From music to nudity, Venezuela protesters get creative

CARACAS Wed Apr 30, 2014 11:43pm IST

1 of 2. Anti-government protesters cover themselves with shields during riots in Caracas April 17, 2014.

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan students are putting mock gravestones in the streets, setting up "resistance" camps and even stripping off in a plethora of new tactics to counter dwindling support for a three-month protest movement against President Nicolas Maduro.

"Lately, the protests haven't been working so well. People are starting to get tired and bored," said Eliana Mora, a 25-year-old student at the Catholic Andres Bello University.

She has joined scores of others posting nude photos online, in solidarity with one protester who was beaten and paraded naked during violent clashes on a university campus.

"This is a different way to motivate them and make them do something else," added Mora, who posted her photo with the words "Better naked than without freedom of expression."

The new tactics aim to give the protest movement broader appeal and contrast with the images of violence, petrol bombs and tear gas that had come to define the unrest.

Anti-government demonstrations began in February at universities in the country's western state of Tachira and snowballed after opposition politicians jumped on the bandwagon.

At least 41 people have since been killed in the violence, with victims on both sides.

Complaining about inflation, crime and police abuse, the student protesters are clamoring for change in Venezuela, with some calling for the socialist Maduro to resign just over a year since he won power after the death of Hugo Chavez.

However, with disparate leadership, their methods and objectives have become muddied and their numbers have fallen.

A hard core remain on the streets, burning tires and manning roadblocks, but many have opted to stay home.

Maduro appears safe in his presidency.

CREATIVITY

Trying to reverse the waning intensity of their protests, some activists are shunning traditional street confrontation for more emotive tactics. They have been going out before dawn to plant mock crosses, coffins and gravestones on prominent avenues to symbolize Venezuela's homicide victims.

Others perform songs and drama in the street.

"I love my country but Venezuelans would rather go to the beach ... they just don't care," complained Andrea Lacoste, 24, who wrote a protest ballad "Song without color" whose opening lyrics lament Venezuelans' "disinterest and insensibility".

At a conventional opposition march on Saturday in Caracas, just two people turned up on time at the starting point. Numbers swelled later to a couple of thousand - small by Venezuelan standards - and few political leaders were present.

"You won't see a lot of people today," said David Rodriguez, 20, studying mechanical engineering at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas. "The student movement is divided and several universities didn't support the rally."

Fractures within the opposition student movement mirror those of their political elders who for 15 years have failed to unseat the socialist government amid infighting.

The unrest of the last three months has revived those old divisions, fracturing the upper echelons of the opposition leadership between hardliners who egg on the protesters and moderates worried that radical street tactics play into government hands.

Among numerous student leaders, Juan Requesens and Carlos Vargas, both in their early 20s, have emerged as big players.

Both organize rallies, marches and assemblies in university lecture theaters nearly every day, often simultaneously.

Requesens is politically aligned with Henrique Capriles, the moderate opposition leader who lost the two presidential elections, first against Chavez and then against Maduro.

Vargas is more radical and claims no political affiliation, though is closer in policy to hardline politicians such as Leopoldo Lopez, who is behind bars accused of inciting unrest.

OPPOSING CAMPS

In one colorful illustration of fracture among the students, two opposing "resistance" camps have sprung up around a kilometer away from each other in eastern Caracas.

Outside a U.N. office, more than 100 tents block a main road, equipped with food and medical facilities as well as security guards. "We want a U.N. commission to come and see the human rights abuses here," said Francia Cacique, 24, stood at the entrance to her own tent.

Down the road, protesters at a smaller camp oppose outside intervention.

"This is a Venezuelan problem that must be solved by Venezuelans," said Geraldine Falcon, 25, who manages the camp.

There are also a significant number of students who are not opposed to Maduro. There are many pro-government groups in Venezuela's universities and they are similarly disparate. Some fight with rivals while others hold civilized debate.

Jose Luis Borjas, 24, who runs one of two pro-government groups at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, said the protests were not part of a spontaneous, organic movement.

"There are political interests behind all this," he said.

Though Maduro appears safely in control, the core group of protesters is showing no signs of going away.

Yon Goicoechea, who led large student protests in Caracas in 2007 but lives in Spain now, said the current movement does have some advantages, particularly its online dexterity and the fact Maduro is a weaker target than the charismatic Chavez was.

"Seven years ago there wasn't so much social media available. That's the main difference," he said. "The other difference is that Hugo Chavez is dead."

(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)

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