Thousands of people mourned the passing of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on the first anniversary of his death on Wednesday, while National Guard troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at anti-government activists who pressed on with street protests despite the commemorations.
Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, angrily announced that he would break off relations with Panama, which he accused of being a “lackey” of the US in what he has repeatedly called a conspiracy to topple his government through the daily protests that have left at least 18 dead since the middle of last month.
Maduro said he made the move because Panama asked for the Organization of American States (OAS) to study the situation in Venezuela. Maduro considers the OAS to be dominated by the US government, which has denied his claims that it is acting against Venezuela’s government.
“We don’t accept the interventionism of anyone, because our international policy is a policy of peace, of cooperation, of respect, of the anti-imperialist Latin American union,” Maduro said.
Panama’s foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “astonishment” at Maduro’s action and called his comments “unacceptable insults.”
It denied that the request for the OAS to discuss Venezuela was interference in Venezuelan affairs, saying the proposal had the “sole purpose to assist in bringing together the different actors in that sister country.”
Venezuela is mired in economic crisis and daily anti-government demonstrations, and Wednesday was no exception as protests erupted in at least six cities.
“The National Guard attacked with a lot of fury against the guys and used tractors to violently take down the barricades,” said Mari Marcano, a demonstrator on the tourist island of Margarita.
“They launched a lot of tear gas, shot rubber bullets,” he said.
In restive central Lara state, the leader of a small center-left opposition party, Hector Alzaul Planchart, was shot dead by unknown assailants as he left his party offices in Barquisimeto, media reports said.
Despite the protests, the pomp-soaked anniversary of Chavez’s passing was a time for sadness and nostalgia for many Venezuelans. Thousands gathered at the capital’s parade grounds to honor the socialist leader who died of cancer on March 5 last year.