The biggest protest against President Nicolas Maduro's year-old administration turned violent.
After widespread clashes between Venezuela’s security forces and opposition groups on Wednesday left at least three dead and more than 60 wounded, international observers have started calling for a “transparent” or independent investigation looking into the killings.
Voices as varied at U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the Organization of American States (OAS) and Human Rights Watch have all condemned the violence in Venezuela, with international pressure on the administration of President Nicolás Maduro to investigate the killing of the three protestors growing. The identity and political leanings of those killed, however, is still being questioned, with both the government and opposition forces blaming each other for the violence.
The protest is evidence of growing popular frustration with the economy’s 56 percent inflation, rampant crime and what many see as the Maduro government’s continuing assault on political freedoms
“The problem in Venezuela right now is that the government is not taking the stabilizing, responsible course of action by investigating the killings,” Chris Sabatini, the senior director of policy at the New-York based think tank the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) told Fox News Latino. “Instead it is trying to turn the situation for its own political motives.”
Top Venezuelan officials on Thursday blamed prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López for the violence and local media reported that an arrest order had been issued for him, accusing the right wing politician of murder and terrorism, among other charges.
Despite chief federal prosecutor Luisa Ortega failing to mention an arrest order in two statements to the press Thursday, several Venezuelan cabinet officials denounced López as the mastermind of what they called a "fascist," U.S.-backed strategy to replicate the unrest that preceded the 2002 coup that briefly removed former President Hugo Chávez from power.
"Nicolás Maduro and his thugs should know that the world is watching, and that they will be held accountable for their cruelty and violations of human rights."
- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio
López, the leader of a breakaway faction of the opposition alliance that is challenging the leadership of two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, hasn't been heard from since a Wednesday night press conference in which he vowed to remain in the streets with protestors.
Supporters said that López was not backing down but instead consulting with aides about the purported arrest order.
Meantime, members of Venezuela’s opposition warned of more government crackdowns and a swirl of rumors are floating around Caracas as to who killed the demonstrators and what their affiliation was.
On Thursday a group of 200 students blocked Caracas’ main highway for two hours before rejoining a larger protest demanding justice for a 24-year old, presumed to have been an anti-government protestor, who was killed on Wednesday.
The president of Venezuela’s National Assembly and a Maduro loyalist, Diosdado Cabello, announced that one of the demonstrators killed in the unrest was 40-year-old Juan Montoya, an ardent supporter of the Chavista movement. Maduro, who took over the presidency following Chávez's death in March 2013, has continued the socialist policies of the former leader – angering many who claim the president is driving the country to economic ruin while drawing the praise of others for advancing social issues.
"They were hunting for [Montoya], a comrade and a fighter,” Cabello told the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal de Caracas. “He was ruthlessly murdered by fascism.”
Analysts argue that one of the main issues that Venezuelans face in finding out the truth behind the killings is the lack of independent media in the Latin American nation.
“There has been a crackdown by the government of the media so people have no clue what is really going on,” Sonia Schott, a political specialist and former journalist at Venezuela’s Globovisión network.
Under both Chávez and Maduro, free press has been severely hindered with television channels being taken off air, newspapers being shuttered and many journalists being left without jobs. The lack of independent media in the country is one reason why the protests are gaining traction.
“The most important question in Venezuela right now is ‘where is the truth?’ Schott said. “The violence could make people stay silent, but the important message is to not stay silent.”
While Venezuelans have been hindered in relaying their message, some in the U.S. and in the international community have voiced their condemnation of the unrest and called on U.S. President Barack Obama to take a more active role in the situation.
“The President and his administration should vigorously enforce all existing U.S. laws to identify and sanction individuals engaging in these human rights violations,” Rubio said in a press release. “Nicolás Maduro and his thugs should know that the world is watching, and that they will be held accountable for their cruelty and violations of human rights.”
So far the Obama administration has made no statement or taken any actions in response to the unrest. During a press briefing on Thursday, State Deputy spokesperson Marie Harf responded to a question about whether the U.S. was funding López’s opposition movement by saying the allegations were “conspiracy theories or rumors” and not true.
“The U.S. response to Venezuela is not serious and does not contribute to diplomacy in the region,” said Larry Birns, the director of the Washington-based think tank, the Council of Hemispheric Affairs. “The U.S. needs to contribute by pressuring Venezuela to conduct an investigation.”
The OAS, the region’s main international body and a longtime target of criticism by countries like Venezuela and its ally, Cuba, called for a “climate of peace” in resolving the unrest and addressing the killings.
“The unfortunate events that Venezuelans experienced on February 12 demonstrate once again that the urgent problems of the country can only be overcome through a broad dialogue within a framework of full respect for the law and coexistence,” OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said.
Despite criticism from abroad, Maduro appeared to have no intention of budging from his firm stance against the protests, threatening to punish severely anyone found to be conspiring against the government and criticizing the international media for what he called a campaign of “manipulation.”
"Nobody is going to come from abroad to pressure or disturb us," Maduro said during an address Thursday night.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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