Venezuela revolution challenged one year after Chavez’s death

Nation pauses to remember Venezuelan president amid protests against his successor, Nicolas Maduro

A sticker on a car window in Caracas honors late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
John Moore/Getty Images

Followers of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez took to the streets on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of his death, a sad but welcome distraction for his successor, who has faced nearly a month of violent protests.

A year after Chavez succumbed to cancer at the age of 58, his self-proclaimed "son," President Nicolas Maduro, faces a challenge to his rule from an explosion of anti-government demonstrations that have led to clashes with security forces and 18 deaths.

Wednesday's military parade and other events to honor “El Comandante” were a chance for Maduro to reclaim the streets and show opponents that he too can mobilize.

"This anniversary is enormously sad. There's not a single day I don't remember Hugo," Chavez's cousin Guillermo Frias, 60, said from Los Rastrojos village in rural Barinas state, where the pair used to play baseball in the street as kids.

Chavez always said his socialist project would last decades, but even some of his most fervent supporters are having their doubts.

The desperation of Venezuelans is growing, along with the length of the queues outside state-run markets that reflect the economy's downward spiral and helped trigger a wave of protests in mid-February.

"When the head of household is absent, as we say around here, things start to get out of control," said Pablo Nieves, a community leader in the poor 23 de Enero district of Caracas, the capital. "If he were still with us, it would have never gotten to this."

While comrades may laud the man who transformed Venezuela during a 14-year reign by championing its poor, many don't agree with Nieves that Chavez could mend its compounding woes.

And many blame mismanagement by Chavez himself.

The opposition did not call any protests for Wednesday in the capital, though Foro Penal, which provides lawyers for detainees, did announce a march in the central industrial city of Valencia.

In a stalemate, the opposition is struggling to broaden its support base against the socialist government, which rejects it as "putschist" and has been aided in repressing demonstrations by menacing "collectives" of motorcycle-riding thugs. The protesters blame the "collectives" for some of the 18 deaths the government says the unrest has reaped.

More than 1,000 protesters have been detained and 72 people face charges, including eight members of the SEBIN political police.

Maduro's government, meanwhile, has shown itself unable to halt 56 percent annual inflation and crippling currency controls that have fueled a growing scarcity of consumer basics — from milk to flour to cooking oil. The central bank's scarcity index was its highest ever in January, at 28 percent.

This nation with the world's largest proven oil reserves is becoming, to some, as destitute as Cuba, the socialist ally whose economy it helps prop up with oil shipments.

Former import-export and oil executives are driving cabs, while workers from other collapsed industries struggle to find new lines of work.

Hugo Faundes studied culinary arts after being fired from the state-run oil company, PDVSA, for what he said were political reasons.

"Now that I've graduated there's nothing to cook," the Valencia man said with a dark laugh.

Tens of thousands have emigrated, and not just in search of economic opportunities. They flee one of the world's worst violent-crime rates and a health care system nearing collapse.

Students have engaged National Guardsmen in nearly nightly cat-and-mouse street battles since the unrest exploded Feb. 12. They've turned the wealthy Caracas district of Altamira into ground zero, honeycombing its center with debris barricades. But most protesters have been peaceful.

Maduro has tried to engage the opposition in a "peace dialogue," but it refuses, demanding he first release all political detainees, including top opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez; disarm the gangs that menace protesters; and kick out the Cubans it claims pull the strings in the government and military.

The government, in turn, accuses the United States of fomenting the unrest, and kicked out three U.S. diplomats last month. That move followed a pattern: The day Chavez died, it expelled two U.S. military attaches.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has lamented that his government is being blamed for things he says it never did.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, has long praised Chavez's commitment to improving the lives of Venezuela's poor and attended his funeral. But Meeks planned to sit out the commemoration, saying he was "a little nervous" about events in Venezuela.

"There was always opposition, but when there were demonstrations in the streets in the past I never heard of individuals being killed by anybody in the government," he said. "It gives me real concerns as to where the country is headed."

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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