Venezuela’s Maduro gives ultimatum to protesters amid ‘economic crisis’

He accuses US of pursuing ‘extreme measures,’ including sanctions and assassination; central bank looks to aid economy

A demonstrator clashes with members of the national guard during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on March 15, 2014.
Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela's central bank president acknowledged on Sunday that his country was undergoing an "economic crisis" but said measures like a new market-based currency mechanism would help bring rapid improvements. The announcement came amid continuing street protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Unrest has been fueled by an annual inflation rate of 56 percent and regular shortages of consumer goods.

Late Saturday, Maduro warned protesters in Caracas to clear a square they have made their stronghold or face eviction by security forces.

Plaza Altamira, in upscale eastern Caracas, has been a hot spot of anti-government protests and violence during six weeks of unrest around Venezuela that has killed 28 people.

"I'm giving the Chuckys, the killers, just a few hours," Maduro said, using the name of the murderous horror film doll to describe anti-government demonstrators who have made the normally genteel 1940s square a base of operations.

"If they don't retreat, I'm going to liberate those spaces with the security forces," Maduro added. "They have a few hours to go home ... Chuckys, get ready. We're coming for you."

Students and other protesters have been using the square, in the pro-opposition Chacao district, as a rallying point since a wave of protests started to build in mid-February.

Most nights around dusk, a committed core of several hundred demonstrators has been fighting police and army lines there in an attempt to access a nearby highway and block traffic.

On Friday night, for example, security forces used a water cannon and tear gas in a battle against protesters using stones and gasoline bombs, Reuters witnesses said.

At least a dozen people were arrested, and the noise of the fighting echoed across eastern Caracas for several hours.

In a speech at a military rally, Maduro alleged that right-wingers in the U.S. State Department and Pentagon were recommending extreme measures against the Venezuelan government, including economic sanctions and even his assassination.

"President [Barack] Obama, if this message reaches you, you should know that it would be the worst mistake of your life to sign the authorization of the assassination of President Nicolás Maduro," he said in a high-octane speech recalling his predecessor Hugo Chávez's spats with the United States.

The U.S. government says Maduro, as Chávez did before him, is inventing imperialist threats to distract Venezuelans' attention from their domestic political divisions and economic problems.

But U.S. antipathy to the socialist government has been in evidence since the start of Chávez's rule in 1999, not least in Washington's quick recognition of a brief 2002 coup.

Chávez died from cancer last year, with his protege Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver, winning a vote to replace him.

In addition to the 28 deaths, including supporters of both sides and members of security forces, more than 300 people have been injured — Venezuela's worst unrest in a decade.

More than 1,500 people have been arrested, of whom about 100 are still in jail. They include 21 security officials accused of using excess force.

Maduro says he has survived a "coup" attempt, and he does not look in danger of being toppled by a Venezuelan Spring, with the military apparently still behind him.

But a vocal group of students and opposition political leaders are vowing to stay in the streets until Maduro goes. They were planning a march in Caracas on Sunday to protest the presence of Cuban advisers for Venezuela's armed forces.

As dusk fell on Saturday, there were only a handful of protesters in Altamira Square, but some demonstrators were starting to put up barricades of rubbish on other streets in the area.

Venezuela hopes a new currency exchange mechanism, known as Sicad 2, will temper black-market trading of U.S. dollars and bring inflation to manageable levels. The plan, expected to start this week, has been called a disguised devaluation by opposition leaders, but Wall Street analysts have tended to give the system more positive reviews. 

Al Jazeera and Reuters 

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