CARACAS Dec 18 Security forces have arrested
more than 300 people during protests and lootings over the
elimination of Venezuela's largest currency bill, President
Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday.
The socialist leader pulled the 100 bolivar note this week
before new bills were in circulation, creating a national cash
shortage on top of the brutal economic crisis overshadowing
Venezuelans' Christmas and New Year holidays.
After two days of unrest over the measure - including one
death and dozens of shops ransacked - Maduro on Saturday
postponed the measure until Jan. 2.
That helped stem violence, though there were still reports
of more lootings in southern Ciudad Bolivar on Sunday.
The detainees include leaders and members of the opposition
Popular Will and Justice First parties, Maduro said on state TV,
accusing them of following U.S. instructions to incite chaos.
"Don't come and tell me they are political prisoners ...
They are the two parties of the 'gringos' in Venezuela," he
added, accusing President Barack Obama of wanting to engineer a
coup against socialism in Venezuela before leaving office.
From Venezuela's southern jungle and savannah to the Andean
highlands in the west, groups of hundreds of protesters have
been burning bolivar notes, cursing Maduro and decrying
scarcities of food and medicines.
The worst looting was on Friday and Saturday, especially in
El Callao and Ciudad Bolivar in the southern state of Bolivar,
and police have used teargas to control crowds in some places.
Chinese-run shops have been particularly targeted, witnesses
say, and a 14-year-old boy was shot dead in El Callao on Friday.
The governor of Bolivar state said there were 262 arrests
there, with lootings from food shops to science laboratories.
The local business group said 350 businesses had been ransacked
in Ciudad Bolivar, including 90 percent of food outlets.
In Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil,
shopkeepers and inhabitants formed vigilante groups to join
police and soldiers after six shops were ransacked on Saturday.
"We're not lowering our guard, we're forming protection
brigades," said local business group leader Gilmer Poma.
Food prices were reduced in some establishments in Santa
Elena as a way to defuse tensions.
Maduro, a 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister
who replaced Hugo Chavez in 2013, has seen his popularity plunge
during a three-year recession. He justified the currency measure
as a way of suffocating mafia on Venezuela's borders.
But opponents say it is further evidence of disastrous
economic policy in a nation reeling from runaway prices and
shortages of basics. They want him to resign.
"The only person guilty of the chaos and violence of recent
days is Nicolas Maduro," the Justice First party said, accusing
intelligence agents of taking advantage of the situation to
frame opposition leaders with false evidence.
With the 100 bolivar bill originally out of circulation from
Friday, many Venezuelans had found themselves unable to purchase
food or fill up cars in the busy run-up to Christmas.
"As if we don't have enough to cope with anyway, now they
inflict this craziness on us," said a grandmother in Caracas,
Zoraida Gutierrez, 74, who spent a day lining up under the sun
to deposit cash she had under her bed.
"It's like a cruel joke."
Despite Maduro's suspension of the measure on Saturday, some
businesses were still refusing the notes on Sunday.
Maduro has been urging Venezuelans to use electronic
transactions instead of cash where possible, but 40 percent of
the country's 30 million people are without bank accounts.
With many people already skipping meals to get by and forced
to sacrifice traditional Christmas food and presents, this
week's confusion has further exasperated many.
Maduro's popularity recently hit a record low of under 20
percent, according to local pollster Datanalisis.
But Venezuelan authorities thwarted an opposition push this
year for a referendum to remove him. That put Maduro on track to
finish his term in early 2019 but increased the potential for
social unrest due to the lack of an immediate electoral outlet.
Maduro said the first batch of new currency notes would
arrive in Venezuela on Sunday afternoon. The government is
introducing larger bills of up to 20,000 bolivars.
(Additional reporting by María Ramírez in Ciudad; Editing by