Chicago Protesters Speak Out Against Government Violence in Venezuela

Venezuelan opposition leaders condemned the government Thursday for its heavy-handed attempt to subdue a protest movement with nighttime sweeps that have turned many parts of the country into dangerous free-fire zones

Saturday, Feb 22, 2014  |  Updated 3:45 PM CDT
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    Dozens of protesters gathered along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to speak out against government violence in Venezuela and what opposition leaders are calling a “brutal repression.”

    Protesters wearing yellow, blue and red, the colors of the country’s flag, held up signs that read “Venezuela needs your voice against government violation of human rights,” and “S.O.S. Venezuela.”

    Venezuelan opposition leaders condemned the government Thursday for its heavy-handed attempt to subdue a protest movement with nighttime sweeps that have turned many parts of the country into dangerous free-fire zones.

    Police, National Guard troops and members of private militias have swarmed through the streets in the capital and elsewhere firing volleys, at times indiscriminately, in repeated spasms of nighttime violence in recent days.

    Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, said the government has engaged in "brutal repression" as it goes after students and other protesters, in some cases breaking into apartment buildings to arrest those it accuses of taking part in a an attempted coup.

    "What does the government want, a civil war?" Capriles asked at a news conference.

    David Smolansky, a mayor of a district in Caracas and member of the Popular Will party, said the arrest of its leader, Leopoldo Lopez, and aggressive manhunt for two other party members are part of the harshest wave of political persecution in decades.

    "If this isn't a totalitarian system then I don't know what can explain what is happening in this country," Smolansky said.

    President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters, meanwhile, say the escalating protests against his socialist government in the oil-rich but economically struggling country are part of an attempted coup sponsored by right-wing and "fascist" opponents in Venezuela and abroad, particularly the United States.

    Maduro has vowed to crack down on the protests, particularly in Tachira, on the western border with Colombia, where the unrest has been particularly strong. The interior ministry said Thursday it would send a battalion of paratroopers there to the area restore order.

    The announcement came hours after a judge ruled early Thursday that there is enough evidence to hold Lopez, who dramatically surrendered to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters this week, on charges that include arson and criminal incitement stemming from a massive Feb. 12 rally.

    Prosecutors decided not to pursue more serious charges, including homicide and terrorism, when Lopez made a court appearance at a military base outside Caracas as violence flared across much of the country. The 42-year-old politician could face at least 10 years in prison.

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