Venezuela crisis enters pivotal week, Maduro foes protest

Demonstrators clash with riot security forces while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela. The banner on the bridge reads "It will be worth it" . REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Andrew Cawthorne and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition plastered election centers with slogans and rallied in honor of dead protesters on Monday in a final week-long push to force President Nicolas Maduro into aborting a controversial congress.

The unpopular leftist leader is pressing ahead with the vote for a Constitutional Assembly on Sunday despite the opposition of most Venezuelans, a crescendo of international criticism, and some dissent within his ruling Socialist Party.

Critics say the assembly, whose election rules appear designed to ensure a majority for Maduro, is intended to institutionalize dictatorship in the South American nation, a member of OPEC.

But Maduro, 54, whose term runs until early 2019, insists it is the only way to empower the people and bring peace after four months of anti-government unrest that has killed more than 100 people and further hammered an imploding economy.

Knots of opposition supporters gathered at various centers where Venezuelans will vote on the assembly to leave messages, chant slogans and wave banners. “It’s preferable to die standing than to live on our knees!” said one poster at a Caracas school.

“They want to install a communist state in Venezuela, but we’re tired of getting poorer and will stay in the street because we do not want the Constituent Assembly,” said lawyer Jeny Caraballo, 41. “The people are saying ‘No’!”

The opposition, which has now won majority backing after years in the doldrums during the rule of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, also held nationwide rallies in the afternoon in honor of protesters slain during the crisis. Fatalities have included opposition and government supporters, bystanders and security officials.

Mourners gathered in Caracas with rosaries, candles and flags but National Guard soldiers on motorbikes interrupted the ceremony by lobbing tear gas at the crowd.

“The National Guard represses us even when we’re praying for our fallen ones,” opposition lawmaker Delsa Solorzano said on Twitter.

Later on Monday, rights group Penal Forum reported that lawyer Angel Zerpa, one of the new Supreme Court magistrates sworn in by the opposition in defiance of the government, had been charged with treason in a military court. Zerpa, who was first detained on Saturday, has gone on a hunger strike, Penal Forum director Alfredo Romero said.

48-HOUR NATIONAL SHUTDOWN

The Democratic Unity coalition has raised the stakes by calling a two-day national strike for Wednesday and Thursday, after millions participated in a 24-hour shutdown last week.

Young members of a self-styled “Resistance” movement said the moves by the formal opposition were not tough enough, and are threatening armed action. For months, youths have blockaded streets and used slingshots, stones, homemade mortars and Molotov cocktails to battle National Guard troops.

Soldiers have been shooting tear gas canisters straight at the protesters, and also using rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse them in near-daily running battles.

At the weekend, Maduro said his government was “ready for any scenario” and blasted his foes as “terrorists” servile to Washington. “We’re not surrendering to anyone!” he said.

The government has declared election centers “zones of special protection” and planned to deploy more than 230,000 soldiers to keep the peace on Sunday. On Monday, National Guard troops pulled down posters at some election centers to shouts of “murderers” from opposition supporters.

With U.S. President Donald Trump threatening economic sanctions on Venezuela, potentially aimed at the oil sector accounting for 95 percent of its export revenues, Maduro said he could count on “great friends” like China and India if needs be.

But the threat of sanctions on an already vulnerable Venezuela has spooked investors. Venezuelan bonds dropped on Monday on fears about the vote and possible sanctions.

Many families have been stocking up on food in preparation for trouble and shops being closed during a tumultuous-looking week. “It’s traumatic what we’re going through, but if it means an end to this nightmare, it will all be worth it,” said Nancy Ramirez, 33, lining up for rice at a store in Caracas.

Details have been scarce on what Maduro’s Constituent Assembly would actually do, but it would have power to rewrite the national charter – written under Chavez in 1999 – and override all other institutions.

Officials have said it would immediately replace the existing National Assembly legislature where the opposition won a majority in 2015 elections.

