Students clash with Venezuelan government | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 23.02.2014
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Students clash with Venezuelan government

For weeks, students in Venezuela have been protesting against the leftist regime. But the violent clashes are not about bad government - they are about the future of the country.

Vanessa has heard a lot of criticism in the last few days: she is allegedly reactionary and her co-demonstrators henchmen of the US government, spies and traitors. Worst still, she was accused of belonging to a gang of Nazis and fascists bent on toppling Venezuela's leftist government.

Vanessa Eissig is 22 years old and a student in the capital, Caracas. Her ancestors came from a German-Jewish family, some of whom were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. Vanessa knows the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

However, as the pressure mounts on President Nicolas Maduro after weeks of student protests, the more insufferable the Socialist leader's haranguing has become. Maduro curses protesters in his rants, spews threats and urges his supporters to stand their ground in an effort to maintain control of his reeling country. Night after night, he shows that almost anything goes.

Violent clashes

Nicolas Maduro Press conference in Caracas 21.02.2014

In public appearances, President Maduro has called students 'traitors' and 'spies'

Altamira Square in Chacao, one of the better neighborhoods of Caracas: The sun has just set and the first barricades - stacked that afternoon - begin to burn. Motorcycles whiz by in every direction, adding to the chaos. Older residents, in particular, flee the area as quickly as possible - an area that normally is a favorite spot for seniors to wile away the hours.

In their place, more and more students arrive, toting what they will need for the night: water and vinegar, towels and scarves - to combat the tear gas. And they are carrying plastic bottles filled with dirt, gasoline and wicks with torn cloth. Then, the skirmishes begin. Water cannons are aimed at the barricades, and tear gas is shot into the crowds. Blinking red and blue lights can be seen behind the clouds of smoke - and then the shields of the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, the national paramilitary police, appear.

Vanessa is giving an interview as a tear gas grenade lands close by. Demonstrators run away coughing and swearing, only to return minutes later with their home-made Molotov cocktails, which they hurl toward the police. Every time a fire bomb explodes, a surge of cheers and applause ripples through the crowd of protesters. "We have to defend ourselves," says Vanessa dryly.

Defending the future

Venezuela Protests

Protests in Venezuela are growing due to the miserable food situation

Like everyone else out on these streets night after night, Vanessa is convinced that she is doing nothing less than defending her future. Initially, the student protests began as a response to the lack of perspectives for young people and the disastrous food situation in the country. Even basic food stuffs and other articles for everyday life are scarce. One mother explained that she hasn't had any milk for her children for the last three months.

Venezuela, a country with some of the world's largest oil reserves, has to import toilet paper. Even newspapers are struggling to get enough newsprint. To make matters worse, ordinary people are confronted daily with excessive violence. Venezuela has fewer inhabitants than Canada, but a higher crime rate than the United States: 60 murders on a single weekend is nothing unusual in Caracas.

While the Maduro government ignores these grievances, or tries to sugarcoat them, young people, like Vanessa, are fed up and no longer want to live this way. "I went to college and still can't find a job. I want to live in a free Venezuela. I want a family and children. I'm not fighting for a particular party; I'm fighting as a citizen, as a woman," she says.

Many other people in Venezuela think the same way. "They want a better life, more security and better quality," says Yasmin Velasco, a journalist, "and the students are using that to their aim."

And Marco Antonio Ponce, a researcher at the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, notes: "Young people in Venezuela have traditionally been respected and enjoy a lot of support because they represent the future."

No solution in sight

One Venezuela protester has a scarf over his face to protect against teat gas

Young people in Venezuela want a better life

The government, however, is not exactly squeamish about the country's future. After two hours, the national police storm Altamira Square. Screams can be heard through the clouds of tear gas, and demonstrators can be seen ducking into restaurants and doorways.

Many of them are caught and brutally dragged back onto the street and beaten. Many are injured, but at least this time there are no deaths. The infamous "colectivos" - armed motorcycle gangs that do the bidding of the government and indiscriminately shoot protesters - made no appearance on this particular night.

The next day, President Maduro harangues against the "fascist conspiracy" in his country. He orders the renewed arrest of opposition figures, threatens to close critical media and dispatches the military to the provinces to quell demonstrations.

Any dialogue or compromise in divided Venezuela seems to be a long way off. Vanessa and the other students know that they will have to continue protesting for a long time before any changes are made in their country.

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