Venezuela sees further clashes: Update
Updates with death toll, Tillerson remarks.
Caracas, 19 April (Argus) — Venezuelans awoke to a heavy military presence on the streets today ahead of violent clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and government supporters whose ranks included red-clad oil workers summoned to march.
Two anti-government protesters were killed in today´s ongoing marches, bringing the death toll since the latest wave of protests began on 4 April to eight. The unrest erupted
in response to the supreme court's nullification of the legislature's constitutional powers on 29 March.
Increasingly unpopular Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro this week ordered the immediate deployment of thousands of civilian militia in Caracas and across the country, publicly calling on the faltering Bolivarian revolution's loyalists to defend his government with arms and bloodshed if necessary.
"This is not a time for traitors, treason or vacillaters," Maduro thundered in a 17 April televised speech to a formation of Bolivarian civilian militia in military uniforms.
"If someday you awaken to news that treason and the ultra-right have sought to impose some form of coup d'etat, you must take total power of the republic, insurrection by all of the nation's popular and military forces. Do not doubt even for one second," he said.
Opposition leaders hope today's demonstrations, held on the anniversary of the 1810 Caracas uprising that sparked the independence wars Simon Bolivar led against Spain, will force the government to hold general elections this year.
The government suppressed a 2016 effort to conduct a presidential recall referendum and has all but canceled this year's local elections.
Maduro's deployment of armed Bolivarian militia has alarmed neighboring countries. "We are seriously concerned about the militarization of Venezuelan society," Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday. Colombia is the first stop abroad for many Venezuelans, including desperate migrants seeking food and medicine. Venezuelans have similarly poured across the porous border into northern Brazil.
"The recent actions of the regime to hand out weapons to civilians and urge them toward confrontation are a murderous repressive action that incites violence," Organization of American States secretary general Luis Almagro said yesterday.
In Washington, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said the US is "concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution, and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard nor allowing them to organize in a way that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people. We are concerned about the situation, we are watching and using others, particularly the OAS to communicate the concerns to them."
Today's opposition-led protests are widespread in spite of the regime's efforts at intimidation, the heavy use of tear gas, military roadblocks and the shutdown of metro service into Caracas.
"We know where every opposition leader lives, and where they go and who they meet with," ruling United Socialist Party first vice president Diosdado Cabello had said in recent days.
The regime organized a pro-government rally today in the traditional downtown district of western Caracas where the presidential palace and national assembly complex are located. In a speech late yesterday, Maduro said the opposition was free to march on the eastern side of the capital. But violent confrontations ensued in Caracas and more than a dozen other Venezuelan cities.
Attendance at today's rally was mandatory for all government workers, including more than 100,000 employees of state-owned oil company PdV, an oil union official said.
"Bolivarian militia officials in PdV have been assigned the task of telling all their co-workers that attendance will be taken, and that anyone who does not participate will be blacklisted and fired from the company," the union official said.
PdV "will provide maximum support to the 19 April mobilization, to all oil workers, I'll see you in Caracas!" PdV chief executive Eulogio Del Pino said on Twitter yesterday.
The size of the pro-government rally, where Maduro addressed the crowd, could not be determined from state-controlled television, which aired tight camera shots of regime loyalists.
Upstream and downstream oil operations, already in a deteriorated state because of a lack of investment and maintenance, did not appear to be directly affected by the unrest. Crude exports account for nearly all government revenue.