Troops, vigilantes guard streets after Venezuela unrest
CARACAS - Soldiers patrolled on Monday in areas worst hit by violence sparked by Venezuela’s cash shortage while neighborhood groups mounted street barricades and businessmen raked through their damaged shops.
More than 300 people have been arrested, mainly in southern Bolivar state, after several days of protests and looting over last week’s elimination of Venezuela’s largest currency bill.
A 14-year-old boy was shot dead while dozens of people have been injured and hundreds of stores ransacked.
Some rioters targeted Chinese-owned shops, witnesses said, prompting concern in Beijing.
In response to the mayhem, Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, has postponed the elimination of the 100-bolivar notes until Jan. 2 in order to allow time for new larger bills to enter circulation.
The removal of the 100-bolivar bills, before replacement notes were in place, caused chaos with many people unable to pay for basic goods and transactions in the busy run-up to Christmas.
That heaped hardship onto Venezuelans already suffering scarcities of food and the world’s highest inflation.
In Ciudad Bolivar, capital of the mineral-rich and jungle-covered Bolivar state, residents formed barricades in the streets to protect themselves and shops from further violence.
More than 350 outlets have been ransacked there since Friday, business leaders say. The opposition said there had been five fatalities in Bolivar state, citing a local newspaper investigation, but thous could not be confirmed.
In the Andean highland town of La Fria, in Tachira state, rubble and packages lay strewn on the ground on Monday, witnesses said. Eight Chinese-owned food stores were among the outlets ransacked, the local governor said.
Some local government offices also were attacked, one by arsonists. National Guard soldiers stood watch.
Maduro said the currency measure was needed to fight back against criminals he said are hoarding bolivars to fuel contraband and sabotage his leftist administration. He also accused political opponents of whipping up violence, at the behest of U.S. President Barack Obama, to seek a coup against him.
Washington denies constant accusations of meddling, although government supporters recall U.S. approval of a short-lived coup against Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration.
Opposition leaders say Maduro has only himself to blame for incompetent economic policies that have stirred Venezuelans’ anger. Opponents are now calling for Maduro to resign after having had their push for a referendum to remove him thwarted by election and judicial bodies who seldom go against the government.
The 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister, who replaced Chavez in 2013, has seen his popularity plunge during a three-year recession. His term runs to January 2019.