Venezuela’s hardline protesters learn from other demonstrations
After three weeks of clashes, anti-government demonstrators say lessons learned from Ukraine and Egypt have helped them hone their skills
Venezuelan protesters ripped a dead tree from a vacant lot and dragged it down the street to rebuild a barricade in a Caracas neighbourhood that has become an epicentre of unrest.
Others in masks grabbed shields made out of aluminium siding or television satellite dishes, ready for another night of throwing rocks and firebombs at riot police who lob tear gas or fire buckshot.
After three weeks of clashes, hardline anti-government protesters say they honed their skills through battle experience, lessons from comrades in another opposition bastion and by watching internet videos of clashes in places such as Ukraine and Egypt.
This battle-hardened group, which has numbered in the hundreds on some nights, has ignored calls by opposition leaders to keep protests against President Nicolas Maduro peaceful.
They use giant slingshots to fling rocks. They try to burst motorcycle tyres by throwing miguelitos – rubber hoses spiked with nails.
They blast paint at the windows of water-cannon trucks. Masks made out of plastic bottles are stuffed with a rag dipped in vinegar to counter the effects of tear gas.
“We have everything except guns,” said Adam, a 24-year-old university student who refused to give his last name as he held a thick, black log with a handle made out of an empty gas canister.
With a cigarette dangling from his lips, he rested the contraption on his shoulder like a bazooka.
“When the police get close, you grab it like this and swing it,” he said. “We learned how to make shields by looking at other protests” online.
They were at it again on Monday, tossing Molotov cocktails, throwing loud homemade explosives and using the giant slingshot against police who responded with tear gas.
Trash was set ablaze under an effigy of Maduro that hung from a traffic light.
Nobody was hurt this time, but the government says 18 people have been killed and some 260 injured since protests erupted in early February.
These protesters say this is the only way to change a government they blame for a soaring crime rate, 56 per cent inflation and chronic food shortages. Lately, they also accuse the government of violently repressing the demonstrations.
They have set up camp in Plaza Altamira, a longtime spot for opposition protests in the capital’s middle-class Chacao district, refusing to rest despite an extended Carnival holiday week that ends with Mardi Gras today.
The protesters say they have learned much from their comrades in the western city of San Cristobal, where the movement began on February 4 in a protest against crime after a female student was sexually assaulted.
Maduro charges that the protests are a US-backed plot by “fascists” to overthrow his socialist government, just under a year since he was elected to succeed the late Hugo Chavez.
More than 1,000 people have been detained but most have since been released.
The opposition has called for new protests in Caracas today and on Saturday, while the government prepares to commemorate the anniversary of Chavez’s death tomorrow.
In contrast, poorer neighbourhoods of Caracas that are bastions of Chavez loyalists have remained quiet.
The protesters in Altamira say they are now better organised.
The front line is comprised of dozens of the most daring who line up shoulder to shoulder with shields while the back line brings them the rocks or Molotov cocktails.
First aid kits, water and food are kept at the Altamira square.
“With experience, people lose fear,” said Valentina Huamani, an 18-year-old university communications student who is among those at the front line.
“When others see me, a woman, down there, then they join us,” she said, wearing a jacket in the colour of military fatigues.
Before the latest clash, the protesters had gathered in a festive atmosphere, with cars honking in support while a young man showed up dressed like Maduro with a fake moustache.
“The ideas is for more people to join us,” said Jonathan Hinds, a 32-year-old who had to close his travel company. “We aren’t bourgeois, we aren’t oligarchs, we aren’t fascists.”