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Birthplace of Venezuela demos becomes barricade city

A man walks by a barricade set up by anti-government activists in San Cristobal, Tachira state, on March 6, 2014
A man walks by a barricade set up by anti-government activists in San Cristobal, Tachira state, on March 6, 2014

Barricades made of burning trash, metal fences, tree stumps and washing machines block several streets in the western city where Venezuela's protest movement was born.

It is no longer just students who are building barriers in San Cristobal. Doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers and retirees fed up with the government of President Nicolas Maduro have joined the action.

They are angry at the massive lines at supermarkets lacking flour or toilet paper.

They are tired of being afraid at night because motorcycle gangs roam the streets. They are furious at the national guard's crackdown and arrests of protesters.

One month after the first demonstration, the defiant students and residents of this opposition stronghold warn that they will keep up pressure until Maduro listens to their grievances or steps down.

"This is the epicenter of the bomb that made everything explode," said Liscar Depablos, a 22-year-old medical student from Los Andes University. "This will not stop."

Students first protested here on February 4 after the attempted rape of a young woman. The muscular police response led to more protests that eventually spread across the country.

At least 20 people have died since then in Venezuela. More than 1,000 protesters were detained, but most have since been released.

- 'Like Ukraine' -

The barricades across San Cristobal were initially built to block riot police and armored cars after the first protest erupted on February 4.

Zulay Molina (L), 37, and her three children, wait for the opening of a 'Bicentenario' chain government market in San Cristobal, Tachira state, on March 7, 2014
Zulay Molina (L), 37, and her three children, wait for the opening of a "Bicentenario" chain government market in San Cristobal, Tachira state, on March 7, 2014

But many residents in the city of 260,000 are now blocking streets to deter gangs that roam the streets after dark, robbing and shooting.

The protesters used sewer grates, boulders, mounds of dirt, billboards and even an old armoured vehicle that was ripped from a military monument and marked with the word "peace."

At each student-built barricade, a half-dozen to 20 masked young men guard their turf with sling-shots, rocks and metal tubes that launch fireworks.

Depablos lives on a cul-de-sac whose residents made a barrier with bamboo and barbed wire after the national guard fired tear gas into homes two weeks ago, breaking windows and denting doors.

"My dog fainted. We hid in the bathroom and turned on the water to counter the tear gas," Deplabos said.

Residents showed a "made in Brazil" tear gas grenade and several empty birdshot cartridges marked with the words "anti-riot."

They say the national guard fired after they banged pots outside their homes, a traditional Venezuelan way of protesting.

"We are like in the Ukraine here, waiting for trouble," said Jarriz Ordonez, a 33-year-old chef, referring to last month's Kiev uprising that caused the Ukrainian president to flee his country.

But analysts say Venezuela is far from seeing a Ukraine-style revolt.

Maduro's socialist government still enjoys vast support among the poor, who were deeply loyal to his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

The government held one of its newly established "peace conferences" in San Cristobal on Thursday, but the opposition shunned the meeting, saying demanding protesters be released.

"We won't recognize a conference of lies while there is repression and armed 'colectivos'," San Cristobal's opposition Mayor Daniel Ceballos told AFP, referring to leftist pro-government gangs.

- Disrupting city life -

The mayor supports the protests despite the disruption to daily life in his city.

Few shops are open across the city of 260,000 people, located in the Andean state of Tachira, whose economy includes trade -- legal and illegal -- with neighboring Colombia.

Some shopkeepers are frustrated with the barricades, saying they have exacerbated the city's food scarcity because delivery trucks are shying away.

"They are hurting the city," said Jesus Robles, a 35-year-old manager of a small kitchen that sells arepas, a Venezuelan maize flatbread. "We don't have products and everything is expensive."

At supermarkets, hundreds of people stand in line before dawn every day to buy the few available items, but the problem existed before the demonstrations.

An anti-government activist holds rocks in a barricade set up by anti-government activists in San Cristobal, Tachira state, on March 6, 2014
An anti-government activist holds rocks in a barricade set up by anti-government activists in San Cristobal, Tachira state, on March 6, 2014

Government supporters say shelves are empty because people take advantage of Venezuela's weak currency to sell goods at a hefty profit in nearby Colombia.

The protesters, who blame the shortages on the government's price and foreign exchange controls, acknowledge they are affecting residents but they say it is the best way to keep pressure on Maduro.

While the protesters here vow to never stand down, some worry that their peers in Caracas will lose steam.

"If we don't awaken all the other states, we won't reach our objectives," said Johan, a 31-year-old waiter manning a barricade on a major avenue who refused to give his last name.

Fernando Marquez, a 20-year-old student leader at Catholic University of Tachira, was optimistic as he stood at another boulevard with scattered barricades.

"We will continue resisting in the streets until we see change in the country," he said. "There is a saying now: 'We must follow Tachira's example.'"

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