Violence at parade highlights escalating Venezuela protests

Protesters and police clash in Venezuela
Protesters and police clash in Venezuela

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Protesters and police clash in Venezuela 01:05

Story highlights

  • Protests triggered by economic woes and court decision to disband legislature
  • Court decision reversed, but protests have continued and more are scheduled

(CNN)It was meant to be a moment of celebration, the commemoration of one of the major milestones that led to Venezuela's independence from its Spanish colonizers 200 years ago. Tuesday's bicentennial festivities for the Battle of San Felix included a military parade and the inauguration of a new public square, which filled the streets of Ciudad Guayana.

As night fell, President Nicolas Maduro rode through the city in an open-top Jeep, waving at the crowd while wearing green military garb and the presidential sash. State-run broadcaster VTV showed a livestream of the event on national television.
    Suddenly, President Maduro motioned to cover his head and his security team hopped on the hood of the Jeep. The live signal cut to the image of the newly unveiled statue of local hero Gen. Manuel Piar, but the microphone picked up audio of an agitated woman yelling "wait, wait -- the President was hit."
    Within minutes, videos appeared on social media sites showing another angle. Maduro and his entourage had been pelted by what some identified as eggs and trash. In one video, the man filming can be heard yelling "damn you!" at the end.
    While the scene was unusual, it wasn't surprising. Since the beginning of April, massive protests have formed in the capital Caracas and other major cities calling for Maduro's resignation and for the government to set a date for the delayed state elections. This comes as the country faces a crippling economic crisis, which has nearly bankrupted the oil giant and led to national shortages of food and medicine.

    Bloody protests

    At least four people have been killed and hundreds injured in the wave of violent protests that have rocked the country since April 1.
    In the city of Valencia, 20-year-old student Daniel Alejandro Queliz died Monday when a bullet struck him in the neck during a protest.
    Enrique Moreno, 19, said he was present at what he described as a "peaceful protest" and said he was "just a few meters away" from Queliz when police began to open fire.
    "They (the police) wouldn't stop shooting at us, so we decided to run into one of the nearby residential buildings to hide. I was able to run and, thank God, none of the bullets reached me," Moreno said. "By the time Daniel started running, he had already been hit. I turned around and he asked me for help. I wanted to help, but the bullets kept flying. We tried to tell them a student had been hurt, but they kept shooting at us."
    The office of Venezuela's attorney general said Wednesday that two of the officers involved in the incident have been arrested and are expected to face criminal charges.

    Tear gas from the sky

    Videos released through online channels and social media have shown National Guard officers beating unarmed protesters and air-dropping tear gas from helicopters over the crowd. NBC News reported one of the canisters reached a local hospital, where dozens of people were receiving treatment.
    Venezuela ombudsman Tarek William Saab tweeted: "We reject the method of throwing harmful objects from the sky to disperse protest. There could have been fatal victims."
    In a recorded video statement Monday, Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro spoke against the "repression" and called on the "regime" to allow for peaceful protests. He accused the government of "throwing expired tear gas bombs and far more dangerous than normal canisters, and even using a helicopter to throw them indiscriminately on top of demonstrators."
    "Day after day, the repression worsens in Venezuela," Almagro said. "It is authoritarian to repress protesters who call for democracy."
    News outlets including AFP have shown protesters and so-called "black bloc" groups, who wear black clothing and masks, lighting trash and tires on fire in busy intersections and throwing improvised Molotov cocktails at the soldiers. One clip showed a group disarming a guard on a motorcycle of his rifle and throwing it off an overpass.
    At a news conference Wednesday, leaders of Venezuela's Catholic Church reiterated the call for calm, particularly from pro-government militia groups known as "colectivos."
    "The government cannot continue to protect these groups that are acting illegally," Caracas Archbishop Jorge Urosa Savino said.
    A few hours later, CNN en Español reported, an altercation broke out during the pre-Easter Mass for the Nazarene of St. Paul in Caracas' Santa Teresa Basilica. Images shared on social media showed a group of men trying to attack Urosa. Members of the congregation stopped them, and they were detained by police.

    More protests to come

    As Easter approaches, opposition leaders have issued a new call for protests. The next one is scheduled to take place Thursday, and opposition leaders hope to gather hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country.
    The government has also called for its own rallies. On Wednesday, Maduro supporters gathered in Caracas to commemorate the 15 years since a failed coup attempt against the late President Hugo Chavez.
    Unlike during the Chavez years, Venezuela's oil wealth has been dwindling. According to the latest data from its central bank, the country is down to its last $10.5 billion in foreign reserves.
    In 2011, Venezuela had roughly $30 billion in reserves. In 2015, it had $20 billion.
    According to the country's recently released 2016 financial report, about $7.7 billion of its remaining $10.5 billion of reserves is in gold. To make debt payments in the past year, Venezuela shipped gold to Switzerland.
    Massive government overspending, a crashing currency, mismanagement of the country's infrastructure and corruption are all factors that have sparked extremely high inflation in Venezuela. Inflation is expected to rise 1,660% this year and 2,880% in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund.
    The economic instability has led to a humanitarian crisis that has led to shortages of food and medicine and polarized the country.
    This latest round of protests erupted shortly after the Supreme Court stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers, a move that was quickly reversed by Maduro but that led to massive criticism both nationally and abroad.
    Venezuela's opposition is ultimately calling for new presidential elections after an attempt for a referendum was squashed by the government late last year.