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Venezuela protests persist, defying presidential ban: dozens jailed

Source: Reuters - Fri, 14 Feb 2014 16:45 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Ore

CARACAS, Feb 14 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro's government kept dozens of student protesters behind bars on Friday as unrest still rumbled across Venezuela following this week's violence at political rallies that killed three.

Student demonstrators began gathering again in various cities after blocking roads and burning tires into the night to denounce repression of protests as well as a litany of complaints against Maduro from crime to shortages.

Despite a presidential ban on protests, about 200 people converged on Friday morning in Caracas' Plaza Altamira, a heartland of opposition protests in the past.

"We're going to stay out in the streets for the same reasons as yesterday and the day before: inflation, insecurity and a repressive state that refuses to release our colleagues," student Marcos Matta, 22, told Reuters.

Maduro, a 51-year-old former union activist and bus driver, accuses his foes of seeking a coup against him similar to one that briefly toppled his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002.

However, there is no sign the street demonstrations threaten to oust him, nor that the military, whose role was crucial to Chavez's 36-hour unseating, will turn against Maduro.

In a speech late on Thursday night, the president called supporters onto the streets for Saturday, but insisted no more protest rallies would be allowed.

"This is not Ukraine," Maduro said, in reference to months of anti-government protests there in which six people have died.

Opposition activists say 91 Venezuelan protesters remained in jail on Friday, awaiting trial on charges of violence. The government puts the figure at about 70.

Hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, whom the government is calling the "face of fascism" and the intellectual author of the violence, remained in his Caracas home on Friday despite a judge's arrest warrant for him, party colleagues said.

LOPEZ TAUNTS MADURO

He denies the accusations, saying peaceful protests have been infiltrated by provocateurs and attacked by militantly pro-govenrment gangs known locally as "colectivos".

The 42-year-old U.S.-educated economist and leader of the Popular Will party taunted Maduro via Twitter: "@NicolasMaduro: don't you have the guts to arrest me? Or are you waiting for orders from Havana? I tell you, the truth is on our side."

Maduro's foes paint him as a stooge of Cuba's communist government who lacks Chavez's charisma and is leading the economy to ruin by sticking with failed socialist policies.

It was not immediately evident why police had not acted on the arrest warrant to visit Lopez's home, though such action could fuel further protests given the South American nation's current tense climate.

Congress head Diosdado Cabello Tweeted that the "fugitive" Lopez had tickets for a Saturday flight to Bogota, but gave no evidence of that. "You're not going to escape, coward," he said.

Lopez has for two weeks been urging Venezuelans onto the streets in a campaign dubbed "The Exit". He insists he only wants to promote legal change, such as Maduro's resignation or departure via a recall referendum, using peaceful protests.

But their tactics have split Venezuela's opposition coalition, and a radical rump of masked demonstrators have been starting fires, throwing stones and damaging buildings.

Armed, pro-government "colectivo" groups have also joined the fray, with groups on motorbikes buzzing round Caracas and one of their leaders shot dead on Wednesday.

Sixty-six people have been injured in violence around the nation this week, authorities say.

FOREIGN CONCERN

Venezuela's leftist allies around Latin America sent messages of solidarity to Maduro over what they termed "coup" intentions. The European Union called for calm and dialogue.

David Smilde, a sociology professor at the University of Georgia who has studied Venezuela for 20 years, said both sides deserved censure for their handling of this week's events.

"Leopoldo Lopez's calls for peaceful mobilization are disingenuous when his acts seem to be intentionally creating the conditions for unintended violence. He is effectively putting student protestors in the line of fire to further what he sees as the interests of the country," Smilde blogged.

On the other side, the government should be reining in violent groups, he added. "Public security is the government's responsibility and they are coming up tragically short."

Despite stable oil prices that keep dollars pouring into the OPEC member's economy, Venezuela's heavily traded debt has fallen steadily since mid-December on political tension and investor concern over lack of economic reforms.

Venezuelan bond prices have dropped 1.5 percent since Wednesday, when the violence flared up, and are near their lowest level since mid-2012, according to JPMorgan data.

The country's bond yields, which signal investor perception of default risk, are well above 15 percent. That is by far the highest of any major emerging market nation, above Ukraine and Argentina. (Additional reporting by Daniel Bases in New York; Girish Gupta and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and W Simon)

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