government suspended constitutional rights Tuesday and imposed a nationwide curfew as riots over price increases ravaged Venezuela for a second day and looting spread.
President Carlos Andres Perez appealed on television for an end to the “incredible tragedy,” which, according to police estimates, has killed up to 50 people and injured 500.
Even as Perez spoke, gunfire was heard in the streets, and rioting and looting continued in the worst violence in 30 years of democratic rule. Authorities said thousands were arrested.
In the eastern shantytown of Petare, battles between police and rioters killed 17 people. Victims were carried down from the hills to major avenues to be taken to hospitals while crowds watched, witnesses said.
Metropolitan Police Inspector Omar Bolivar said the riots were “much worse” than Monday. “Rioters are better armed than we are,” he said. “They have rifles, pistols, revolvers, even submachine guns out there.”
Besides Caracas, rioting and looting quickly spread from Caracas to Valencia, Barquisimeto, Carora, Puerto La Cruz, San Cristobal and Maracaibo. All of those cities were reported to be calm after the curfew went into effect Tuesday night. The casualty tolls there were not known.
Civilians and police exchanged gunfire and shop owners took up arms to protect their property. The Education Ministry suspended school and university classes nationwide.
The curfew was imposed from 8 p.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. today, and from 6 p.m. today to 6 a.m. Thursday.
Army patrols in Caracas patrolled the empty streets as the curfew went into effect. Gunfire and explosions were heard as soldiers and police fought snipers and looters in some neighborhoods in west and east Caracas.
The capital looked like a ghost town, with only ambulances and specially authorized vehicles operating. Army units stood at strategic downtown corners. Rough estimates said up to 10,000 troops may have been mobilized in Caracas.
Among the rights suspended indefinitely by Perez were those allowing public gatherings and freedom of expression and placing limits on police searches and arrests. The last time such a measure was taken was in the 1960s, when Venezuela was plagued by Cuban-backed guerrillas.
The unrest exploded Monday after stiff increases in bus fares and gasoline prices took effect. The increases were part of an economic package that included higher prices for food and basic items.
The price increases, announced two weeks after Perez took office Feb. 2, were required by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for granting Venezuela $1.5 billion in credit.
For 30 years one of the most politically stable countries in South America, Venezuela is now in a deep recession, caused in part by the worldwide decline in the price of oil, its major export.