Security forces fired tear gas against protesters in Venezuela on Monday forcing hundreds of people to evacuate buildings as the gas seeped into homes, schools and a hospital.
The protest turned violent when demonstrators were blocked by national guardsmen while trying to deliver a letter expressing their disdain for socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s push to rewrite the nation’s constitution.
Protesters tried to get around the officers by finding another route but were pushed back by heavy clouds of tear gas in a raucous exchange that continued for more than an hour, witnesses said.
Juan Diego Amado, an anti-government activist, said he entered one building housing a foundation housing about 300 children and elderly residents and found many coughing and in tears after inhaling the fumes.
Volunteers rushed children still in diapers, others in strollers and the elderly in wheelchairs out of the building to hospitals for treatment. Amado said he helped about four children get to clear air, describing the image of them gasping to breathe as “heartbreaking for anyone.”
The clash came as Venezuelans unhappy with food shortages, triple-digit inflation and high crime were out in the streets again Monday after more than a month of protests demanding elections. The unrest began after the Supreme Court stripped congress of its last powers, a decision it later reversed amid a torrent of international criticism.
Tensions have heightened since Maduro began a push last week to hold a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders charge the move is a ploy to keep the president and his allies in power.
At least 38 people have been killed and more than 750 injured in the unrest.
Sixty people were injured on Monday as protests continued in the capital, said Ramon Muchacho, a Caracas-area mayor.
Meanwhile, the opposition boycotted a meeting on Monday to discuss Maduro’s plan for a new popular assembly, preferring to protest in the streets.
In familiar scenes from five weeks of unrest, youths with gas masks and makeshift shields faced off with police and National Guard troops in Caracas, after hundreds of demonstrators were stopped from reaching government offices.
No representatives of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition went to the Miraflores presidential palace on Monday despite an invitation from Education Minister Elias Jaua who is leading the constituent assembly process.
“It’s a trick to keep themselves in power,” said Julio Borges, leader of the National Assembly legislature where the opposition won a majority in 2015.
“The only way to resolve this crisis is with a free vote.”
Local rights group Penal Forum said 1,845 people had been detained since April 1 over the protests, with 591 still behind bars. Opposition leaders said 200 of those were being processed by military tribunals in Carabobo state.
Demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro continued in the Venezuelan capital Caracas as students took to the streets on Thursday as the death toll in the protests gripping the country reached 37.
“We are students, not terrorists!” a mass of students chanted as they marched in Caracas.
Soldiers bathed hundreds of protesters in tear gas at the Central University of Venezuela, with medics in gas masks attending to students with bloodied faces and limbs.
Gunfire erupted at a student gathering in El Tigre, a city southeast of Caracas, leaving Juan Lopez, 33, dead and three others injured, according to the chief prosecutor’s office. Preliminary reports indicate an assailant fired at Lopez toward the end of the meeting and then fled on a motorcycle. Lopez was the president of a university federation.
The student leader’s death brought to at least 37 the number killed in Venezuela’s ongoing political turmoil.
Earlier Thursday, authorities announced a 38-year-old police officer in the central state of Carabobo had died of his injuries after being shot during a Wednesday protest that had hundreds of thousands of people on the street nationwide. Wednesday’s protest also left a 17-year-old student and musician dead.
News of the latest deaths came as organizers announced a women’s march for Saturday. Protesters at the women’s rally, to take place in downtown Caracas, were urged to wear white, a traditional show of defiance against what organizers have branded a repressive government.
More than 700 others have been wounded, no small matter in a country with crippling medical shortages. Opposition leaders said 30 were injured in Thursday’s student demonstrations. Overall, more than 1,000 have been arrested.
West of Caracas in Valencia, there were reports of looting at several businesses and at least one factory, the thieves taking off with plastic crates filled with bottles and even a forklift. The local chamber of commerce said at least 70 stores have been raided since Tuesday.
Protesters are demanding immediate presidential elections. Maduro accuses the opposition of attempting a coup, and has responded with an initiative to rewrite the constitution.
“I don’t know how long the protests are going to last,” senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles told AFP in an interview.
