Venezuelans clean up after violent protests in capital

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Working class neighborhoods in Venezuela’s capital erupted in violence late Tuesday for a second straight night amid fears that demonstrations called by the opposition could spur further violence.

In the Catia district, a few miles from the presidential palace, youths set fire to barricades while shouting for President Nicolas Maduro’s government to fall.

Opposition lawmaker Juan Manuel Olivares, who is also a physician, initially reported that one demonstrator had been killed, but he later walked that back, saying instead that there were five people being treated for bullet wounds at a hospital in Catia, one of whom was in serious condition. The Associated Press was unable to immediately confirm the report.

Videos circulating on social media showed residents in the southern city of San Felix setting fire to a statue of the late President Hugo Chavez, who installed Venezuela’s socialist system and picked Maduro to succeed him.

Opposition leaders, who are calling for nationwide protests Wednesday, have regained momentum in their efforts to confront the socialist president as the once-wealthy oil nation slides into a deepening political and economic crisis, with angry residents heeding the call to action.

On Monday night, Venezuelans barricaded streets in dozens of Caracas areas that haven’t seen such turmoil in years.

Local merchant Carmen Martinez said her neighbors were frustrated by rising costs and a lack of basic goods under the current government.

“The people are going into the streets just for that reason,” Martinez said. “What do you do? Nobody seems to notice us.”

The sound of gunfire was heard in some neighborhoods, while people in others banged pots and pans from their open windows.

The government has accused the opposition of trying to provoke bloodshed. In the western city of Maracaibo, authorities said late Tuesday that security forces seized grenades, a submachine gun and National Guard uniforms from a three-person “terrorist” cell that officials said was planning to infiltrate Wednesday’s march.

“Here we are all in the same holding pen: without light, without water, without medicine, without gas and with an uncertain future,” Juan Guaido, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, wrote on Twitter, calling for nationwide demonstrations and urging Venezuelans to abandon Maduro.

Guaido, a member of the Popular Will party, is also pursuing a campaign to gain the support of the armed forces, which Maduro’s government relies on to suppress unrest.

Dozens of leaders in the international community have joined the chorus calling Maduro’s presidency illegitimate.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday pledged his support for the people of Venezuela who take to the streets against Maduro.

“Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power,” Pence said in a video message. “He has never won the presidency in a free and fair election, and has maintained his grip of power by imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose him.”

The government has accused the opposition of attempting to mount a coup.

The latest turmoil began Monday when a small group of soldiers took captive a captain in charge of a police station in western Caracas and stole a cache of weapons from another outpost. Officials said 25 soldiers were quickly caught at the National Guard outpost 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Miraflores presidential palace, and two more arrests were made at another location.

The same night, another group of heavily armed national guardsmen published a series of videos on social media saying they won’t recognize Maduro’s government, citing Guaido’s call to action.

Minister of Communication Jorge Rodriguez said at a Tuesday news conference that investigators recovered most of the 51 stolen weapons. The 11 still missing are in the hands of the Popular Will party, he said, without offering proof.

“We warn that the nexus has been clearly linked between terrorists in the Popular Will party and those who perpetrated isolated violence yesterday,” Rodriguez said.

On Tuesday, drivers veered around an overturned garbage bin that still smoldered, while dozens of empty tear gas canisters fired by security forces at angry residents littered a nearby street.

Other roads remained blocked by gutted cars and tree branches.

People clustered on sidewalks trying to come to terms with the damage and thinking about what might happen during Wednesday’s protests. The smell of tear gas lingered in the air.

The clash in that neighborhood left a burned ruin of the Robert Serra cultural center, which is named for an important Venezuelan socialist leader who is considered a martyr. It’s unclear who burned the building, but officials say criminals threw gasoline bombs into the center.

Student Jesus Veroes said he was saddened by the violence, but blamed people from outside the neighborhood for the destruction of the center, which was often used by children who go and read.

In a televised address Tuesday evening, Maduro said five people had been detained in connection with the fire and warned, “We’re going to catch them all!”

Rallying supporters before Wednesday’s expected protests, he also accused Pence of trying to overthrow his government by fomenting unrest and said that as a result he would be reviewing the future of U.S.-Venezuela relations.

“Do you want to be a country colonized by the gringos?” he asked the crowd of several hundred seated before him.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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