, Caracas, Venezuela, Sep 4 – Most of 30 or so protesters arrested in a rally against President Nicolas Maduro have now been freed, authorities said, after mass demonstrations over Venezuela’s food shortages.
“They have been set free,” Alfredo Romero of the NGO Venezuelan Justice Forum said on Twitter. The exception was apparently a journalist, Braulio Jatar, who released video of protests on social media, Romero said.
The dramatic incidents erupted Friday in the resort city of Porlamar on Venezuela’s Margarita island in the Caribbean state of Nueva Esparta.
The embattled Maduro — whose state-led leftist government is fighting crippling shortages of everything from hard currency to food and toilet paper, had gone to make a speech at the opening of some remodeled public housing.
However, it appeared, based on social media images and reports, that Maduro found himself surrounded by an angry crowd, which followed him closely, banging pots in the street and insulting him.
There were reports of a crack down on the protesters by authorities.
“We are receiving reports of police abuse and unauthorized break-ins from Villa Rosa,” another NGO, Provea, said on Twitter, referring to a neighbourhood in Porlamar.
Communication and Information Minister Luis Marcano wrote on Twitter that the pot-banging “reflects what remains of the right (wing)”, and accused local media of exaggerating the protest.
– Recall a must: Maduro foes –
Opposition leaders criticized the arrests.
“Neither Maduro, bodyguards, nor the Casa Militar (security agency) nor the ministry can avoid the sound of pot-banging in a town that wants a recall election,” tweeted Henrique Capriles, a former opposition presidential candidate.
On Thursday, Maduro’s opponents claimed to have mobilized a million demonstrators in Caracas in the biggest rally in decades and vowed to hold weekly protests to demand a referendum on his ouster.
The government estimated 30,000 people attended.
The rallies come at a highly volatile time for Venezuela, where a plunge in prices for oil exports has led to shortages, violent crime and outbreaks of looting.
Maduro blames the crisis on the collapse of oil prices and an “economic war” by businesses backed by US “imperialism”.
Analysts have warned of a repeat of the deadly 2014 clashes that left numerous opposition leaders in prison.
Venezuela on Saturday named publicly 18 military commanders to oversee the production and distribution of food and basic goods in an effort to alleviate severe shortages affecting the country.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez selected the military personnel for the “Great Mission of Sovereign Supply and Security”, appointments formalized in the state newspaper.
– President in cross-hairs –
The country’s opposition seeks to unseat the leftist president with a referendum, staging this past week a mass demonstration in favor of holding a recall vote.
Despite sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuelans line up at dawn or even overnight outside the nation’s supermarkets, guarded by heavily armed police to battle the growing problem of looting.
Many people resort to purchasing scarce products from “bachaqueros” — black-market sellers who buy subsidized products and sell them at a mark-up.
The government launched in July a new plan against the shortages, putting the military in control of food distribution, the country’s key ports, and of companies and factories.