“If we were being violent, if we were not being democratic, we would already have toppled the government.”
Walking through an agricultural expo where he pet goats and sampled cheese Thursday, Maduro repeatedly reiterated his call for a special assembly tasked with defining Venezuela’s future. He added that the yet-to-be-created constituent body would decide the South American nation’s destiny “for the next 50 years.”
Despite the country’s chaos, Maduro retains the military’s public backing — one thing that analysts say could yet tip the balance against him.
“What happens if the National Guard (military police) says they are not going to continue the repression?” Capriles said.
International pressure on Maduro to hold elections is continuing to escalate amid his call for a constitution rewrite. A group of bipartisan US legislators sent a letter to President Donald Trump Thursday urging him to apply new sanctions against individuals responsible for human rights violations and to push for the delivery of humanitarian relief.
The Venezuelan government and opposition traded accusations on Friday over the evacuation of some 50 children from a Caracas hospital following an attack at the maternity ward.
The government blamed the attack on armed gangs, while the opposition attributed it to tear gas used to quell unrest that saw protests and looting continue into the night following another day of clashes between police and demonstrators in the capital.
“I denounce before the international community that armed gangs hired by the opposition attacked a maternity hospital with 54 children,” Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez tweeted, noting that President Nicolas Maduro had ordered the hospital’s evacuation.
But Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader, rejected the allegation, calling Rodriguez “irresponsible” and saying the evacuations were “the fault of tear gas bombs of your dictatorship.”
The opposition accuses Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators.
Demonstrators have vowed not to flinch in their campaign to oust Maduro, despite three weeks of protest violence that has left eight people dead, including three on Wednesday.
“Sure we’re tired, but we’ve got to stand strong. I’m ready to take to the streets every day if I have to,” said 22-year-old student Aquiles Aldazoro.
Protesters set fire to trash bins and tore down a billboard to barricade themselves in, as officers fired water cannon at them and a police helicopter hovered overhead.
“I don’t care if I inhale gas, I don’t care if I die. We have to put a stop to this murdering, repressing government,” said Natasha Borges, 17.
Earlier Thursday police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up thousands of marchers as they reached a vital freeway in Caracas, then edged back slightly as masked protesters pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Clashes also broke out in the flashpoint western city of San Cristobal, Maracaibo in the northwest and Valencia in central Venezuela.
The opposition’s leadership called for further protests in communities across Venezuela on Friday, a white-clad “silent” march in Caracas on Saturday to commemorate the eight people killed during unrest this month, and a nationwide “sit-in” blocking Venezuela’s main roads on Monday.
Protesters blame Maduro — heir of the leftist “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999 — for an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
Maduro says the protests seeking to oust him are backed by the United States.
On Thursday, Maduro said the opposition was ready to begin a political dialogue, which his opponents denied.
“Today they responded in four different ways that they were ready to begin talks,” the president said at an official event.
But the opposition stood firm that the only dialogue possible would be on calling elections.
Henrique Capriles, the former opposition presidential candidate, posted a message on Twitter calling Maduro a “dictator” and a “mythomaniac.”
“No one believes him, however, about dialogue, which the Venezuelans will do with their VOTE!” Capriles tweeted.
Pressure on Maduro has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports have sent the once-booming economy into a tailspin. The crisis has escalated since March 30, when Venezuela’s Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.
Numerous businesses and universities remained closed — some in tacit support of the protests, others for fear of a repeat of the previous day’s violence. Looting erupted amid the chaos Wednesday. In the Paradise neighborhood in western Caracas, looters carted off food and beer from a series of ransacked businesses, residents said.
In poor neighborhoods traditionally loyal to Maduro, some protesters have cited hunger as their reason for joining calls for his ouster.
Caracas – Venezuelan opposition leader and MP Maria Corina Machado criticized on Sunday her country’s President Nicolas Maduro for publicly supporting Iran on the international level.
Machado also accused the current government of forging ties with Iranian terrorist organizations and drug dealers.
Venezuela’s opposition claims to have enough signatures to initiate the first phase towards a referendum which, if the polls are correct, could threaten Maduro’s leadership.
