About 2,000 defiant students again hit the streets of the Venezuelan capital on Thursday to protest against the leftist government, in the biggest challenge to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro since he took over from the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez last year.
The US said it was “troubled” and “concerned” after rival demonstrations on Wednesday turned deadly, prompting Maduro to order the arrest of a senior opposition figure and declare that he would not be overthrown in a coup.
However, students demonstrated in Caracas for a second day on Thursday, shouting: “Who are we? Students. What do we want? Freedom.”
Students, backed up by the opposition, are ratcheting up the pressure on Maduro, calling for immediate action on rampant crime, inflation and shortages of basic goods.
His government urged people to demonstrate in “anti-fascism” rallies, but only a handful of supporters turned up.
Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who ran against Maduro in last year’s elections, said a coup was out of the question.
“Expressing yourself is not a coup d’etat,” he said.
“We will channel discontent, but I will not lie to you, the conditions are not right for the departure of the government,” he told reporters in condemning Wednesday’s clashes between anti and pro-government protesters.
A pro-government demonstrator and two student opposition protesters died in the unrest, which led to a security crackdown in cities across a country where the economy has been battered by inflation of more than 50 percent a year.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Venezuelan authorities to “promptly and impartially” investigate the violence, while the US State Department said: “We are troubled by the violence associated with the February 12 protests.”
“We are deeply concerned about reports that the Venezuelan government has recently detained scores of anti-government protesters, and of a warrant being issued for the arrest of opposition leader and Voluntad Popular founder, Leopoldo Lopez. We urge all parties to avoid violence,” the department added.
HRW Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco said of Wednesday’s clashes: “What Venezuela urgently needs is for these killings to be investigated and the killers brought to justice, no matter their political affiliation.”
The government ordered the arrest of Lopez, 42, according to El Universal newspaper, which published a photo showing the arrest warrant.
Lopez, a former mayor of one of Caracas’s five municipalities and now a prominent opposition figure, is accused of homicide and conspiracy.
At least 80 people were detained in Wednesday’s protests, including a photographer and reporter covering the demonstration, the journalists union said.
And Colombian news channel NTN24, which had been featuring the protests in depth, was abruptly pulled off the air.
Venezuela — with an institutionally socialist government dependent on oil revenues in a state-led system — sits atop the world’s largest proven reserves of crude.
Yet its economy has gone from bad to worse amid shortages of hard currency, while dwindling supplies of consumer goods have frustrated even some government supporters.