The 12th of February is a public holiday in Venezuela, created to commemorate the teenagers who fell in the Battle of La Victoria. This year's Youth Day, as the anniversary has been dubbed, bore a few similarities to that bloody battle which occurred almost 200 years ago, during Venezuela’s 1814 War of Independence. Three men, two of them students, were killed in violent clashes with army guards and police, at least 66 people were injured and more than 30 were arrested. Local human rights organizations say that more than 90 protesters have been detained, after supporters of the country's current government and opposition fought on the streets. Four police patrol cars were set on fire and some state buildings were vandalized.
Among those buildings was the main office of the attorney general in the capital of Caracas, where thousands of protesters assembled. Earlier, students had wrapped a long metallic chain around the building, symbolizing the shutdown of Venezuela´s judicial system. Others painted graffiti on one of the adjacent walls, chanting the national anthem and other slogans like, “It will fall, it will fall, this government will fall” and “Yes, we can.”
"I'm afraid – this has turned into a lawless country,” a young bicycle salesman named Joel Osorio told me. He said he was there not to support a political party but to tell the government he'd had enough.
At around 2 p.m., one of the main student leaders, Gaby Arellano, climbed on top of a truck, microphone in hand, and demanded the government release three students who were captured days earlier in other protests. She screamed a tirade against Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz: “Inept, incapable, coward and corrupt, that is what you are!” The crowd around her cheered.
Minutes later, she asked people to leave peacefully but as tends to happen at events like this, not everyone listened. A small group wearing bandanas and hoods threw sticks and stones at the building and clashed with the cops. Reports of bullets being fired at students circulated on Twitter, as well as many pictures and videos of students who'd apparently been wounded in fighting all across the country.
Venezuelan troops from the National Guard and the National Bolivarian Police clashed with anti-government protesters
Later that night, president Nicolás Maduro appeared live on TV during coverage of a military parade. He declared that the riots and clashes were in fact part of a coup d'etat and that he was going after the people that he alleged were the main plotters – the opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado.
López is a former mayor of a wealthy district in Caracas, and Machado has a seat in Congress. They were both presidential candidates in 2012, running in the opposition party´s primary election, though it was won by governor Henrique Capriles – the last political leader to contend with Hugo Chavez before his death in March.
Before dying, Chavez handpicked Maduro to be his successor. The former bus driver turned foreign minister ran against Capriles, and won by less than two points on the April 14 last year. The next day, Capriles' supporters took the streets and called for a recount of votes, alleging a fraudulent election. The government dubbed Capriles a fascist and accused him of ordering the killing of 11 people who died that week in protests. Despite an outcry from his supporters, Capriles urged them not to take action, arguing that Maduro was attempting to lure them into a setup for a massacre. Instead, he insisted on taking his fraud claims to the international courts and out of the streets.
For this, he was criticized by some supporters who said he had ruined whatever momentum the opposition had managed to build up. Although he supports the right of the public to march and protest, Capriles has not promoted these freedoms as strongly as López and Machado, who have touted them as an exit strategy from the current government. Nevertheless, the three political opposition leaders were present at the students' march in downtown Caracas on Wednesday. They all left before violence erupted.
On Thursday morning, intelligence agents arrived at Lopez's party's offices, asking for one of his aides. The government said it had issued arrest warrants against him and other opposition leaders who continue to promote street protesting in the country. During the day, students continued to flood the streets in different cities. In Caracas, people assembled close to where one of the students was shot, and set up posters and flowers to remember him. They drew his silhouette on the ground where his body fell, and wrote, "This is the blood of a Venezuelan hero."
In the afternoon, students took one of the main roads, Avenida Francisco de Miranda, and sat on the ground, forming a giant peace sign at sunset. Julixa Méndez, 24, was there with some friends. She claimed she was a “veteran” because she has been part of the student movement since 2007. She compared the situation back then to the present, and said the main difference was that back then the media would inform the public about what was actually happening. Today, Venezuelans are facing an information blackout.
On Wednesday afternoon, the government ordered the news cable channel, NTN24 off the air, arguing that its coverage was instigating more chaos. Maduro also condemned the Agence France Press coverage of the protests and ordered the Minister of Information to “take measures” against them. It's not the first time the Venezuelan government has acted against the media: Local TV channels and newspapers have in the past been fined for publishing pictures or information deemed as harmful to the government's reputation. Since Maduro came to power he has argued that the media, especially newspapers, are campaigning against him and he often criticizes articles as sensationalist and ridden with lies.
On Tuesday, Venezuelan journalists and the local press marched to protest that they are running out of paper supplies. Freedom of speech advocates say at least 10 newspapers are suffering – some have already stopped circulating, and most say they only have enough funds to be in print for another three months at most. The government has had strict control of the currency since 2003 and decides who can have dollars to import what is needed. One of the top economic officials for the government said newspapers were not a priority.
According to Venezuela's Violence Observatory, more than 24,000 people were killed last year, a murder rate of 79 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. But in Caracas and other cities, like Mérida, people are not just protesting against violence. They are also angry because of shortages and an increasing amount of public spending, that have left the country with an inflation rate of 56 percent and growing debts.
Again, the government's stance is that the current economic crisis is part of a wider conspiracy against Maduro. They announced new laws that will attempt to rein in prices, and have threatened business owners with expropriation. The need to move towards a more socialist economic model is at the core of all their arguments. Many opposition figures claim Maduro is heavily influenced by the Castro brothers in Cuba.
“To march in this country, you need permission,” said Maduro on Wednesday night. Clearly there are many in Venezuela who don't agree with him.