Venezuelans seek home care for COVID-19 amid crumbling health system

By Efrain Otero and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan COVID-19 patients are paying doctors to come to their homes due to the high cost of private clinics and hospitals overflowing with patients and often lacking oxygen and medicine, doctors interviewed by Reuters said in recent weeks.

Family members tend to chip in or launch crowdfunding campaigns for infected relatives, said Laura Martinez, a 55-year-old resident of the lower middle-class Las Acacias neighborhood in western Caracas, whose husband and elderly parents were treated at home. Patients who receive home treatment for the coronavirus generally purchase respirators, oxygen tanks and anti-viral drugs.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has said that the country, whose economy is mired in a brutal recession marked by hyperinflation, is experiencing a second wave of the virus. Official data have recorded around 1,000 new cases per day in recent weeks, though many health professionals warn the true toll is likely higher.

As the new wave gathered steam throughout March and April, home care, gained popularity thanks to word of mouth and social media. Such treatment often includes house calls, an option seen as a luxury in many developed countries but rendered cheap in Venezuela by a surfeit of underpaid doctors. Home visits cost $40-$80, depending on the severity of the patient’s symptoms, doctors said.

“It is the economic factor – without a doubt it is much cheaper for a doctor to visit one’s home,” Leonardo Acosta, a 25-year-old doctor, told Reuters in mid-April after a home visit in the capital Caracas.

“The cost of just being admitted to a clinic’s emergency ward is very high.”

Venezuela’s public hospitals frequently suffer from blackouts and routinely lack running water, according to medical associations who stage frequent protests over the inadequate conditions of the public health system.

Private clinics are better equipped but charge at least $1,500-$2,500 per night for inpatient care and as much as $5,000 per night for emergency care to treat acute respiratory problems.

That’s out of reach for the vast majority in a country where monthly minimum wage has not topped $5 in several years.

The information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Patients are able to receive treatment at home as long as they do not require intubation, a delicate process that would require them to be transported to an intensive care unit, Acosta said.

For doctors, performing home visits means getting paid in U.S. dollars and making substantially more than they would in the public health system.

“I’m doing this in part for economic reasons,” said Carlos Hernandez, a 25-year-old doctor who like Acosta recently graduated from the Central University of Venezuela. He is also working in the public health system, as the country requires of recent graduates, but said he has not been paid in four months.

Given the country’s economic crisis, Acosta said he will often provide treatment even when the patient cannot pay in full.

“I understand the situation,” he said.

(Reporting by Efrain Otero, Vivian Sequera and Leonardo Fernandez; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S., EU say they do not recognize Venezuela parliamentary vote

By Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) -The United States, the European Union and more than a dozen Latin American countries said on Monday they would not recognize the results of a parliamentary election in Venezuela, which saw allies of President Nicolas Maduro win a majority.

Just 31% of 20 million eligible voters participated in Sunday’s election, the electoral council said early on Monday, less than half the turnout rate in the previous congressional elections in 2015. The opposition had boycotted the vote, calling it a farce meant to consolidate a dictatorship.

The results nonetheless return the congress to Maduro’s control, despite an economy in tatters, an aggressive U.S. sanctions program, and a mass migration exodus. An alliance of parties called the Great Patriotic Pole that backs Maduro won 68.9% of the votes cast, according to figures published on Monday.

“The United States, along with numerous other democracies around the world, condemns this charade which failed to meet any minimum standard of credibility,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said the election “failed to comply with the minimum international standards,” while a group of Latin American countries including Brazil and Colombia issued a statement saying the vote “lacks legality and legitimacy.”

Earlier in the year, the Supreme Court had put several opposition parties in the hands of politicians expelled from those same parties for alleged links to Maduro – one of the major reasons the opposition had called the vote a sham.

The elections council was also named without the opposition’s participation, and Maduro refused to allow meaningful electoral observation. Maduro allies have said the electoral conditions were the same as a 2015 parliamentary vote the opposition won, and the government paid no heed to foreign criticism.

“Venezuela already has a new National Assembly,” Maduro said early on Monday, in televised remarks that were muted in comparison with his frequent triumphalism. “A great victory, without a doubt.”

The opposition in 2015 won control of the National Assembly in a landslide, but the pro-Maduro Supreme Court blocked even the most basic legislation. In 2017, Maduro supplanted parliament with the creation of an all-powerful parallel body known as the National Constituent Assembly.