The opposition has been trying to oust the Venezuelan leader for months amid widespread public discontent with Maduro’s government and acute economic problems the country is facing.
The opposition has been collecting signatures in support of a referendum on removing Maduro from office. The first stage of signature gathering has already been completed and the opposition has moved on to the second stage, which requires about 20 percent of voters to give their support to the referendum. If completed, the second stage is followed by the launching of the referendum.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday, Machado said huge numbers of Venezuelan nationals have joined the march in Caracas to call for ousting Maduro.
“This march is an important sign which shows that Venezuelans are ready to face and defeat the regime of dictatorship and proceed towards rebuilding the country,” Machado told Asharq al-Awsat.
Machado went on to say that the opposition has achieved “exceptional results”, noting that the international community has witnessed the huge demonstrations that spread around the country to call for a regime change.
Commenting on the current relations between her government and Iran, Machado said that she has repeatedly condemned some of Venezuelan officials’ relations with extremist terrorist organizations and their opposition to U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran and North Korea.
“This means that the Venezuelan regime is forging relations with non-democratic systems that are rejected by the international community,” the deputy said.
Machado also said that she has called for launching investigations into suspicious relations between her government and Iran, including the activation of some terrorist cells in Venezuela.
Machado said she was optimistic over the opposition march towards building a democratic state in Venezuela, adding that the international community was now well aware of the real situation under Maduro’s regime.
Caracas, Reuters—Opposition activists in the slums of eastern Caracas hope to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, but not by blocking streets or burning tires. They plan to build parks and fix roads to show that the opposition can do more for poor neighborhoods than the ruling socialists.
The capital’s slums have seen hardly a trace of the smoldering barricades and violent demonstrations that have engulfed middle-class areas for over a month in the South American OPEC nation’s worst unrest for a decade.
In the sprawling Petare slum, a hillside maze of red-brick homes and humble shacks that was once a stronghold of support for late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, opposition organizers say the rock-throwers are missing the point.
“We don’t want violence or blocked streets; that’s not how we’re going to get rid of this president,” said Junior Pantoja, a municipal councilman who works in Petare with opposition party Justice First.
“We’ve won over more ‘Chavistas’ than you can imagine. How? By working. That’s more effective than marching.”
In Petare and other slums that dot the hillsides on the far east of Caracas, many see the unrest as a revival of street protests that began 12 years ago as a failed effort to dent the appeal of the charismatic Chavez, who died of cancer last year.
Petare, made up of hundreds of neighborhoods that run from groups of zinc shacks to humble but ornate homes, has been an example of how the opposition can use clear-headed public policy to challenge the government even in poor areas.
An opposition mayor won the district in 2008 by tapping into discontent with the socialist incumbent and consolidated support by paying attention to problems in poor communities.
That marked a change in approach for the opposition after years of attempting to force Chavez from office with a bungled coup, a two-month oil industry shutdown, and virulent verbal attacks on the president and his supporters.
Many poor Venezuelans say they support peaceful demonstrations against soaring inflation and chronic product shortages. But they also say protests have intruded on their daily lives and are doing little to weaken Maduro.
Food shortages have worsened as blocked roads and constant public order disruptions have crimped deliveries.
As barricades close streets and protests shut or reroute bus services, slum residents who already face formidable commutes now find themselves spending more time in transit.
“For me, the opposition is damaging its own people with all these barricades,” said Jose Guevara, a 44-year-old repairman in Caucaguita, a hilltop neighborhood of tall but dilapidated apartment buildings up the hill from Petare.
Guevara said that despite being an ardent Maduro supporter he backs opposition mayor Carlos Ocariz because he has worked to fix street lamps, collect garbage and improve roads.
Though protests have unleashed partisan animosity in middle-class areas, slums such as Petare are often models of coexistence where neighbors treat political differences as no more significant than being fans of rival sports teams.
Residents reached a colorful compromise when painting the steep staircase leading to Pantoja’s house, alternating between red and yellow to include the colors of both the ruling Socialist Party and the opposition Justice First party.
