Protesters back in streets in Venezuela

6:42 PM, Feb 24, 2014   |    comments
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Retired Venezuelan army general Angel Vivas, armed and wearing a flak jacket, walks on his property in Caracas on Feb. 23. (Photo: Juan Manuel Hernandez, AP)



CARACAS, Venezuela (USA TODAY) - Socialist President Nicolas Maduro was trying Monday to gather support for an end to protests against his rule as demonstrations continued to show up in the streets and a governor from his own party lashed out a him for using excessive force.

Residents awoke Monday morning to find barricades of pipes, trash and branches burning in the streets and the sound of banging of pots and pans in support of the protest movement against Maduro.

"We're fighting for our liberty," said Yesenia Alvarado, a 29-year-old architect. "This is brutal but we've got to paralyze the city. Sadly, we have to use these techniques to overthrow the government."

Traffic came to a halt Monday in parts of the Venezuelan capital as opposition protesters continued their campaign of nearly two weeks to demand changes to address rampant crime, food shortages and few jobs. Thousands of protesters were in the streets in the provincial cities of Maracaibo, Valencia, Maracay, La Victoria, and Merida as well.

Thousands of motorcyclists rumbled through the streets of Caracas to a rally set up by Maduro at the presidential palace. Many of the colectivos, or government paramilitaries supporting Maduro, are motorcyclists accused by the opposition of being little more than armed thugs.

Maduro thanked the motorcyclists for their support and said he would continue to need their help.

"Venezuela is facing a Fascist coup d'etat." Maduro said,. "This is being waged by the extreme right."

At least people were reported killed Monday in protests, El Universal reported. A student in the city of Cagua in the central state of Aragua, was shot while protesting in front of a government building. Witnesses said the protest was broken up by armed motorcyclists.

In the southwestern state of Tachira, 33-year-old Jimmy Vargas died from head injuries after a fall. Vargas was on the roof of a building when it came under fire from National Guardsmen.

AT least 13 people have now died since protests erupted earlier this month.

Tachira Gov. Jose Vielma Mora, who belongs to Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, became the first high-ranking loyalist to criticize Maduro over the crisis.

"I'm not part of the regime,'' he said in an interview with Onda Radio. "I was elected by the citizens of Tachira."

Tachira has seen some of the worst rioting among college students. Vielma Mora, who participated in Hugo Chavez's 1992 coup, called for the immediate release of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed after leading a protest.

"I don't think Vielma Mora would have made his statements if he didn't have other Chavistas supporting him,' said Caracas-based historian Margarita Lopez Maya. ''I think this shows that there are those within Chavismo who are calling for dialogue and the respect for human rights."

Opponents of Maduro have been staging countrywide protests since Feb. 12. Several protesters have been killed by gunfire that the government blames on the protests.

Maduro called out the army over the weekend to quell massive protests of students in the eastern part of the country, where Venezuelans say Maduro's authoritarian policies have led to shortages of basic goods and inflation above 50%, among the world's highest, despite the country's vast oil reserves.

Maduro, who came to power 10 months ago after the death of longtime president Hugo Chávez, has called the protesters "Nazi fascists."

In the city's Plaza Altamira, a focal point for opposition unrest, the driver of a pickup was not pleased with the protests.

"I understand why they're protesting but they can't block the roads like this," said José Álvarez, 36, who rammed his pickup truck into the roadblock to the anger of those who had set it up.

"My daughter can't get to her classes. I can't get to work. We need businesses to be open," Álvarez said. "They can have their protests but let me get on with my life."

Drivers of motorcycle taxis and others were also wanting to work but relented to the protesters who replaced the barricade.

The head of the largest opposition party to Maduro, Henrique Capriles Radonski, said he may meet with Maduro and 22 other governors for talks in the country's Miraflores presidential palace. Capriles posted on Twitter that the world was beginning to use the word "genocide" to describe Maduro's actions and called him a "mistake of history."

Capriles narrowly lost a special election in April to Maduro.

Meanwhile, one of Maduro's most outspoken critics continued his armed standoff with security forces Monday.

Retired army general Angel Vivas sported a flak jacket, assault rifle and handgun as he defiantly addressed dozens of neighbors from the balcony of his home in eastern Caracas on Sunday.

"I'm not going to surrender," Vivas, 57, yelled to a crowd of cheering followers.

Supporters rushed to Vivas' defense after he announced to his 100,000-plus followers on Twitter that a group of "Cuban and Venezuelan henchmen" had come looking for him. The officers withdrew after the crowd built barricades outside Vivas' house. Vivas' lawyer said they didn't have an arrest order.

Maduro ordered Vivas' arrest for allegedly encouraging students to stretch wire across streets where they've set up barricades in recent weeks.

Vivas, one of the government's fiercest critics, resigned as head of the Defense Ministry's engineering department rather than order his staff to swear to the Cuban-inspired oath "Fatherland, socialism or death."

Girish Gupta and Peter Wilson, Special for USA TODAY

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