Consultancy Teneo Intelligence said the Constituent Assembly would be unlikely to change economic policy or the government’s approach to foreign debt. “This is primarily a political gambit to keep ‘Chavismo’ in power, not an ideological or policy pivot,” wrote analyst Nicholas Watson, in reference to the ruling socialist movement founded by Chavez.

(Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero and Alexandra Ulmer; Additional writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Hay and Bill Trott)

Millions heed anti-Maduro shutdown in Venezuela

riot police versus anti-maduro protesters

By Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – Many Venezuelan streets were barricaded and deserted on Thursday for a strike called by foes of President Nicolas Maduro to demand elections and the scrapping of plans for a new congress they fear would consolidate dictatorship in the OPEC country.

From the Andes to the Amazon, millions joined the 24-hour shutdown, staying at home, closing businesses or manning roadblocks in a civil disobedience campaign the opposition hopes will end nearly two decades of socialist rule. Two young men died in the unrest, authorities said.

“We must all do our best to get rid of this tyrant,” said Miguel Lopez, 17, holding a homemade shield emblazoned with “No To Dictatorship!” at a barrier on a Caracas street devoid of traffic.

Many private transportation groups heeded the strike call, while students, neighbors and activists hauled rubbish and furniture into streets to erect makeshift barriers. The opposition said 85 percent of the country joined the strike.

In some places, however, such as the poor Catia and January 23rd neighborhoods of Caracas, streets and shops were still buzzing, while motorbike taxis replaced buses.

“I have to work to subsist, but if I could, I would strike,” said clothes seller Victor Sanabria, 49, in the southern town of San Felix. “We’re tired of this government.”

In a speech, Maduro vowed some of the strike leaders would be jailed and insisted the action was minimal, with the 700 leading food businesses, for example, still working.

He said opposition supporters attacked the headquarters of state TV and burned a kiosk of the government postal service, but were repelled by workers and soldiers. “I’ve ordered the capture of all the fascist terrorists,” he said, singling out a Caracas district mayor, Carlos Ocariz, for blame.

In clashes elsewhere, security forces fired tear gas at protesters manning barricades. Youths shot fireworks at them from homemade mortars.

Ronney Tejera, 24, and Andres Uzcategui, 23, died after being shot during protests, the state prosecutor’s office said. More than 170 people were arrested by late afternoon, a local rights group said.

DEATHS

Violence during four months of anti-government unrest has taken around 100 lives, injured thousands, left hundreds in jail and further damaged an economy in its fourth year of a debilitating decline.

Clashes have occurred daily since the opposition Democratic Unity coalition and a self-styled youth-led “Resistance” movement took to the streets in April. In the latest fatality, a man confronting protesters was burned to death this week in the northern coastal town of Lecheria, media and authorities said.

Leaders of Venezuela’s 2.8 million public employees said state businesses and ministries remained open on Thursday.

“I’m on strike ‘in my heart’ because if we don’t turn up, they will fire us,” said a 51-year-old engineer heading to work at state steel plant Sidor in southern Bolivar state.

Oil company PDVSA, which brings in 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue, was not affected.

In an internal memo seen by Reuters, PDVSA ordered “all workers to strictly comply with working hours” and stressed that failure to show up would lead to “sanctions.”

“The Constituent Assembly is going ahead!” PDVSA president Eulogio Del Pino said on state TV, referring to Maduro’s plan to create a super-legislature in a July 30 vote to replace the current opposition-controlled National Assembly.

As the PDVSA president spoke he was surrounded by red-shirted oil workers in Monagas state chanting “they will not return” in reference to opposition aspirations to take power.

Some Venezuelans grumbled that Thursday’s strike would cost them money at a time of extreme hardship.

“How can I eat if I don’t work?” said Jose Ramon, 50, chopping bananas and melons at his stall in a market in Catia.

By early evening, the strike seemed far more successful for the opposition than a similar action last year, which had a lukewarm response after Maduro vowed to seize closed businesses.

“The streets are desolate, including close to the dictator,” said opposition leader Freddy Guevara, tweeting pictures of empty avenues including near the Miraflores presidential palace.

“We fill and empty the streets when we choose in protest.”