“I don’t understand all this confrontation. I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Pantoja, who plays on a neighborhood bocce ball team that crosses political lines.
“Do you think those people are my enemies because they think differently?”
Maduro supporters and government critics in his neighborhood also occasionally square off for friendly games of “chapita,” a form of improvised baseball in which a batter with a stick tries to hit a bottle cap pitched by the opposing team.
Petare, originally a 17th-century colonial haçienda, steadily filled with squatter settlements during the 20th century until it became a dense maze of narrow streets with a population that ranges from working class to destitute.
While the more affluent parts have paved roads and abundant commerce, the more recent settlements are little more than shacks and dirt paths where power lines hang precariously from logs or pruned trees.
“I don’t agree with them doing all those marches out there in the street because, in the end, what’s the point?” asked Rosmely Florian, 39, a housewife, standing at the door of her humble home in a particularly poor settlement called Mariscal Sucre.
She said the only help the community has received is a concrete bridge being built by the municipality across a gully to the neighboring community.
Opposition hardliners such as Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed last month for spearheading the national protests, say street demonstrations are the only option because state institutions are so degraded as to make democratic change impossible.
Maduro’s supporters say the opposition is seeking to destabilize his government through violent disruptions of public order that have damaged public spaces and endangered lives.
The protests kicked off in earnest in mid-February after three people were killed after an opposition rally in Caracas.
Since then, they have been a combination of peaceful marches and violent melees with hooded youths throwing Molotov cocktails, barricading streets, and burning trash.
Police and national guard fire back teargas using what the government says is great restraint, but critics denounce as brutal repression, citing countless cellphone videos of unarmed protesters being beaten or roughed up.
The nightly demonstrations in the plaza of the upscale Altamira district appear to have eased after the National Guard took control of the area this week. The clouds of tear gas have been replaced with peaceful gatherings and even performance art.
Many still view this as a distraction from more pressing issues including shortages of staples such as corn flour, cooking oil and milk that government critics say are the biggest threat to socialism.
“The store shelves are bare, people can’t find food and they spend all day in lines—why do we need so many protests if people are realizing by themselves that the system doesn’t work,” said Ana Castro, 33, a municipal worker in Caucaguita.
“I don’t agree with this violence that’s destroying the few good things we have left.”
Geneva, AP—United Nations human rights experts demanded answers Thursday from Venezuela’s government about the use of violence and imprisonment in a crackdown on widespread demonstrations.
Six experts with the UN’s top human rights body wrote to the administration of President Nicolas Maduro about allegations of protesters being beaten and in some cases severely tortured by security forces, and taken to military facilities, cut off from communication and denied legal help, UN officials said.
“The recent violence amid protests in Venezuela need to be urgently and thoroughly investigated, and perpetrators must be held accountable,” the experts said in a joint statement.
The six experts—special rapporteurs Frank La Rue, Maina Kiai, Mads Andenas, Juan Méndez, Christof Heyns and Margaret Sekaggya—report to the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council, based in Geneva.
The Venezuelan economy’s downward spiral helped trigger a wave of protests against Maduro in mid-February that has claimed more than a dozen lives.
Also Thursday, Julieta López, a Swiss-based aunt of Venezuela’s top opposition leader Leopoldo López, told reporters at the UN in Geneva that he is being held in isolation at a military prison more than an hour from the capital Caracas, where he sleeps on the floor of a tiny cell.
She said her nephew faces a variety of false criminal charges but hopes his imprisonment will help “awaken Venezuela.” Maduro has accused López of being behind the violence and leading a “fascist” plot against the government.
“Leopoldo is in prison to defend the democratic rights of our country,” she told reporters in Spanish. “And if it is democratic, then we should be able to protest peacefully.”
On Monday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and defended the government’s actions before the Council.
Jaua said 18 people had died in the student-led protests and 73 people remained in custody, “and only in three cases is it believed that this is due to illegal acts by police and which need to be brought to trial.”
Ban told reporters that he urged Venezuelan authorities to respond to the protests with dialogue, not violence.
Caracas, Reuters—Venezuela geared up on Tuesday for commemorations of socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s death despite continued protests against his successor that have shaken the OPEC member and threatened the legacy of “El Comandante.”
