Venezuelan protests continue, despite Carnival holiday

Protesters bring their grievances to the beach as opposition and government remain at a standstill

An anti-government protester holds up a sign as she takes part in a march in Caracas, March 2, 2014.
Jorge Silva/Reuters

While many Venezuelans went to the beach to enjoy Carnival, thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched in Caracas on Sunday, trying to maintain the momentum from weeks of protests demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro.

He sought to break the pattern of the protests by declaring a seven-day holiday weekend to coincide with Carnival, and by promoting the sale of government subsidized food at government-run markets.

"Happiness will conquer the embittered," Maduro said in a TV appearance at a recreation center. "The Venezuelan people have won because happiness and peace have conquered."

Government leaders urged Venezuelans to skip the protests and make their traditional trips to the beach during the Carnival holiday. Images of packed beaches and smiling holidaymakers filled broadcasts by state-run television.

That didn’t stop opposition marchers who ranged from students to senior citizens from filling a square in eastern Caracas to protest on Sunday even though Saturday night had been the first evening in 16 days when the wealthy, opposition Chacao district where Sunday's march ended was not shrouded in tear gas from pitched battles between young protesters and security forces.

As the confrontations resumed Sunday, they had an almost choreographed dynamic. Protesters, many of them teens, showed up with beer boxes full of Molotov cocktails and shields made of aluminum siding, handles fashioned from garden hoses. National Guardsmen protected themselves not just with plastic shields but also with semi-permanent chain-link barricades. Protesters wore heat-resistant gloves on their throwing hands to hurl tear gas canisters back at guardsmen.

Two people were wounded by shotguns, the district's mayor, Ramon Muchacho, tweeted.

Elsewhere in Venezuela, protesters have similarly maintained burning barricades in cities from Valencia in the industrial heartland to Merida and San Cristobal in the west. But there are no signs that Maduro, who says the protests are part of a U.S.-backed coup plot, could be ousted in a Ukraine-style overthrow despite widespread discontent with soaring inflation and chronic product shortages.

"We have nothing to celebrate at the beach," said Carlos Torres, 34, an engineer in Caracas. "Going on vacation would give credence to the government's version that there's nothing going on."

Many of those who went to the beach brought their politics.

People packed the small beach of La Morena, about 25 miles northeast of the capital city of Caracas. While some took dips in the turquoise Caribbean waters, others relaxed with a beer. The smell of fried fish wafted in the air, and children rolled in the sand.

The reggaeton pop music blasting at full volume failed to drown out the discussions about inflation, violent crime, and the political differences that divide Venezuelans and have fed the unrest. Many people said they were fed up with crippling inflation, shortages of food and medicine, unchecked violent crime and government mismanagement of the economy in a nation with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

"We're never going to stop talking about this," said Carlos Rivero, a 32-year-old security guard with a shaved head and tattooed arms who was visiting from Caracas with his wife.

"Wherever you go, whether it's good or bad, people are always talking about politics."

The unrest evolved from sporadic regional protests into nationwide movement after three people were shot dead following a Feb. 12 march. At least 17 people have been killed in the South American nation's most violent unrest in a decade.  The unrest is Venezuela's worst since President Hugo Chavez died of cancer a year ago and the opposition came within a hair of winning the presidency in April's election, but it remains to be seen if it will spread to include the lower classes who benefited from Chavez's generous social welfare programs.

The protests have led to international calls for nonviolence.

The U.N. said on Saturday that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would meet Monday in Geneva with Venezuela's foreign minister, who also will speak to the U.N. Human Rights Council about the recent weeks of violent student-led protests in his country.

The U.N. human rights chief called Friday for the Venezuelan government to respect peaceful assemblies and expressed concern about the use of excessive force against protesters.

Al Jazeera and wire services

Venezuela timeline

Protests challenge the political system built by Hugo Chávez and inherited by Nicolás Maduro

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