“SANCTION ME”

Venezuela’s opposition now has majority support and said it drew 7.5 million people over the weekend for a symbolic referendum against the proposed assembly, which 98 percent of voters rejected.

Maduro also faces widespread foreign pressure to abort the assembly, which could rewrite the constitution and supersede other institutions.

The opposition is boycotting the vote, whose rules seem designed to guarantee a government majority in the new congress.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on the dispute this week, threatening economic sanctions if the July 30 vote goes ahead. Individual sanctions could be applied to Maduro allies such as Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino or Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, U.S. officials have told Reuters.

“If they don’t sanction me, I would feel bad!” mocked Cabello at a rally of supporters on Thursday.

As well as a presidential election, Venezuela’s opposition is also demanding freedom for more than 400 jailed activists, autonomy for the legislature and foreign humanitarian aid.

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Diego Ore, Corina Pons, and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas, Franciso Aguilar in Barinas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana, Isaac Urrutia in Maracaibo, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; Editing by Tom Brown, Toni Reinhold)

Opposition seeks to paralyze Venezuela in anti-Maduro strike

Pedestrians walk past a barricade during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Oré

CARACAS (Reuters) – Foes of Venezuela’s unpopular President Nicolas Maduro are calling for a national shutdown on Thursday to demand a presidential election and the abandonment of a new congress they fear would cement dictatorship.

The majority-backed opposition want Venezuelans to close businesses, halt transport and barricade streets as part of a civil disobedience campaign they have called “zero hour” to try and end nearly two decades of Socialist Party rule.

Student and transport groups said they would heed the call and many small businesses vowed to stay shut. Neighbors coordinated blocking off streets and families planned to keep children behind doors in case of trouble.

“I’ve no doubt Venezuelans will paralyze the nation in rebellion,” opposition lawmaker and street activist Juan Requesens told Reuters of the strike planned for 24 hours from 6 a.m. (0600EST) across the oil-producing nation.

“The dictatorship wants to impose an illegal Constitutional Assembly by force to perpetuate itself in power,” Requesens added of the government’s plan for a July 30 vote for a legislative super-body that could re-write the constitution.

Bosses at state-run companies – including oil company PDVSA which brings in 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue – ordered nearly 3 million public employees to ignore the strike. No oil disruptions were expected.

With Venezuela already brimming with shuttered stores and factories amid a blistering economic crisis, even a successful strike would have limited financial impact.

“IT WILL FAIL”

“Most Venezuelans want to work,” Maduro’s son, also called Nicolas and a candidate for the Constitutional Assembly, told local radio. “I’m sure it will fail.”

A similar opposition strike call last year had a lukewarm response, amid government threats to seize any closed businesses. But Maduro’s critics have gained momentum since then.

Anti-government protesters have been on the streets for nearly four months and Maduro faces widespread foreign pressure to abort the Constitutional Assembly which officials have said would replace the current opposition-led legislature.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed into the dispute this week, threatening economic sanctions if the assembly goes ahead. The opposition is boycotting the July 30 vote which has complicated rules seemingly designed to guarantee a government majority despite its minority popular support.

Recalling a 36-hour coup against his charismatic and far more popular predecessor Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president has said his foes are seeking to oust him by force.

Venezuela’s opposition is also demanding freedom for more than 400 jailed activists, autonomy for the legislature, and foreign humanitarian aid. Some 100 people have died in anti-government unrest since April.

(Additional reporting by Franciso Aguilar in Barinas; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Hay)

Israel faces mounting Palestinian anger over holy site metal detectors

Palestinians shout slogans during a protest over Israel's new security measures at the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is weighing whether to remove metal detectors at a Jerusalem holy site whose installation after a deadly attack last week has stoked Palestinian protests, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Thursday.

There have been nightly confrontations between Palestinians hurling rocks and Israeli police using stun grenades in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem since the devices were placed on Sunday at entrances to the Temple Mount-Noble Sanctuary compound.

Tensions remain high ahead of Friday prayers when thousands of Muslims usually flock to al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, in the compound above Judaism’s sacred Western Wall.