Even as students maintained a few barricades in some cities and activists held new rallies, President Nicolas Maduro’s government was making lavish plans to honor Chavez on Wednesday’s anniversary of his death from cancer.
Maduro, who announced Chavez’s death in tears to a shell-shocked nation on March 5 last year, has made preserving Chavez’s controversial legacy the guiding force of his presidency despite opposition from about half of Venezuelans.
The president was to preside over a military parade in Caracas on Wednesday, followed by a ceremony at the mausoleum housing Chavez’s remains on a hilltop shantytown.
Maduro, 51, narrowly won election in April 2013 to replace his mentor but has seen economic problems worsen, made little headway against violent crime, and faced street protests since early February in the nation of 29 million people.
Those demonstrations have brought Venezuela’s worst unrest in a decade, with 18 people killed as demonstrators have faced off with security forces and Maduro supporters.
Yet there appears to be little chance of a Ukraine-style change at the top, given that numbers on the street are not massive, the military appears to remain behind Maduro, and opposition leaders are not winning over ‘Chavistas’ in poor areas.
The current crisis has, though, exposed genuine discontent among Venezuelans on all sides, with the highest inflation in the Americas, shortages of products from toilet paper to milk, and violent crime rates among the worst in the world.
“We were better off with Chavez. Maduro has to work harder because if not, the people who elected him will be the people who end up getting rid of him,” Evelyn Vegas, 53, a housewife, said in a state-run supermarket.
That comment echoed a common sentiment among ‘Chavistas’, who remain loyal to Maduro since that was Chavez’s dying wish, but are far from thrilled with his government.
Critics say it is irrelevant to be remembering Chavez and spending money on a military parade when Venezuela has so many pressing problems to resolve.
Students continued to block some streets in Caracas and other cities, most notably San Cristobal in western Tachira state, on Tuesday in what has become their modus operandi for permanent demonstration, despite annoying many residents.
“Let’s fill the streets with our protest!” said student leader Juan Requessens, organizing the latest march in Caracas on Tuesday, where hundreds were gathering.
Many Venezuelans were on the road on Tuesday, returning from beaches after a long weekend for Carnival that took some of the heat out of the protests and clashes of recent weeks.
Venezuela’s troubles have caught international attention, with calls for dialogue from the Vatican to the White House.
Various celebrities have weighed in too, mostly to criticize Maduro, with a mention even occurring at the Oscars.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, who met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Geneva on Monday, said Venezuela was the victim of an international campaign to ignore social gains under Chavez and Maduro and paint the government as a dictatorship.
“It’s a well-designed campaign,” he told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
“They’re using, as spokespeople, world-famous artists who barely know where Venezuela is, let alone the reality of our country, and our democratic political process.”
Chavez enjoyed high popularity throughout his 14-year rule, winning a dozen national elections thanks to his charisma, humble roots that appealed to the poor, and liberal use of the OPEC nation’s oil revenues to finance slum welfare programs.
Opponents, though, say he bullied opponents—some of whom were jailed or went into exile—and ruined Venezuela’s economy by squandering an oil revenue boom, crushing the private sector, and sticking stubbornly to failed statist policies.
“Maduro tries to sell himself as the heir to Chavez, but he is just a bad copy,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in an interview.
“What we see now are the desperate kicks of the drowning man, who’s trying to appeal constantly to sentiment over Chavez to justify the failure of his own government.”
Caracas, Reuters—A Venezuelan court ordered the arrest on Thursday of opposition leader Leopoldo López on charges including murder and terrorism linked to street protests that resulted in the deaths of three people the day before.
Using “The Exit” as a slogan, the US-educated López has for two weeks helped organize sporadic demonstrations around the country to denounce President Nicolás Maduro for failing to control inflation, crime and product shortages.
The president accuses him of sowing violence to try to stage a coup similar to the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted late socialist leader Hugo Chávez, though there is little indication that the protests could topple Maduro.
