CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Protesters set fire to late President Hugo Chavez’s childhood home in western Venezuela on Monday, an opposition lawmaker said, as protests against the South American nation’s socialist government grew increasingly hostile.
While demonstrators are decrying current President Nicolas Maduro for the country’s triple-digit inflation, rising crime and shortages of food and medicine, they have also destroyed at least five statues commemorating Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and the founder of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution.”
Demonstrators lit the house in the city of Barinas where Chavez spent his early years aflame Monday afternoon along with several government buildings, including the regional office of the National Electoral Council, said Pedro Luis Castillo, a legislator who represents the area.
The burnings capped a violent day in Barinas — known as the cradle of Chavez’s revolution — during which protesters clashed with national guardsmen, businesses were shuttered and roads were blocked with fire-filled barricades.
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Nineteen-year-old Yorman Bervecia was shot and killed during a protest, according to the nation’s chief prosecutor. His death brings to at least 49 the number killed in nearly two months of anti-government protests demanding new elections.
“It is pretty symbolic that the citizens are venting their frustrations on the author of the Bolivarian revolution,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.
The street clashes engulfing Venezuela appear to be turning increasingly violent, with both security forces and youth protesters looking more unruly.
Residents of Caracas awoke to several smoldering barricades made of trash and torn-down street signs. Access to the capital’s downtown was blocked at several points by heavily armed security forces looking to prevent a march to the Health Ministry to demand Maduro open a so-called humanitarian corridor for the delivery of medicine and food aid.
On the outskirts of Caracas, where reports of nighttime protests and looting have become more frequent, the situation was even more tense: Young men with their faces covered or wearing gas masks put down barbed wire at roadblocks every few blocks and menacingly asked bystanders for contributions to their “Resistance” movement.
Opposition leaders are urging restraint from their followers, but say security forces and pro-government militias — not the protesters — are behind the vast number of deadly attacks.
Maduro accused protesters Sunday of setting fire to a government supporter, saying what he calls “Nazi-fascist” elements are taking root inside the opposition’s ranks and contributing to a dangerous spiral of violence in the two-month anti-government protest movement.
Maduro said that 21-year-old Orlando Zaragoza suffered burns to almost all his body when he was doused with gasoline and set on fire at a protest in Caracas a day earlier. Videos circulating on social media show a man covered in flames fleeing a small mob. Maduro said he was being treated.
It’s not clear what triggered the attack, which is under investigation, although some eyewitnesses told local media that Zaragoza was caught robbing demonstrators who had gathered by the tens of thousands to protest Maduro’s rule.
“In Venezuela there’s rising a counterrevolution of Nazi-fascist influence that that has infected the emotions and thinking of thousands of compatriots, who believe they have the right to pursue others for the simple crime of being Venezuelan or Chavista or revolutionary,” Maduro said in his weekly TV program. “This is terrorism.”
Meanwhile, a retired army general opposed to Maduro denounced what he said are plans by the military in the central state of Lara to deploy snipers to control protests that turn violent.
The plans were discussed in a month-old conversation among top generals in the state secretly recorded by one of the participants, according to retired Gen. Cliver Cordones, who on Monday sent a petition to Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega asking her to investigate the matter.
Cordones, who broke with Maduro more than a year ago, said he obtained the recording and written transcript of the conversation in a pen drive left in an unmarked envelope at his residence.
In it, a man identified as Gen. Jose Rafael Torrealba, the top military official in the state, discusses the need to start selecting soldiers with proven psychological and technical strength for use as sharpshooters. The context of the conversation is what the officer says is the increasing use of firearms by protesters to shoot at security forces.
“The time will come in which we’ll have to deploy them, and I want us to be ready for that moment,” the man identified as Torrealba says.
“The president won’t just stay in his green phase gentlemen,” he adds, referring to the first stage of a military plan to control the protests announced last month by Maduro.
While some can be heard voicing support for the idea, at least one expresses concern that such plans, if acted on, could land commanding officers in jail.
The Associated Press also obtained a copy of the recording from a person in contact with one of the participants. The source demanded anonymity for safety. But the AP was unable to verify its authenticity or the identities of those alleged to have taken part in the conversation. There has also been no response from Torrealba or the military since the recording was first reported last week by the Spanish-language affiliate of the Miami Herald.