Venezuela protests turn deadly; Maduro accuses opponents of coup plot

President Nicolas Maduro banned street demonstrations after at least three people died in clashes across the country between protesters and government supporters.

CARACAS, Venezuela -- In the wake of civil unrest that left three dead and scores injured in the Venezuelan capital and other cities on Wednesday, President Nicolas Maduro said he would order the arrest of opposition leaders who he claimed were plotting an overthrow.

Maduro’s comments at a military parade in the northern Aragua state Wednesday night came after violence erupted in the capital, Caracas, between tens of thousands of student demonstrators and armed supporters of the government who, according to observers, fired into crowds, causing stampedes and chaos.

“We’re facing an evolving coup d’etat, and the Bolivarean revolution will triumph,” Maduro said in an address broadcast on national television.

Maduro said he had authorized the arrest of former ambassador Fernando Gerbasi and retired navy Vice Admiral Ivan Carratu. News reports Thursday said a local judge had signed an order for the arrest of former Caracas borough mayor and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

The students were protesting the high cost of living, rising insecurity and inflation. Opposition leaders, including Lopez and National Assembly member Maria Corina Machado, had urged their followers to march peacefully.


Witnesses said vigilantes arrived on motorcycles to harass the marchers, and that some fired indiscriminately into crowds. On Thursday morning, Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz said that of the 61 reported injured, 17 were police and other public officials. There were 69 arrests.

Two of the dead were identified as student Bassil Alejandro da Costa and Juan Montoya, a member of the pro-government January 23rd Collective.

In addition to Caracas, violent clashes were reported in San Cristobal, Merida and several other cities.

Scarcities of basic foodstuffs, high inflation, violent crime and the collapse in the value of the national currency, the bolivar, have provoked rising discontent in Venezuela. The dollar is trading on the black market for as many as 80 bolivars, more than 10 times the official rate of 6.3 bolivars.

At a news conference Wednesday night, Machado, the opposition National Assembly member, maintained that the demonstrators were marching peacefully and that vigilantes provoked the violence, saying the government “fears nonviolent protest.”

Last summer, Machado was physically attacked on the floor of the Assembly by members of the ruling party founded by Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, and known by its initials, PSUV.

Lopez said he was detained Monday by authorities as he boarded a flight from Caracas to San Cristobal, in the western Tachira state, to participate in opposition meetings. He was later released.

The latest evidence of shortages came from Japanese auto maker Toyota, which said that effective Thursday it was suspending operations indefinitely at its assembly plant in the eastern city of Cumana because of a lack of parts.

“As we have announced in previous statements, we find ourselves in a extremely difficult situation for reasons beyond our control that affect our operational continuity,” the company said.

Special correspondents Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Miami.