháng 2, 2014

Carnaval could sap Venezuela protests - Washington Post

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CARACAS, Venezuela — It is Carnaval time in Venezuela, when revelers typically fill the streets in rum-powered dance parties leading up to Tuesday’s Mardi Gras blowout.

And after two weeks of deadly street demonstrations against his government, embattled President Nicolás Maduro would like nothing more than for the country to go numb on booze and rumba. A social media campaign pushed by his supporters, #ConMaduroCarnavalSeguro (“a safe Carnaval with Maduro”), is promoting the government as the official guarantor of the good times.

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So, then: To party or to protest?

For the student-led uprising that has convulsed Venezuelan cities but is showing signs of fatigue, that is the question.

The next few days appear to be a critical interval for the protest movement and the government’s effort to contain it. Maduro has declared a national holiday between now and next Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, offering Maduro his best chance to convince the Chávez support base he’s capable of keeping his mentor’s legacy from coming undone.

But the vacation time potentially leaves even more people free to take to the streets, setting up the possibility for bigger clashes. The sharply divided, oil-rich country hasn’t looked very festive lately as it sorts out its hangover from 14 years of Chávez rule: a country with not enough milk or sugar in the supermarkets and far too many car-jackings and murders in the streets.

Caracas student leader Juan Requesens said the protestors are in no mood for dancing. The heavy-handed government response has only encouraged them to dig in further. “We are going to stay in the streets,” he said in an interview. “As long as the government keeps up its repression, we’re not going to sit down.”

On Wednesday students joined a peaceful women’s march led by Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was taken into custody by Venezuelan authorities on Feb. 18.

López is being held at a military prison and faces charges of arson and conspiracy, as the Maduro government tries to hold him responsible for the Feb. 12 demonstrations that ended in violence. Daily clashes of varying intensity have followed, with at least 14 people killed and some 150 injured since the protests began.

Maduro has taken to the airwaves almost nightly, lurching between calls for peace and incendiary denunciations of the protestors as “fascists” and “coup plotters.” He claims the demonstrations are part of a subversive campaign hatched in the United States, a charge American officials deny.

On Wednesday, Maduro invited business leaders, religious figures and opposition members to join him at the presidential palace for a “national conference on peace and life,” with the goal of “building social and political peace.” Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost last April’s presidential election to Maduro, did not say if he would attend, after declining a similar invitation on Monday.

The demonstrations have cooled off in recent days, and tactical disagreements have emerged among protestors, particularly over the construction of street barricades that some residents have started to see as a nuisance.

Luis Vicente Leon, president of the respected Caracas polling firm Datanalisis, said it was also important for outside observers to keep in mind that “not all of the country is protesting.”

But while the president retains the support of part of the population, particularly among Venezuela’s poor, Leon said “even those who support Maduro are unhappy about the troubled economy.”

Some of the most intense clashes between demonstrators and national guardsmen have occurred in the state of Táchira, an opposition stronghold along the border with Colombia. It was the site of the first protests at the beginning of this month, which erupted after an attempted sexual assault on campus and a botched police response. Anger at the government spread from there.

In San Cristóbal, Táchira’s capital, the streets remain choked with makeshift barriers built from tree stumps, tires and other debris.

Venezuelan authorities have sent fighter jets roaring over the protestors’ heads in the city, prompting the state governor — a longtime Chávez loyalist — to criticize Maduro in a rare public reproach from within the ranks of their United Socialist party.

The state is Venezuela’s biggest tinderbox. With annual inflation topping 50 percent and the black-market exchange rate for Venezuelan currency tanking, shoppers from Colombia have been crossing the border to trade in their pesos and clean out local supermarkets of the few remaining goods that haven’t already run out.

“We want to go supermarkets and find the products we need,” said Wilmer Zabaleta, a student leader in Táchira. “All the contraband has made San Cristóbal into one of the most expensive cities in Latin America.”

Zabaleta said students would stay in the streets until the government started addressing their problems. “Instead of trying to divide us, the government needs to listen to the people and stop demonizing us,” he said

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and a long-time Venezuela observer, said he expected Carnaval to bring a lull in the tensions over the next few days, saying “it’s the biggest party vacation of the year and precisely attracts young people.”

“Nevertheless, the cause of these protests is still present and could conceivably get worse in the coming months,” Smilde said, “so we could be doing this again.”

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