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In Venezuela, middle class joins protests

Venezuelan demonstrators chanted harangues against the government.

LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan demonstrators chanted harangues against the government on Monday.

SAN CRISTÓBAL, Venezuela — As dawn broke, the residents of a quiet neighborhood here readied for battle. Some piled rocks to be used as projectiles. Others built barricades. A pair of teenagers made firebombs as the adults looked on.

These were not your ordinary urban guerrillas. They included a manicurist, a medical supplies saleswoman, a schoolteacher, a businessman and a hardware store worker.

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As the National Guard roared around the corner on motorcycles and in an armored riot vehicle, the people in this tightly knit middle-class neighborhood, who on any other Monday morning would have been heading to work or taking their children to school, rushed into the street, hurling rocks and shouting obscenities. The guardsmen responded with tear gas and shotgun fire, leaving a man bleeding in a doorway.

“We’re normal people but we’re all affected by what’s happening,” said Carlos Alviarez, 39, who seemed vaguely bewildered to find himself in the middle of the street where the whiff of tear gas lingered. “Look. I’ve got a rock in my hand and I’m the distributor for Adidas eyewear in Venezuela.”

The biggest protests since the death of longtime leader Hugo Chávez nearly a year ago are sweeping Venezuela, rapidly expanding from the student protests that began this month on a campus in this western city into a much broader array of people across the country. On Monday, residents in Caracas, the capital, and other Venezuelan cities piled furniture, tree limbs, chain-link fence, sewer grates and washing machines to block roads in a coordinated action against the government.

Behind the outpouring is more than the litany of problems that have long bedeviled Venezuela, a country with the world’s largest oil reserves but also one of the highest inflation rates. Adding to the perennial frustrations over violent crime and chronic shortages of basic goods like milk and toilet paper, the outrage is being fueled by President Nicolás Maduro’s aggressive response to public dissent, including deploying hundreds of soldiers here and sending fighter jets to make low, threatening passes over the city.

LUIS ROBAYOLUIS ROBAYOAFP/Getty Images

Cars were set on fire during a protest against the government in San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira.

On Monday, the state governor, who belongs to Maduro’s party, broke ranks and challenged the president’s tactics, defending the right of students to protest and criticizing the flyovers, a rare dissent from within the government.

Polarization is a touchstone of Venezuelan politics, which was bitterly divided during the 14-year presidency of Chávez, Maduro’s mentor. But while Chávez would excoriate and punish opponents, he had keen political instincts and often seemed to know when to back off just enough to keep things from boiling over.

Now Maduro, his chosen successor, who is less charismatic and struggling to contend with a deeply troubled economy, has taken a hard line on expressions of discontent, squeezing the media, arresting a prominent opposition politician and sending the National Guard into residential areas to quash the protests.

Two people were killed Monday, including a man here in San Cristóbal who, according to his family, fell from a roof after guardsmen shot tear gas at him. There is disagreement on whether all the deaths nationwide cited by the government are directly associated with the protests, but the death toll is probably at least a dozen.

In this neighborhood, Barrio Sucre, residents said they were outraged last week when a guardsman fired a shotgun at a woman and her adult son, sending both to the hospital with serious injuries. In response, the residents built barricades to keep the guardsmen out. On Monday, after guardsmen made an early sortie into the neighborhood, firing tear gas and buckshot at people’s homes, the inflamed and sometimes terrified residents prepared to drive them back.

Across town, Isbeth Zambrano, 39, a mother of two, still fumed about the time two days earlier when the National Guard drove onto the street, where children were playing, and fired tear gas at residents. Now she sat in front of her apartment building, casually guarding a beer crate full of firebombs.

“We want this government to go away,” she said. “We want freedom, no more crime, we want medicine.”

Around her neck, like a scarf, she wore a diaper printed with small teddy bears. It was soaked in vinegar, to ward off the effects of tear gas, in case of another attack.

Unlike the protests in neighboring Brazil last year, when the government tried to defuse anger by promising to fix ailing services and make changes to the political system, Maduro says the protesters are fascists conducting a coup against his government. He has largely refused to acknowledge their complaints, focusing instead on violence linked to the unrest. Here in Táchira state, he says, the protests are infiltrated by right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups and he has threatened to arrest the mayor of San Cristóbal.

Maduro’s stance is mirrored by the intensity among the protesters. While he has called for a national conference Wednesday and some opposition politicians have urged dialogue, the majority of protesters here, most of them longtime government opponents, rejected that option.

“They’ve been mocking us for 15 years, sacking the country,” said Ramón Arellano, 54, a government worker, while a burning refrigerator in the street behind him blotted out the sky with a cone of black smoke. “A dialogue from one side while the other turns a deaf ear, that’s not fair.”

ORLANDO PARADAORLANDO PARADA/AFP/Getty Images

Activists prepared to throw a firebombs at National Guard troopers in riot gear during a protest in San Cristobal.

Like most of the protesters here, Arellano said he wanted a change of government. Protesters say that could be achieved by having Maduro resign or by removing him through a recall election or changes to the constitution.

Maduro says he will not leave office, and he continues to have wide support among those loyal to Chávez’s legacy.

This state, and especially San Cristóbal, the state capital, are longtime opposition strongholds. The opposition presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, received 73 percent of the vote in San Cristóbal when he ran against Maduro last April.

A city of 260,000, San Cristóbal was almost completely shut down Monday. Residents had set up dozens of barricades around town. In many areas, residents set out nails or drove pieces of rebar into the pavement, leaving them partly exposed, to puncture tires.

In Barrio Sucre, Escarlet Pedraza, 19, showed two motorcycles that she said had been crushed by National Guard troops, who drove armored vehicles over them. She recorded the event on her cellphone camera.

Later, residents burned tires and threw rocks at guardsmen, who advanced and entered a side street, firing tear gas and shotguns directly at the houses.

The guardsmen broke open a garage door in one house and smashed the windshield of a car inside. The house next door filled with tear gas, and the family inside, including two young children, choked in the fumes.

“I’m indignant,” said Victoria Pérez, the children’s mother, weeping. “This is getting out of hand. It’s arrogance, it’s a desire for power.”

A student, his face covered with a cloth, kicked angrily at a house where a pro-government family lives, shouting at them to join the protest. Other residents rushed in to stop him.

Nearby, a neighbor, Teresa Contreras, 53, flipped through the channels on her television, showing how there was no coverage of the violence, a sign, she said, of the government control over the media.

Earlier, Andrea Altuve, 38, a teacher, watched the preparations for the coming battle, with people adding to barricades and children pouring gasoline into beer bottles for makeshift bombs.

“It looks like a civil war,” she said. “They are sending the National Guard into the neighborhoods out of fear.”

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