Opposition legislators nonetheless used the platform to denounce Maduro around the world for human rights abuses, corruption, and economic mismanagement, proving a constant thorn in the side of the Socialist Party.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido last year also used his role as speaker of the National Assembly to stake a claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate president, on the basis Maduro’s 2018 re-election was rigged, earning the recognition of more than 50 countries including the United States.

Pompeo said on Monday that Washington “will continue to recognize Interim President Guaidó and the legitimate National Assembly.”

Retaking control of the congress will give Maduro few meaningful tools to restart an economy where a monthly salary or pension is often less than the cost of a kilo of meat or a carton of eggs.

It may lend his government more legitimacy to offer oil industry deals to companies willing to risk U.S. sanctions to tap the OPEC nation’s huge oil reserves.

But even traditional allies such as Russia and China, typically the most likely to challenge U.S. sanctions, have shown scant interest in an oil industry hollowed out by years of decay and the emigration of its most talented professionals.

The opposition is calling on sympathizers to participate in a Dec. 12 consultation that will ask citizens whether they reject the results and want a change of government.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago, Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Rosalba O’Brien and Chris Reese)

Univision team deported from Venezuela after Maduro interview

Jorge Ramos, anchor of Spanish-language U.S. television network Univision, shows a video of young Venezuelans eating from a garbage truck, while talking to the media, in Caracas, Venezuela February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela on Tuesday deported a team from U.S. television network Univision after anchor Jorge Ramos said authorities detained them at the presidential palace because President Nicolas Maduro was upset by their interview questions.

The six-person team was held for more than two hours and had their equipment confiscated, Ramos told reporters on Monday evening after arriving back at his Caracas hotel which was surrounded by intelligence agents.

Ramos left the hotel on Tuesday morning guarded by personnel from the U.S. and Mexican embassies while intelligence agents escorted them to Caracas’ Maiquetia airport. They left on a midday flight to Miami, according to Reuters witnesses.

“They didn’t give us a reason” for the deportation, Ramos told reporters as he arrived at the terminal. “They just said to us last night that we had been expelled from the country.”

Ramos, a veteran anchor born in Mexico, told Mexican broadcaster Televisa that Maduro became annoyed when they showed him a video of young Venezuelans eating from a garbage truck, a sign of widespread food shortages across the country.

Maduro faces his biggest political challenge since he replaced Hugo Chavez six years ago, with dozens of countries recognizing his rival Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader. At least seven foreign journalists who flew in to cover the turmoil were briefly detained in January.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said on Monday that the government had previously welcomed hundreds of journalists to the presidential palace, but it did not support “cheap shows” put on with the help of the U.S. Department of State.

(Reporting by Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Carlos Carrillo; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Venezuela’s Guaido declares himself president, Maduro under pressure

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Corina Pons, Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president on Wednesday, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured onto the streets to demand an end to the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a statement minutes later, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.

Demonstrators clogged avenues in eastern Caracas, chanting “Get out, Maduro” and “Guaido, Presidente,” while waving national flags. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several areas. A rally the night before left four people reported dead, an echo of tumultuous riots two years ago.

The opposition has been energized by young congress chief Guaido, who has led a campaign to declare Maduro a usurper and has promised a transition to a new government in a nation suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido, in a speech before a cheering crowd, took an oath swearing himself in as interim president.

“I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end of the usurpation,” he said.

He has said he would be willing to replace Maduro with the support of the military and to call free elections.

The Trump administration told U.S. energy companies it could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week if the political situation worsens, according to sources.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 to another term in office following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a fraudulent. His government accuses Guaido of staging a coup and has threatened him with jail.

ARMED FORCES

Any change in government in Venezuela will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. They have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.

“We need freedom, we need this corrupt government to get out, we need to all unite, so that there is peace in Venezuela,” said Claudia Olaizola, a 54-year-old saleswoman near the march’s center in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.

In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, broke it in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

A 16-year-old was shot to death at a protest on Tuesday in western Caracas, according to rights group Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Three people were shot dead on Tuesday night in southern Bolivar City during a looting of a grocery store that followed a nearby protest, Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera said in a telephone interview.

Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis. His re-election in 2018 was widely viewed as a sham due to widespread election irregularities.

