Protest stymied after Venezuelan diplomatic win

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Associated Press

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 5:02 PM

Updated Saturday, Mar 8 at 5:06 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In a major show of force, hundreds of National Guardsmen in riot gear and armored vehicles prevented an "empty pots march" from reaching Venezuela's Food Ministry on Saturday to protest shortages of staple items.

President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government, meanwhile, celebrated as a diplomatic victory an Organization of American States declaration supporting its professed efforts to bring a peaceful solution to the country's worst political violence in years. The United States, Canada and Panama were the only nations to oppose the declaration.

On Saturday, more than 5,000 protesters banged pots, blew horns and whistles and carried banners in the capital to decry crippling inflation and now-chronic shortages of basics including flour, milk and toilet paper. Similar protests were held in at least five other cities.

All over Venezuela, people spend hours every week queuing up at supermarkets, often before dawn, without even knowing what may arrive.

"There's nothing to buy. You can only buy what the government lets enter the country because everything is imported. There's no beef. There's no chicken," said Zoraida Carrillo, a 50-year-old marcher in Caracas.

The capital's government-allied mayor had refused the marchers a permit to hold the rally, leading opposition leader Henrique Capriles to accuse authorities of trying to "criminalize" peaceful protests.

"Nicolas (Maduro) is afraid of the empty pots of our people. He mobilizes hundreds of soldiers against empty pots," he said of the man who defeated him by a razor-thin margin in April presidential elections.

Capriles also reiterated opposition complaints that the government is sending "functionaries and groups of paramilitaries — which they have armed — to put down protests."

Maduro has faced several weeks of daily student-led protests across the nation that he claims are an attempt by far-right provocateurs to overthrow him. They have been joined by mostly middle-class Venezuelans fed up with inflation that reached 56 percent last year and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Late Friday in Washington, the OAS approved a declaration that rejected violence and called for justice for the 21 people the government says have died since Feb. 12 in street protests. The declaration offered "full support" for a government peace initiative that the opposition has refused to join until dozens of jailed protesters and an opposition leader are freed.

Twenty-nine nine countries voted in favor of the declaration after 15 hours of debate spread over two days. After Panama sought discussion of the crisis in the body, Venezuela broke off relations and expelled its ambassador and three other diplomats.

The objections from Washington and Panama attached to the declaration were longer than the declaration itself. They argued that it violated OAS rules by taking sides.

"The OAS cannot sanction a dialogue in which much of the opposition has no voice and no faith," according to the U.S. objection. "Only Venezuelans can find the solutions to Venezuela's problems, but the situation in Venezuela today makes it imperative that a trusted third party facilitate the conversation as Venezuelans search for those solutions."

In a telephone interview with Venezuelan state television Friday night, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the declaration a victory for Latin American and the Caribbean.

Venezuelan government spokeswoman Delcy Rodriguez tweeted: "The meddling minority against Venezuela in the OAS, Panama, Canada and the U.S., is defeated in a historic decision that respects our sovereignty."

The government and opposition appear to have reached a stalemate, in which street protests continue almost daily while the opposition sits out a peace process it calls farcical.

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Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda and Christopher Sherman in Caracas and Luis Alonso in Washington contributed to this report.

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