CARACAS, VENEZUELA – A young man who was taking part in a protest against the Venezuelan government was seriously wounded by gunshot on Wednesday morning. Witnesses told Fox News the protester was laying on a pool of blood with an apparent shot in the neck and another one in the forehead.
The man was rushed to a hospital on a fellow protester’s motorcycle.
“A ‘colectivo’ [pro-government armed group] arrived and started shooting,” the witness said. “People responded with stones. A couple of motorcyclists, both wearing red, shot to the crowd and hit the boy,” said the witness, who requested anonymity.
“Some people left [the march], but most stayed and kept walking, albeit their mood was visibly low.”
The ‘mother of all marches’ kicked off at 10:00 ET from 26 designated points of Caracas, the capital. The different groups had planned to walk peacefully all the way to the Ombudsman’s Office to demand full respect for the opposition-controlled Parliament and an electoral timetable to replace the embattled President Nicolas Maduro.
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In different points of the city protesters were burning effigies of Maduro, the handpicked successor of late President Hugo Chavez whose socialist rule is blamed for the crippling economic crisis.
“Tomorrow begins a new stage of the struggle, which will not
stop until we have elections,” said the opposition leader Henrique
Capriles on Tuesday.
“With its messages and the detention of innocent people, the government is trying to demobilize us, but Venezuelans are going to show the government that we are not afraid,” he said.
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According to local political analyst John Magdaleno, the risks of violence are especially high Wednesday given the government’s response in the past few weeks.
“Faced with higher levels of mobilization, the government is responding with greater doses of repression,” he said. “The government’s message seems formulated in military terms, boasting its power over the Armed Forces and the militia.”
But members of the opposition movement, which includes political leaders, artists, academics and representatives of different labor unions, said they are prepared.
“The government is going to repress the people, perhaps faster than before, and we are prepared for that, without violence. They are the violent ones, we just want to resume the democratic course,” Francisco Marquez, a youth leader with the opposition, told Fox News on the eve of the rally.
He said they will be equipped with Malox (an antacid that reduces the effect of the tear gas), bicarbonate in water, gloves to return bombs and some will wear masks.
“We just want to assert our rights,” he said.
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Wednesday’s events are the culmination of a violent wave of protests started on April 1, triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision to strip the legislature of its last remaining powers.
Six people have died, dozens injured and more than 200 have been detained in the latest spark of violence.
During the past few weeks, security forces have fired tear gas and rubber bullets to block at least five previous attempts to reach the Ombudsman’s Office. Some of the demonstrations were dispersed by police helicopters, while armed groups controlled by the government called “colectivos” have reportedly shot at the crowd.
Wednesday’s protests are not expected to be any different. On Tuesday evening, Maduro activated “Plan Zamora,” a military, police and civilian operation aimed at defeating an alleged coup against him “operated by the U.S. State Department and the Venezuelan right.”
“Attention: Activate the green phase of Plan Zamora to defeat the coup d’etat, the escalation of violence under the military, police and civil structure of the state,” the president said, addressing the Armed Forces in a meeting with the high political and military command.
Maduro also said that the alleged coup was supported by the president of the National Assembly, Julio Borges, adding that Borges must be tried for calling for the coup in an intervention he made earlier on Tuesday at the national assembly.
In addition to “Plan Zamora,” President Maduro is counting on the “unconditional support” of hundreds of thousands militiamen — civilians loyal to the government who have been handed Russian rifles for the “defense of the country.”
Congressman Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Chavista leader, has warned the opposition demonstrators won’t reach their destination and announced a counter rally of more than 60,000 motorcyclists that will make their way from Petare, east of the city, to downtown Caracas. Along the route, there will be a couple of exit points that will intersect with the opposition rally.
“They won’t enter Caracas, don’t provoke us,” Cabello warned. “Be careful if, we may go there (to the opposition protest).”
But the opposition coalition Table of Democratic Unity (MUD) is not caving in, and reiterated its call to take part in the massive march. In a statement, MUD said the government is coming up with “the imaginary wars and nonexistent conspiracies.”
Maduro late Tuesday accused the U.S. State Department once again of trying to promote a military intervention. He’s expected to address supporters at a rival march.
Alex Vasquez is a freelance reporter living in Caracas, Venezuela.