Muslim religious authorities, who say the metal detectors violate a delicate agreement on worship and security arrangements at the site, have been urging Palestinians not to pass through, and prayers have been held near an entrance to the complex.

Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas Islamist movement that rules Gaza, called on Palestinian demonstrators to confront Israeli troops along the enclave’s border on Friday in protest at the Israeli measure.

Netanyahu was due to hold security consultations over the issue, and likely decide on a course of action, on his return to Israel later in the day from visits to France and Hungary, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said.

Far-right members of Netanyahu’s government have publicly urged him to keep the devices in place at the flashpoint site, but Israeli media reports said security chiefs were divided over the issue amid concerns of wider protests in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“The prime minister is considering whether to change this decision, and that’s his prerogative,” Erdan said on Army Radio. He described the equipment as a legitimate security measure.

Last Friday, three Arab-Israeli gunmen shot dead two Israeli policemen outside the Temple Mount-Noble Sanctuary complex in one of the most serious attacks in the area in years. The assailants were killed by security forces.

Israel briefly closed the compound, holy to Jews as the site of biblical temples, and install the metal detectors which it said were commonplace at religious sites worldwide.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank, in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, a claim that is not recognized internationally.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.N. urges Venezuela to allow dissent as asylum requests soar

An opposition supporter stands while attending a vigil in homage to victims of violence at past protests against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Venezuela’s government to let people take part in an unofficial referendum on the constitution on Sunday and make sure security forces do not use excessive force against protesters.

Opposition groups have called the plebiscite after months of protests, saying Venezuelans should have their say on President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution.

“We urge authorities to respect the wishes of those who want to participate in this consultation and to guarantee people’s rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell told a Geneva news briefing on Friday.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Venezuela in recent months calling for an end to Maduro’s presidency, amid food shortages, a collapsing currency and soaring inflation.

About 100 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured in anti-government unrest that started in April.

The U.N. rights office has received accounts that “some members of the Venezuelan security forces have used repressive tactics, intimidating and instilling fear, to try to deter people from demonstrating,” Throssell said.

Thousands of demonstrators are reported to have been “arbitrarily detained” and more than 450 civilians are believed to have been brought before military tribunals, she said.

Maduro is seeking to create a new super body called a Constituent Assembly, which would have powers to rewrite the constitution and dismiss the current opposition-controlled legislature, via a July 30 vote.

His opponents have accused the Socialist leader of economic incompetence, while Maduro says pro-opposition businessmen and Washington are waging an “economic war” against him.

Applications for asylum lodged by Venezuelan nationals have “soared”, with 52,000 already this year against 27,000 all of 2016, the U.N. refugee agency said. This represented “only a fraction” of those in need of safe harbor from violence and food shortages.

Venezuelans have sought asylum mainly in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Uruguay, and Mexico, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said.

“UNHCR reiterates its call to states to protect the rights of Venezuelans, particularly the right to seek asylum and to have access to fair and effective asylum procedures,” he said. “Venezuelans should not be send back against their will.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Buoyed by Lopez release, Venezuela opposition rallies for 100th day

Lilian Tintori, wife of Venezuela's opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been granted house arrest after more than three years in jail, poses with supporters outside their home in Caracas, Venezuela July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

By Diego Oré and Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – Galvanized by the release from jail of hardline leader Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuelan opposition supporters on Sunday marked 100 days of protests against a socialist government they blame for political repression and economic misery.

Thousands of people gathered in an east Caracas square to hear opposition figures including the wife of Lopez, Lilian Tintori, speak.

Many protests have ended in clashes between masked youths and security forces, with more than 90 killed, hundreds arrested and thousands injured since the unrest began at the start of April.

“We’re not giving up. That Leopoldo is home fills us with the strength to keep fighting,” said Maria Garcia, a 54-year-old homemaker clad in a white T-shirt bearing his image, as she gathered with friends at the rally.

While Lopez was at home with his two young children, Tintori, who has campaigned for him around the world including during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, said she was relieved to have her husband home but the fight was not over.

