Protesters sprawled in lawn chairs, worked on maths homework and played cards on main roads around Venezuela’s cities, joining in sit-ins to disrupt traffic as the latest slap at the socialist government. Thousands shut down the main road in Caracas to express their anger with the increasingly embattled administration of President Nicolas Maduro.
They turned the road into a kind of public plaza, with protesters settling in for picnics, reading books and reclining under umbrellas they brought to protect against the blazing Caribbean sun. In the provinces, protests turned deadly.
The public prosecutor announced that 54-year-old Renzo Rodriguez was killed by a gunshot to the chest on Monday at a protest in the plains state of Barinas. In the mountain town of Merida, state worker Jesus Sulbaran was fatally shot in the neck at a pro-government rally. In addition, five people were injured at the Merida protest, Venezuela ombudsman Tarek William Saab said.
The two killings raised to 23 the number of deaths linked to unrest that began almost a month ago over the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the opposition-controlled congress of its powers. The Caracas gathering was largely peaceful, though some protesters wrapped bandanas around their faces and threw stones at police, prompting state security forces to release a cloud of tear gas.
Juan Carlos Bautista passed the afternoon playing dominoes. “We want to be free. I’m here fighting for my children and my children’s children,” he said. The current wave of protests is the most intense the economically struggling country has seen since two months of anti-government protests in 2014 that left dozens dead.
But while those protests were led by young people who built flaming barricades in the street, this month’s movement is attracting masses of older protesters, who say they are fighting not for themselves, but for the younger generations. Protesters in at least a dozen other cities staged sit-ins, with some building barricades to stop traffic. In Caracas, protesters dragged concrete slabs, garbage and even a bathtub into the road.
Retired professor Lisbeth Colina said she decided to participate in the sit-in for her grandchildren.
“The side that gives up is the side that loses,” she said. “We must remain in the streets. I’m not scared of the repression they’re throwing at us,” she said.
As the sit-ins disrupted traffic, Mr Maduro’s administration announced that it had no plans to expropriate General Motors’ Venezuelan subsidiary. A court last week ordered the seizure of a GM plant and the company responded by shuttering its operations in the country. Both the US State Department and the government said previously that the case involved a longstanding lawsuit against GM by a former dealership in Venezuela.
Mr Maduro said on Sunday that he would not give in to opponents and again urged them rejoin negotiations they broke off in December. Former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez came to Caracas on Monday to meet with Mr Maduro. He had backed last year’s negotiations, which collapsed over the government’s refusal to meet opposition demands for elections and the release of political prisoners.
But opposition leaders had no plans to meet with Mr Maduro. They are rejecting calls for dialogue and demanding the immediate scheduling of elections. “The government wants to use negotiations as a ploy to divide us, demobilise us, and win itself time,” congress vice president Freddy Guevara told reporters. “This protest is an exercise in resistance and a test of our conviction.”