“We’ve come out to support the opposition and preserve the future of my son and my family, because we’re going hungry,” said Jose Barrientos, 31, an auto parts salesman in the poor west end of Caracas.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Alistair Bell)

Venezuelans rush to shop, fill tanks before monetary overhaul

People line up to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine (ATM) outside a Banco Mercantil branch in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Shaylim Castro and Isaac Urrutia

CARACAS/MARACAIBO (Reuters) – Jittery Venezuelans on Friday rushed to shops and lined up at gas stations on concerns that a monetary overhaul to lop off five zeros from prices in response to hyperinflation could wreak financial havoc and make basic commerce impossible.

Shoppers sought to ensure their homes were fully stocked with essentials such as food and dry goods and their tanks full before the measure decreed by President Nicolas Maduro takes effect on Monday.

Inflation hit 82,700 percent in July, according to the opposition-run congress, as the country’s socialist economic model continued to unravel, meaning purchases of basic items such as a bar of soap or a kilo of tomatoes require piles of cash that is often difficult to obtain.

“I came to buy vegetables, but I’m leaving because I’m not going to wait in this line,” said Alicia Ramirez, 38, a business administrator, leaving a supermarket in the western city of Maracaibo. “People are going crazy.”

The change appears unlikely to generate the chaos of December 2016 when Maduro removed the largest note in circulation without providing a replacement for it. That led to protests, lootings and hundreds of arrests as the country was effectively left without legal tender.

Drivers also rushed to fill up on Venezuela’s heavily-subsidized gas, the world’s cheapest at around 2,896 gallons per U.S. penny. Some drivers were worried about paying for gas come Monday as there will be no new legal tender small enough to pay for a full tank.

Maduro also said this month that gas price should be increased, but has not provided a timeframe for the price hike. A half-dozen sources at service stations said they had not been briefed about any changes and were not expecting an imminent rise in prices.

A gas station worker pumps gas into a car at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

A gas station worker pumps gas into a car at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“It’s better to be safe than to try to go out during the weekend and not to find open gas stations… I think people are more sad than angry about this,” said teacher Ana Perez, 50, as she lined up in a station in the once industry-filled city of Valencia.

Maduro, who has said the country is victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries, said the new monetary measure would bring economic stability to the struggling OPEC nation.

But his critics have said the move is little more than an accounting maneuver that would do nothing to slow soaring prices. They blame inflation on failed socialist policies and indiscriminate money printing.

Because many transactions now happen via debit cards over point-of-sale terminals, many worry that the change – which banking industry leaders have said was carried out too quickly – could collapse financial networks.

Maduro has declared a public holiday for Monday when a new set of bills will be introduced with the lower denominations. Internet banking operations will be halted for several hours starting on Sunday evening.

But the primary difference between the upcoming change and Maduro’s 2016 currency decision is that in this instance, most of the current ones will coexist with the new notes for an undetermined period while the new bills come into circulation.

That will in some circumstances leave consumers in the confusing situation of having to use old bills with face value of 1,000,000 bolivars to make purchases valued at 10 bolivars in the new denomination.

Poor Venezuelans without bank accounts have for months been carrying wads of cash to make basic purchases.

Buying one kilo of cheese, worth the equivalent of $1.14 at the most widely used exchange rate, requires 7,500 notes of 1,000 bolivar denomination – a note that was only brought fully into circulation in 2017.

One bar of soap, which sells for the equivalent of $0.53, requires 3,500 of the same notes.

“This is going to be complete disaster, we don’t have information,” said Yoleima Manrique, 42, assistant manager of a home appliance store in Caracas. “It’s going to be crazy for the clients and for us.”

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Tibisay Romero in Valencia; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Diane Craft)

Venezuela’s Maduro defies foreign censure, offers ‘prize’ to voters

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a campaign rally in La Guaira, Venezuela May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro scoffed at international criticism of Venezuela’s upcoming May 20 vote in which he is seeking re-election and offered a prize for those who vote with a state-issued card.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition is boycotting the election on the grounds it is rigged in favor of the 55-year-old socialist incumbent. The United States, European Union and various Latin American neighbors have also slammed it as unfair.

“So they’re not going to recognize Maduro around the world. What the hell do I care?” Maduro said at an election rally in La Guaira, on the coast outside Caracas, late on Wednesday. “What the hell do I care what Europe and Washington say?”