“I can’t say I’m happy when we know our country is suffering, when there are children eating out of the trash, when there is no medicine in Venezuela,” she said, surrounded by opposition legislators.

She added that former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez as well as her brother Jorge Rodriguez, another Socialist Party heavyweight, had escorted Lopez to his home at 3 a.m. on Saturday.

PARALLEL ASSEMBLY

Lopez, 46, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in jail on charges of inciting violence during 2014 protests against President Nicolas Maduro that led to 43 deaths.

But he was surprisingly granted house arrest and sent home due to what the Supreme Court called “irregularities” in his case and for health reasons. Lopez looked robust, however, when he later appeared to supporters.

The government seems to be calculating that his return home may ease domestic protests and international censure, but opposition leaders are viewing it as vindication of their strategy and have vowed to step up their street tactics.

For more than three months, tear gas, rubber bullets, rocks and petrol bombs have flown between protesters and security forces in hotspots around the OPEC member nation.

Four years of brutal recession have underpinned the protests, as millions of Venezuelans suffer food shortages, runaway inflation and long shopping lines.

While foes slam him for incompetence and failed socialist policies, Maduro blames an “economic war” against him by pro-opposition businessmen and Washington.

The opposition and government are on a political collision course this month.

The opposition is organizing an unofficial referendum on Maduro next weekend, after which they are promising “zero hour”, a presumed reference to an escalation of tactics that could include a general strike or march on the presidential palace.

Maduro, in turn, is seeking to create a new super body called a Constituent Assembly, which would have powers to rewrite the constitution and dismiss the current opposition-controlled legislature, via a July 30 vote.

Campaigning for the parallel assembly began on Sunday, with red-clad supporters cheering on Socialist Party leaders in Caracas.

“It’s the only immediate path we Venezuelans have to overcome violence, hatred and intolerance,” Rodriguez, the former foreign minister who is running for a seat in the constituent body, said on Sunday in a TV interview.

Maduro’s foes are boycotting the July 30 election, saying it is a sham designed to keep an unpopular leader in power.

(Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and James Dalgleish)

Venezuelan lawmakers beaten, besieged in latest violence

Government supporter promoting violence

By Silene Ramírez and Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Pipe-wielding government supporters burst into Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress on Wednesday, witnesses said, attacking and besieging lawmakers in the latest flare-up of violence during a political crisis.

The melee, which injured seven opposition politicians, was another worrying flashpoint in a traumatic last three months for the South American OPEC nation, shaken by opposition protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

At least 90 people have died in the unrest, with fighting and barricades frequently blocking cities across Venezuela.

National Assembly president Julio Borges said more than 350 politicians, journalists and guests to the Independence Day session were trapped in the siege that lasted until dusk.

“There are bullets, cars destroyed including mine, blood stains around the (congress) palace,” he told reporters. “The violence in Venezuela has a name and surname: Nicolas Maduro.”

The crowd had gathered just after dawn outside the building in downtown Caracas, chanting in favor of Maduro, witnesses said. In the late morning, several dozen people ran past the gates with pipes, sticks and stones and went on the attack.

Several injured lawmakers stumbled bloodied and dazed around the assembly’s corridors. Some journalists were robbed.

After the morning attack, a crowd of roughly 100 people, many dressed in red and shouting “Long Live The Revolution!”, trapped people inside for hours, witnesses said.

Some in the crowd outside the legislature brandished pistols, threatened to cut water and power supplies, and played an audio of former socialist president Hugo Chavez saying “Tremble, oligarchy!” Fireworks were thrown inside.

The worst-hurt lawmaker, Americo De Grazia, was hit on the head, fell unconscious, and was eventually taken by stretcher to an ambulance. His family later said he was out of critical condition and being stitched up.

Downtown Caracas is a traditional stronghold neighborhood for the government and there has been a string of clashes there since the opposition thrashed the ruling Socialist Party in December 2015 parliamentary elections.

In a speech during a military parade for Independence Day, Maduro condemned the “strange” violence in the assembly and asked for an investigation. But he also challenged the opposition to speak out about violence from within its ranks.

In daily protests since April, young demonstrators have frequently attacked security forces with stones, homemade mortars and Molotov cocktails, and burned property. They killed one man by dousing him in gasoline and setting him on fire.

“I want peace for Venezuela,” Maduro said. “I don’t accept violence from anyone.”

FOREIGN CONDEMNATION

Numerous foreign nations repudiated Wednesday’s events.

“I condemn the grotesque attack on the Venezuelan assembly,” tweeted UK ambassador John Saville.

“This violence, perpetrated during the celebration of Venezuela’s independence, is an assault on the democratic principles cherished by the men and women who struggled for Venezuela’s independence 206 years ago today,” the U.S. State Department said.

Venezuela’s opposition is demanding general elections to end socialist rule and solutions to the OPEC nation’s brutal economic crisis. The government says its foes are seeking a violent coup with U.S. support.

Earlier, a Venezuelan police officer who staged a helicopter attack on government buildings in Caracas last week appeared in an internet video vowing to continue fighting.

“Once again we are in Caracas, ready and willing to continue our struggle for the liberation of our country,” police pilot Oscar Perez said in the video, wearing a military uniform and wool cap, with a Venezuelan flag and rifle behind him.

Perez had not been seen since he hijacked a helicopter last week and flew through Caracas pulling a “Freedom” banner. He opened fire and dropped grenades on the Interior Ministry and Supreme Court but nobody was injured.

Maduro, 54, the successor to Hugo Chavez, called that attack a terrorist assault to overthrow him and lambasted Western nations for not condemning it.

But many government critics doubt the official version, and some even suggested it may have been staged to divert attention from the country’s economic and political crises.

In the video, Perez said the attack was “perfectly achieved” with no collateral damage “because it was planned, because we are not murderers like you, Mr. Nicolas Maduro.”

Perez said he had staged an emergency landing on the Caribbean coast following the attack, and returned to the capital after hiking through mountains. The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Perez, who has portrayed himself as a James Bond-cum-Rambo figure on social media, also is an actor who starred in a 2015 movie about the rescue of a kidnapped businessman.

Although he has claimed wider support within the security forces, Perez’s actions so far appear to be a rogue stunt organized by a small group of disaffected policemen.

Venezuela’s opposition says Maduro is seeking to consolidate control through a Constituent Assembly, a superbody that will be elected at the end of July. The opposition has promised to boycott the vote, which it says is rigged in favor of the ruling Socialist Party.

Before the attack on them, opposition lawmakers held a session denouncing the president as a “dictator” and approving a plebiscite that the opposition is organizing for July 16, asking Venezuelans what they think of Maduro’s plans.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by James Dalgleish and Andrew Hay)

Exclusive: At least 123 Venezuelan soldiers detained since protests – documents

Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – At least 123 members of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since anti-government unrest began in April on charges ranging from treason and rebellion to theft and desertion, according to military documents seen by Reuters.

The list of detainees, which includes officers as well as servicemen from the lower ranks of the army, navy, air force and National Guard, provided the clearest picture to date of dissatisfaction and dissent within Venezuela’s roughly 150,000-strong military.

The records, detailing prisoners held in three Venezuelan jails, showed that since April nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.

Most of the remaining military prisoners were charged with theft.

Millions of Venezuelans are suffering from food shortages and soaring inflation caused by a severe economic crisis. Even within the armed forces, salaries start at the minimum wage, equivalent to around $12.50 a month at the black market exchange rate, and privately some members admit to being poorly paid and underfed.

Since the opposition started its protests more than three months ago, a handful of security officials have gone public with their discontent. Last week, rogue policeman and action movie star Oscar Perez commandeered a helicopter and attacked government buildings, claiming that a faction within the armed forces was opposed to Maduro’s government.

The military documents seen by Reuters, which covered detentions until mid-June, appeared to support opposition leaders’ assertions that anger and dissent among soldiers over economic hardship is more widespread.

“This shows low morale and discontent and, of course, economic necessity,” one former army general said of the detentions, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Venezuela’s military and Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Venezuelans view the armed forces as the key power broker in their country. Opposition leaders have repeatedly exhorted military leaders to break with socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro has said that he is the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth. He has said that the top military brass have been standing by him.

The National Guard has been at the forefront of policing protests across the country. It uses tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets against masked youths who in turn hurl stones, Molotov cocktails and excrement at security lines. At least 90 people have been killed since April.

Privately, some National Guard members on the streets have acknowledged being exhausted, impoverished and hungry, though most remain impassive during protests and avoid engaging in conversation with reporters.

“LITTLE RAMBOS”

The documents, which identified detainees by their rank, listed captains, sergeants, lieutenants and regular troops held in three prisons in different parts of Venezuela.

Ninety-one are at Ramo Verde, a hilltop jail near Caracas where opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is also held.

Another two dozen are at Pica prison in the northeastern city of Maturin and eight are at Santa Ana jail in the western state of Tachira, near the Colombian border.

It was not immediately clear if military prisoners were also being held in other jails.

Three lieutenants fled to Colombia and requested asylum in May, and a man who said he was a Venezuelan naval sergeant appeared in a video published by local media last month expressing his dissent and urging colleagues to disobey “abusive” and “corrupt” superiors.

Maduro has blamed the problems on an “economic war” being waged by the opposition with backing from Washington, a position taken in public by senior military officials.

“Many are seeking … little ‘Rambos’ in the armed forces, but you’re not going to find them,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said in a video published on Monday, alluding to speculation of a military coup.

Perez, who staged the helicopter attack last week against the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Court in Caracas, appeared in an online video on Wednesday vowing to keep up the fight.

“We are fully sure of what we are doing and if we must give up our lives, we will hand them over to the people,” Perez said, sitting in front of a Venezuelan flag and rifle.

(Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Cawthorne, Toni Reinhold)

Venezuela prosecutors to question ex-National Guard chief on human rights

FILE PHOTO: A member of the national guard looks on atop a vehicle during clashes with opposition supporters while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s state prosecutors’ office said on Thursday that it is calling in the former head of the National Guard for questioning about “serious and systematic” human rights violations during the recent wave of anti-government protests.

For three months, critics of President Nicolas Maduro have taken to the streets almost every day to protest against what they call the creation of a dictatorship. The protests, which have left nearly 80 dead, frequently culminate in violent clashes with security forces.

Maduro says they are an attempt to overthrow him with the support of Washington.

General Antonio Benavides, who was taken off the job last week after troops under his command were filmed firing handguns at protesters, is to appear before prosecutors on July 6.

“There has been evidence of excessive use of force in the repression of demonstrations, the use of unauthorized firearms … cruel treatment and torture of persons apprehended, as well as raids without warrant and damages to property,” the office said in a statement.

The Government of the Capital District, where Benavides now works, did not answer phone calls seeking comment.

Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who broke with Maduro this year, has condemned the excessive use of force by the National Guard as well as the increasing use of military tribunals to try those arrested in protests.

Government officials and leaders of the ruling Socialist Party have described her as a “traitor,” and the Supreme Court has received a request to have her removed from her post for “serious offenses.”

(Reporting by Diego Oré; editing by Silene Ramírez and Jonathan Oatis)

Venezuela hunts rogue helicopter attackers, Maduro foes suspicious

Demonstrators holding a Venezuelan flag attend a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Andrew Cawthorne and Victoria Ramirez

CARACAS (Reuters) – The Venezuelan government hunted on Wednesday for rogue policemen who attacked key installations by helicopter, but critics of President Nicolas Maduro suspected the raid may have been staged to justify repression.

In extraordinary scenes over Caracas around sunset on Tuesday, the stolen helicopter fired shots at the Interior Ministry and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court, both viewed by Venezuela’s opposition as bastions of support for a dictator.

Nobody was injured.

Officials said special forces were seeking Oscar Perez, 36, a police pilot named as the mastermind of the raid by the helicopter that carried a banner saying “Freedom!”

In 2015, Perez co-produced and starred in “Death Suspended,” an action film in which he played the lead role as a government agent rescuing a kidnapped businessman.