“There you have the face of fascism!” Maduro said in a speech to the nation on Thursday night, showing photos and video of López at Wednesday’s protest in the capital, Caracas, some of the footage set to doom-laden music.
“I tell these fugitives from justice: give yourselves up! . . . They should go behind bars,” Maduro thundered, saying both the intellectual authors of the violence and those who fired shots had been identified by authorities.
Despite the government’s strong words and a brief visit by police to the headquarters of his Popular Will political party, López, 42, was not arrested on Thursday.
Colleagues said he spent the day with advisers at his home in the same wealthy eastern district of Caracas where he was once mayor.
After Maduro’s late-night speech, López took to Twitter and challenged the president to have him arrested.
“Thanks for all your shows of solidarity. I’m fine. I’m still in Venezuela and I’ll stay in the streets. Strength!” López tweeted.
“@NicolasMaduro: don’t you have the guts to arrest me? Or are you waiting for orders from Havana? I tell you, the truth is on our side.”
Speaking to Reuters on Wednesday, shortly before a court upheld a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office to order his detention, the opposition leader blamed armed government supporters for firing on peaceful protesters.
“The government is playing the violence card, and not for the first time. They’re blaming me without any proof,” he said.
“No more blood”
While many Caracas residents stayed home on Thursday, there were sporadic student protests around the city.
Some groups of demonstrators blocked streets and burned tires. Bands of motorcyclists roamed the streets.
And opposition supporters in the wealthier suburbs east of the capital banged pots and pans from windows in a traditional form of anti-government protest in some parts of Latin America.
“We want solutions to problems, not endless confrontation and violence,” said student Manuel Armas, 19, outside the Alejandro Humboldt University, where around 200 protesters waved banners saying “No More Blood.”
Scores of government supporters gathered outside the Public Prosecutor’s Office building that was vandalized on Wednesday, chanting pro-Maduro slogans and denouncing “fascist violence.”
Coming almost a year after the death of Chávez, the unrest has been the latest demonstration of the OPEC nation’s polarization and the deep mistrust between both political camps.
Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union activist who has staked his presidency on maintaining Chavez’s Leftist legacy, said further protests would not be allowed.
Government supporters would march in Caracas on Saturday, he said.
Wednesday’s fatalities were Juan “Juancho” Montoya, a community activist from a militantly pro-government neighborhood in the poor west end of Caracas; Neyder Arellano, a pro-opposition student; and Bassil Dacosta, who was identified by fellow protesters as a student but by Maduro as a carpenter.
Some 66 people were injured and 70 arrested after Wednesday’s violence, officials said.
Some protesters, many with their faces covered, threw stones and lit fires in the streets.
Bolivia, Cuba and Argentina, three of Venezuela’s fellow Leftist political allies in the region, sent messages of support to Maduro’s administration.
“Cuba condemns the coup intentions . . . organized by fascist groups,” the statement from Havana read.
The protests have exposed rifts within the opposition leadership, with some favoring a more moderate approach and saying marches that turn violent only play into the government’s hands as it accuses them of being “saboteurs.”
Sporadic political protests have become common over the last decade, but they usually fizzle out within days as residents grow tired of blocked streets and the smell of burning tires.
Opposition moderates note that their biggest successes, such as turning pro-Chávez strongholds into opposition territory, came from leaders stepping away from theatrical street protests to focus on daily issues for voters such as poor services, widespread corruption and one of the world’s worst murder rates.
Caracas, Reuters—Venezuela’s second massive power outage of the year plunged much of the nation into darkness on Monday night, prompting renewed talk of sabotage from President Nicolás Maduro’s government and cries of incompetence from its foes.
Power went off in Caracas and other cities around the country soon after 8 pm local time, to the intense annoyance of residents and commuters.
“I feel so frustrated, angry and impotent,” said sales adviser Aneudys Acosta, 29, trudging through the rain along a street in the capital after having to leave the disrupted underground transport system.
“I live far away and here I am stuck under the rain. Something’s going wrong that they’re not sorting out. The government needs a Plan B. This is just not normal.”
Monday’s outage appeared similar to a massive September 5 blackout that was one of the worst in the South American OPEC member’s history.
Maduro—a 50-year-old former bus driver who narrowly won a presidential election this year after the death of his mentor and former leader Hugo Chávez—accused the opposition then of deliberately sabotaging the power grid to discredit him.
His powerful ally and National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, repeated the same accusation after Monday’s blackout that affected more than half of Venezuela.
“I have no doubt that today’s electricity sabotage is part of the right-wing’s plan,” Cabello said on Twitter.
In some wealthier parts of Caracas, where opposition to the socialist government is strongest, people began banging pots and pans out of their windows in a traditional form of protest.
Some shouted, “Maduro, resign!”
Venezuela has been suffering periodic electricity cuts around the country since 2009, although the capital has been spared the worst outages.
Critics say the power problems symbolize the failure of the government and its 15 years of socialist policies in resource-rich Venezuela. The country has the world’s largest crude oil reserves and big rivers that feed hydroelectric facilities generating two-thirds of its power.
The blackouts, some due to planned power rationing and at other times to utility failures, have not affected the oil refineries, which are powered by separate generator plants.
State oil company PDVSA said its installations were all working normally on Monday night, with fuel supplies guaranteed.
Electricity Minister Jesse Chacón said the same major transmission line that went down in September—and carries about 60 percent of national supply—had again been affected.
Power began returning to most parts of Caracas within an hour or two, though remoter parts of the nation of 29 million people were still in the dark late into the evening.
“We ask Venezuelans for patience,” Chacón said.
Maduro was giving a live address on state TV when he was abruptly cut off. He later Tweeted that he was continuing to work in the presidential palace despite the “strange” blackout, and appeared live on state TV surrounded by school children.
“Be strong against this electrical war that yesterday’s fascists have declared against our people,” Maduro said in another address to the nation at about 11 pm local time.
Security services were on alert, while the oil industry had been “put on emergency”, the president said.
Since winning office in April, Maduro has accused political opponents of conniving with wealthy businessmen and their allies in the United States to undermine his government.
As well as accusing them of sabotaging the power grid, he has alleged plots to assassinate him and to destroy the economy through price-gouging and the hoarding of products.
Venezuelans are suffering from a 54 percent annual inflation rate, as well as scarcities of basic products from flour to toilet paper. Nationwide local municipal elections on Sunday are seen as a major test of Maduro’s standing.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said government officials’ bellicose statements were “pathetic” at a time of national disquiet. “For once in your lives, be responsible,” he Tweeted.
Capriles and others say the reasons for the power failures are obvious and simple: lack of investment, incompetence and corruption within the state-run power company Corpoelec since Chávez’s 2007 nationalization of the sector.
Venezuela has a maximum generation capacity of about 28,000 megawatts and normal demand of about 18,000.
The government constantly chides Venezuelans, however, for wasteful habits in a nation where the average household consumes an average of 5,878 kilowatt hours per year, about double the average in Latin America.
Caracas, AP—Venezuela’s National Assembly on Tuesday stripped an opposition lawmaker of her immunity from prosecution in a case of alleged corruption, clearing the way for the legislature to grant the president special power to enact laws by decree.
President Nicolás Maduro has said he will use the extra authority to intensify actions against opponents and businesses that he says are waging “economic war” trying to destabilize the South American country.
As a result of the assembly’s vote, which was widely expected, lawmaker Maria Aranguren will have to step down while she faces prosecution on what she says are trumped up embezzlement charges.
Aranguren, who broke with the late President Hugo Chavez’s government in 2012, will be replaced by a lawmaker more in line with the government’s wishes, likely giving the president the crucial 99th vote he needs to ensure passage of the decree powers.
Maduro last week deployed troops to take over several appliance stores nationwide and slash prices that have soared in recent weeks as inflation heated up to an annual rate of 54 percent. At a pro-government rally Tuesday he vowed to extend price caps to motorcycles and car parts.
The president also said he would soon present evidence showing that the US Embassy in Caracas is plotting to disrupt his rule.
Maduro in September expelled the top US diplomat in Caracas and two other US Embassy officials for allegedly conspiring with conservative opposition groups. The US rejected the allegations.