Maduro, who is casting his re-election campaign as a battle against imperialist powers bent on seizing Venezuela’s oil wealth, has only one serious rival: Henri Falcon, 56, a former state governor. Falcon has broken with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the vote, believing anger at a economic crisis will win him votes.

OPEC member Venezuela is in a fifth year of punishing recession, inflation is the highest in the world, oil production is at a three-decade low, shortages of food and medicines are widespread, and millions are skipping meals.

Some polls show Falcon more popular than Maduro, who narrowly won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013.

But the opposition abstention campaign, presence of Maduro loyalists in key institutions including the election board, and vote-winning power of state welfare programs like housing and food giveaways makes a Falcon victory look a tall order.

In his speech, Maduro told supporters that all those who vote showing a government-issued “Fatherland Card,” which is needed to access certain welfare programs, probably would receive “a really good prize.”

He did not give details but critics say that, and other pre-election cash and other bonuses via the card, is akin to vote bribery. Voting in Venezuela is secret but state workers say they are constantly pressured to support the government.

FALCON SEEKS ALLIES

Falcon, a former soldier, has been largely shunned by Venezuela’s best-known opposition leaders but this week received the support of at least one high-profile leader, Enrique Marquez, who is vice president of A New Time party.

He also has been wooing twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles to join his campaign but without success so far. Capriles, and another popular opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, are both barred from standing in the election.

Maduro says Venezuela’s election system is the cleanest in the world but even the official operator of the voting platform, UK-based Smartmatic, denounced fraud in an election last August. Little is known about the Argentine company that has replaced it for this month’s election.

If Maduro does win re-election, attention will turn immediately to whether he plans to use the political breathing space to deepen an internal purge of rivals, and if the United States will carry out a threat to impose oil sanctions.

President Donald Trump’s administration already has imposed some financial and individual sanctions on Maduro’s government, accusing senior officials of rights abuses and corruption.

Pro-boycott opposition activists have been stepping up their campaign in recent days with scattered protests around the country. Numbers, however, have been thin – a far cry from the mass anti-Maduro protests of 2017.

“Those who participate with Maduro in the May 20 farce, including Henri Falcon and (evangelical pastor) Javier Bertucci, have split with Venezuelan patriots and democrats,” an opposition grouping called the Wide Front said in a statement.

“By recognizing false results, they will become a collaborationist opposition recognized by the regime so it can outlaw and persecute democratic society.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bill Trott)

Lootings, scattered protests hit Venezuelan industrial city

A general view of the damage at a mini-market after it was looted in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela January 9, 2018.

By Maria Ramirez

CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – A second day of lootings and scattered street protests hit the Ciudad Guayana in southeastern Venezuela on Tuesday, as unrest grows in the once-booming industrial city plagued with food shortages and a malaria outbreak.

At least five food stores were looted overnight, with police sources saying some 20 people had been arrested. Angry Venezuelans also blocked three major roads to demand anti-malaria medicine, food, cooking gas and spare parts for trucks.

There has been increasing unrest around the South American OPEC member in the last few weeks as a fourth straight year of painful recession and the world’s highest inflation leaves millions unable to eat enough.

Erika Garcia tearfully recounted how looters ransacked her food shop and home just 10 minutes after National Guard soldiers who had been patrolling the area withdrew late on Monday night.

“They stole everything. They broke off the water pipes, they ripped off the toilet bowl, they took away the windows, the fences, the doors, the beds. Everything. They did not kill us because we ran, but they did beat us up,” said Garcia, 38, who planned to sleep at a relative’s house on Tuesday night

She said there was no way she could reopen her store.

The overnight lootings follow at least four similar in the early hours of Monday. Around 10 liquor stores were also looted on Christmas day in southeastern Bolivar state, according to the local chamber of commerce head Florenzo Schettino.

Critics blame President Nicolas Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party for Venezuela’s economic mess, saying they have persisted with failed statist policies for too long while turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and suffering.

The government says it is the victim of an “economic war” by political opponents and right-wing foreign powers, intent on bringing down Maduro in a coup. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the lootings on Tuesday.

The wave of plunder has spooked many in Ciudad Guyana, leading more people to stay indoors come nightfall and dissuading some stores from opening.

Metal worker Alvaro Becerra lives near a store that was ransacked overnight.