There was no sign on Wednesday of Perez, whom officials condemned as a “psychopath”, but the helicopter was found on Venezuela’s northern Caribbean coastline.

“We ask for maximum support to find this fanatic, extremist terrorist,” vice president Tareck El Aissami said.

The attack exacerbated an already full-blown political crisis in Venezuela after three months of opposition protests demanding general elections and fixes for the sinking economy.

At least 76 people have died in the unrest since April, the latest a 25-year-old man shot in the head near a protest in the Petare slum of Caracas, authorities said on Wednesday.

Hundreds more people have been injured and arrested in what Maduro terms an ongoing coup attempt with U.S. encouragement.

The attack fed a conspiracy theory by opposition supporters that it may have been a government setup and overshadowed other drama on Tuesday, including the besieging of opposition legislators by gangs in the National Assembly.

The helicopter raid also coincided with a judicial measure weakening the powers of dissident chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has emerged as a major challenger to Maduro.

“It seems like a movie,” said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature, of the helicopter raid.

“Some people say it is a set-up, some that it is real … Yesterday was full of contradictions … A thousand things are happening, but I summarize it like this: a government is decaying and rotting, while a nation is fighting for dignity.”

Though Perez posted a video on social media showing himself in front of four hooded armed men and claiming to represent a coalition of security and civilian officials rising up against “tyranny,” there was no evidence of deeper support.

“CHEAP SHOW”

The government, however, accused the policemen of links to the CIA and to Miguel Rodriguez, a former interior minister and intelligence chief under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who recently broke with the government.

“I’m not at all convinced by the helicopter incident,” Rodriguez told Reuters on Wednesday, saying the figures behind Perez in the video looked like dummies and expressing surprise the helicopter could fly freely and also not injure anyone.

“Conclusion: a cheap show. Who gains from this? Only Nicolas for two reasons: to give credibility to his coup d’etat talk, and to blame Rodriguez,” he added, referring to himself.

Around the time of the attack, the pro-government Supreme Court expanded the role of the state ombudsman, a human rights guarantor who is closely allied with Maduro, by giving him powers previously held only by the state prosecutor’s office.

Opposition leaders described that as an attempt to supplant chief prosecutor Ortega, who has confronted both Maduro and the Supreme Court this year after splitting ranks.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday evening said it approved a measure blocking Ortega from leaving the country, freezing her bank accounts, and summoning her to a July 4 hearing to discuss whether she has committed “serious offenses.”

Adding to Venezuela’s tinder-box atmosphere, opposition supporters again took to the streets nationwide on Wednesday to barricade roads.

One opposition lawmaker, Juan Guaido, filmed himself bleeding from wounds he said were inflicted by rubber bullets.

Opposition supporters hope that cracks within government may swing the crisis their way, and have been delighted to see heavyweights like Ortega and Rodriguez oppose Maduro.

Their main focus is to stop a July 30 vote called by Maduro to form a super-body known as a Constituent Assembly, with powers to rewrite the constitution and supersede other institutions. Maduro says the assembly is the only way to bring peace to Venezuela, but opponents say it is a sham vote intended solely to keep an unpopular government in power.

“We can’t let July 30 happen, we mustn’t,” said children’s health worker Rosa Toro, 52, blocking a road with friends. “We’re being governed by criminals, traffickers and thieves,” added lawyer Matias Perez, 40, protesting with a plastic trumpet.

Government officials lined up on Wednesday to condemn the helicopter attack, insisting it was the work of a few individuals and not representative of wider dissent.

Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada complained about the lack of international condemnation of the attack, saying it contrasted with the barrage of foreign criticism of the government.

“In Europe it’s now eight at night, but we’ve not had any reaction from European Union countries,” he said of a bloc that has been strongly critical of Maduro in recent months.

The minister rejected accusations that the attack was carried out by the government for its own purposes.

“Who can believe we are that sophisticated? Sending someone to throw grenades, who can believe that?” he asked.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Silene Ramirez, Brian Ellsworth, Herbert Villaraga, Diego Ore, Corina Pons and Girish Gupta; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Andrew Hay)