Anti-government demonstrators clashed with security forces in Venezuela’s capital Tuesday, as pressure mounted within and outside the country for President Nicolás Maduro to quickly restore democratic norms and ease a years-long political and humanitarian crisis.
Protesters – buoyed by the Organization of American States’ Monday-night resolution demanding government reforms – marched toward the National Assembly building in Caracas but were met with riot police wielding pepper spray, tear gas and water cannons. Witnesses told Reuters news service that National Assembly leader Julio Borges and Lilian Tintori, the wife of prominent political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez, were among those hit with pepper spray.
The demonstrators had come out to endorse the opposition-led National Assembly’s scheduled debate Tuesday on unseating Supreme Court justices. Last Wednesday night, the justices announced they’d decided to take control of the legislature – a ruling that some critics characterized as giving Maduro license for a dictatorship. The governments of United States, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru also denounced the ruling.
On Saturday, the Venezuelan court reversed that decision – but, as Reuters news service noted, it left intact new authority for the president to negotiate oil deals without congressional approval.
Days of rage
Demonstrators – both pro- and anti-government – have taken to the streets of Caracas since then.
On Tuesday, Maduro supporters living in a state housing project tossed trash at protesters marching along a wide Caracas avenue, Reuters reported. It also quoted opposition marcher Bernardo Sanchez as saying pro-government gangs with guns "started to shoot in the air." Sanchez said he was hit in the thigh by a bullet.
Tuesday’s street scuffles came hours after the OAS, at an emergency session Monday evening in Washington, approved a resolution condemning the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s decisions as unconstitutional and "incompatible with democratic practice."
The resolution by the OAS’ Permanent Council calls for Maduro’s Socialist Party government to cooperate in regional talks and to respect separation of powers. It calls for restoring democratic norms, by scheduling long-delayed regional elections, releasing political prisoners and allowing humanitarian aid. Especially since petroleum prices began sinking two years ago, the oil-rich country has been beset with rising crime and extreme shortages of food and other basic goods.
Of the OAS' 34 member states, 21 were represented. Seventeen supported the declaration and four abstained: the Bahamas, Belize, Dominican Republic and El Salvador. Venezuela condemned the measure.
In a message broadcast in Venezuela Monday evening, Maduro denounced the organization, saying it "intends to become an Inquisition court to persecute Venezuela.”
"We reject and repudiate the coup d'etat in the OAS," said Maduro, who has accused the “imperialist” United States of working with opposition parties to oust him. He was elected president after Hugo Chavez died in early 2013.
Possible case for The Hague?
On Tuesday, an opposition lawmaker said that unless Maduro quickly responds to the OAS resolution, his critics will press the matter at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
"It is Maduro who has the key in his hand to open the door and solve problems – call for elections, release political prisoners, put in place a humanitarian channel," Williams Dávila Barrio, a member of the National Assembly said in an interview at VOA headquarters in Washington.
Dávila said it was "very important" that the OAS "for the first time clearly put on paper" its expectations for Maduro and his administration to work with the organization in addressing problems.
Otherwise, "you have to take him to court" – the International Court in the Hague, Dávila said of the Venezuelan president. He said opponents are building a case against Maduro, with "several files, several denunciations, several accusations. I believe that all this is part of a set of violations of international criminal law, international humanitarian law."
‘Milestone’ in Venezuela’s history
Like the OAS, the regional trade bloc Mercosur on Saturday issued a statement urging Venezuela to take "immediate concrete measures" to restore separation of powers.
María Corina Machado, an opposition leader and former member of the National Assembly, described the unfolding events as "extremely important."
Speaking in Caracas, she said that "what happened this week in Mercosur, what happened yesterday in the Organization of American States is a milestone in the history of Venezuela, in the fight against dictatorship."
Last week, pro-government National Assembly member Eustoquio Contreras acknowledged in an interview with VOA’s Spanish Service that Venezuela faces a crisis. But, he blamed part of that on political intolerance.
"Nicolás Maduro is a well-intentioned man who is making a great effort to solve the problems," he said.
VOA Spanish Service correspondent Alvaro Algarro contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela, with Vero Balderas and Gioconda Tapia Reynolds reporting from Washington.