“We lived a night of terror,” said Becerra, 52, adding he heard gunshots and saw people carrying a freezer full of food.

“Today everything is closed. There’s no place to buy. The only people who are working are those who sell vegetables,” he said.

(Reporting by Maria Ramirez; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Venezuela’s Maduro jeered by crowd as unrest grows

Demonstrators clash with riot police while ralling against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas,

By Maria Ramirez and Alexandra Ulmer

SAN FELIX, Venezuela/CARACAS (Reuters) – Angry Venezuelans threw objects at President Nicolas Maduro during a rally on Tuesday, as protests mount against the unpopular leftist leader amid a brutal economic crisis and what critics say is his lurch into dictatorship.

State television footage showed a crowd mobbing the vehicle that Maduro was standing on as he waved goodbye at the end of a military event in San Felix, in the south-eastern state of Bolivar. Amid the commotion, people threw objects at Maduro, who was wearing a traditional Venezuelan suit and a yellow-blue-red presidential sash, while his bodyguards scrambled.

The state broadcaster then halted transmission.

In a separate video shared on social media, voices yelling “Damn you!” were heard as the vehicle apparently transporting Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, tried to make its way through the crowd.

Five males, aged 15, 17, 18, 19 and 20, were arrested for throwing “sharp objects” against Maduro’s vehicle, according to a report by a local National Guard division seen by Reuters on Tuesday night.

Further details were not immediately available. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for information, although Socialist Party officials tweeted that Maduro had been received by a cheering crowd in San Felix.

However, the opposition, which has been protesting in the last two weeks to demand early elections, pounced on the incident as evidence that Maduro is deeply despised amid food shortages and spiraling inflation.

“The DICTATOR only needs to leave Miraflores (presidential palace) to see how the people repudiate him!” opposition lawmaker Francisco Sucre, from the state of Bolivar, said on Twitter amid a flurry of commentary on social media.

“They cannot give a standing ovation to the man responsible for the worst humanitarian crisis in our history!” Sucre added.

The incident drew immediate parallels with last year, when authorities briefly rounded up more than 30 people on Margarita island for heckling Maduro, a rare sight given that the president’s appearances typically are carefully choreographed and show only cheering supporters wearing red shirts.

Videos published by activists at the time showed scores of people banging pots and pans and jeering Maduro during a visit to inspect state housing projects. Authorities later accused opponents of “manipulating” videos.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (2nd L) in San Felix, Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro (2nd L) in San Felix, Venezuela April 11, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

TWO DEATHS

Venezuela’s opposition on Tuesday pilloried what it says is repression during anti-Maduro protests after authorities confirmed a second death in unrest in the last week.

The state prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that a 20-year old man had been fatally shot in the neck on Monday night at a protest in the city of Valencia. Opposition lawmakers said the man, Daniel Queliz, was killed by security forces while he was protesting.

His death comes on the heels of the killing of 19-year-old Jairo Ortiz on the outskirts of Caracas on Thursday in the area of an opposition protest. A police officer has been arrested.

After years of protesting with little results, street action had ebbed until a Supreme Court decision in late March to assume the functions of the opposition-led congress sparked outcry, with condemnation at home and abroad.

The court quickly overturned the most controversial part of its decision. News that the national comptroller on Friday had banned high-profile opposition leader Henrique Capriles from office for 15 years drew broad criticism, too.

Venezuelans have been suffering food and medicine shortages for months, leading many to skip meals or go without crucial treatment.

Opposition leaders announced another round of protests in Venezuela’s more than 300 municipalities for Thursday, saying scattered demonstrations would stretch security forces thin.

Maduro says that under a veneer of pacifism, the opposition is actually encouraging violent protests in a bid to topple his government.

State officials via social media have shown images and videos of demonstrators vandalizing public property and throwing rocks at police.

“Who is taking responsibility for damage to public property and persons?” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on Twitter, posting pictures of demonstrators kicking police officers and breaking into an office of the Supreme Court. “What is their agenda? Terrorism, chaos, death?”

Most of the protesters are peaceful and say street action is their only option after authorities last year blocked a recall referendum to remove Maduro. Local elections, due last year, have yet to be called.

Still, many Venezuelans are pessimistic that street protests will yield any change, while others abstain out of fear of violence or because they are too busy searching for food.

(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Diego Ore; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler)