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While international media focused almost exclusively on the opposition protests and clashes with the police, the pro-government protests were equally as large, says Lucas Koerner from Venezuelanalysis

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Wednesday was another day of major pro and anti-government protests in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Tens of thousands took to the streets on both sides of Venezuela’s political divide. While most media outlets focused mainly on the opposition protest, the pro-government demonstration appeared to be equal in size. When opposition protesters tried to break through police lines to reach the center of Caracas, which the government had restricted to avoid violence, street fights broke out between police and the demonstrators. According to media reports, the fighting left three people dead on Wednesday, and one national police officer was also killed on Thursday. Joining us from Caracas, Venezuela, to take a good look at the latest developments, is Lucas Koerner. Lucas is a writer for and is a Masters student at Venezuela’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Lucas, thank you so much for joining us today. LUCAS KOERNER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Lucas, Wednesday was supposed to be the “mother of all marches”, in terms of its mobilizing slogans, from both sides of Venezuela’s political divide. Tell us what each side was demanding, and what did you observe in terms of the protests? LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah, I think the marches were definitely unprecedented in size from what we’ve seen over the past few months. I think definitely on the government side, it was probably the largest march, largest turnout for a government march in a good decent amount of time, maybe a year or more. Definitely my colleague — I wasn’t on the street; I was managing the Situation Room side of the equation — but my colleague was on the ground, and has reported that the energy was tremendous, and it was a lot of people who had not been showing up for marches had come out to support the government, kind of sensing the urgency of the current juncture. And on the opposition side, which is also very large, probably 100,000 people. There were probably several hundred thousand people on the government side, though obviously it’s very difficult to tell. The opposition has been basically demanding kind of a… has a kind of a hodgepodge of different demands, ranging from regional elections, to removing the Supreme Court justices, to allowing humanitarian aid, to full general elections, and just ousting Maduro by any means necessary. So, it kind of depends on who you ask and what party you’re talking to. But there’s kind of a diversity of different demands. The government supporters are obviously there to basically demonstrate their support for the government, and for Maduro as the legitimately elected president of Venezuela. SHARMINI PERIES: And in your opinion, how much effort was put into government and police, really conscious, aware of people’s rights to protest, but to really playing their role in terms of keeping it peaceful and anti-violent as possible? LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah. I think I should begin by correcting one of the things that you said in the intro; that the three people who died actually did not die in connection with the protests. If you look at the three cases, there was a 17-year-old who was killed in San Bernardino, Caracas. And his brother went on media yesterday and he said that he was on his way to play soccer, and he was robbed and killed, and nothing to do with the protests. Another incident in Tachira, likewise, it’s come out that the person who killed this woman was firing from a house; she was not involved with the protest. And actually the government has accused this person of being an opposition militant of the very far right, Venezuela Vente Party, though that’s been unconfirmed. And then another case, which was also not related to the protests, in (?). So, I think that in the case that, you know, given that you haven’t actually seen any opposition deaths. And, really, the only two deaths that you’ve seen are – one death you’ve seen and the one critical injury had been on the side… had been due to opposition supporters, given that a sergeant in the National Guard was killed in San Antonio by sniper fire (still investigating); And then a woman was killed when what were presumed to be opposition supporters dropped a frozen bottle towards the march that was passing, from the apartment building, below, and it hit her on the head, and she is in critical condition. So, in both cases you see that the instances of violence have overwhelmingly been on the side of the opposition. Though, of course, the government did prevent the opposition from marching towards the downtown Caracas, towards the National Ombudsman’s Office, as they have regularly done for years; precisely because in 2002, the opposition diverted a march towards Miraflores Palace; and on April 11th, 2002, they triggered and paved the way for a 47-hour coup against Hugo Chávez, and they saw 18 people killed in opposition sniper fire. So, there’s a good reason why they don’t want these kinds of opposition marches, which have for the past – over two weeks been characterized by attacks on public institutions, to be allowed in the pro-government sectors of downtown Caracas, where a lot of important government institutions are also concentrated. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And the Venezuelan government recently showed some video that claimed to present opposition demonstrators, who said that they were paid to commit acts of violence. What do you make of these videos, and does this seem like what might have happened? LUCAS KOERNER: I’ve always been very suspicious of the kinds of audio clips and videos that the government comes out with accusing of conspiracy. But I think that in this case, having examined the audio and examined the video that’s been released, it seems quite plausible, the cases. And in fact, these… the two Sanchez brothers, who are basically leaders of the right wing Popular Will youth wing, who are accused of… well, basically, they’re accused of orchestrating the attack on the Venezuelan Supreme Court administrative office and the eastern municipality of Chacao, that they’ve both been detained and they have been indicted. So clearly there’s a judicial process. But there must be some evidence against them for there to be an indictment in this case, though it remains to be seen. I mean, the opposition has accused the government of torturing them, is claiming that The Hague had accepted a petition regarding this torture. However The Hague has actually come out with a statement denying they had accepted any kind of fit request on those grounds, and so it still remains to be clear. But the fact is, I mean, you can check out Venezuelanalysis’s coverage of the April 8th opposition march. But it was… you saw, you know, perhaps over 100 demonstrators attacking a government office, Supreme Court office, with Molotov cocktails and blunt objects. And, you know, in any other country in the world, these people would be in prison for a very long time; I mean, any other country in the world where you have this level of violence against government institutions, you know. Yesterday they ransacked the National Superintendent of Fair Prices – the consumer protection agency. You know, they literally had 50 to 60 demonstrators literally 50 meters from the local chapel – which is the eastern municipality that’s controlled by the opposition, their police module – 50 to 60 demonstrators threw rocks at this building, they broke in – this is all on video clips – and they stole computers, all kinds of items, and with complete impunity. And they attacked the Victoria Brittanica(?)which houses the National Statistics Institute. With Molotov cocktails, they set it on fire. I mean, in any other country in the world, these kinds of actions, which lead to destruction of public institutions, you know; the burning of… the bombing of government medical clinics; the killing of government supporters with impunity, and with government security forces; that this would be condemned internationally. And it… not by other governments, and the people responsible would be put away for a very long time without… there’d be no discussion. Yet here in Venezuela, there are clearly other standards applied, and these kinds of acts are either ignored or they’re applauded. And it’s absolutely amazing that the national media covers these events in this way. SHARMINI PERIES: Let’s turn to the international reaction to all of this. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, made a statement on Wednesday in which he issued a warning to the government of President Maduro. Let’s take a look. REX TILLERSON: Well, we are concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own Constitution, and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in a way that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people. Yes, we are concerned about that situation. We’re watching it closely and working with others, particularly through the OAS, to communicate those concerns to them. SHARMINI PERIES: Lucas, we’ve seen these kinds of actions in motion where the State Department acts in cohesion with the OAS and the opposition in Venezuela, to bring about critical comments and coup d’états, as we saw with President Hugo Chávez, in the past. Give us a sense of what the local reaction, particularly the government of Venezuela, has had to Tillerson’s comments. LUCAS KOERNER: Yeah, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Delcy Rodríguez, has issued a formal condemnation of the remarks, rejecting obviously the U.S.’s legal and moral authority to intervene in Venezuela’s internal affairs. This has been a reaction that Venezuela has had continually over the past few months, because the United States, including on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department came out with a statement calling on the Venezuelan government to basically not repress the demonstrations. And then launching allegations of torture that were unsubstantiated, which the United States frequently does, allegations of human rights abuses. Once again, of course, one has to question – and Delcy Rodríguez continually calls into question – the moral authority of the United States to speak about human rights in Venezuela, or anywhere for that matter. When you have cases where, if we want to talk about protesters killed, and the lack of indictments – I mean, where are the indictments for the murder of Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice or countless others, for that matter? In Venezuela we can at least say that everyone… at least for the… you’ve seen three police officers have been indicted for the killing of protesters and bystanders so far, and there are other investigations. So, clearly, I mean, the Venezuela Security Forces and law enforcement have not at all acted perfectly under these circumstances. But I think that we’ve seen that, if you look at the actual indictments, that there’s been a very careful effort to hold accountable those who have committed abuses, and prevent further violations. SHARMINI PERIES: What were the reactions of other countries in the region to what happened? LUCAS KOERNER: Well, we saw Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, and Cuba’s Foreign Minister have both come out in support of Venezuelan sovereignty. And we’ve also seen that Colombia, that the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, he led a protest at the Venezuela Embassy, which reportedly attempted to storm the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogotá. And the President Santos of Colombia also released a statement denouncing Venezuela for repression and for committing human rights abuses. I mean, once again, one has to really call into question the legal and moral authority of Colombia; obviously, you know, in the case of particularly Álvaro Uribe and his Defence Minister, who is now President Santos, who were responsible for massive human rights violations, including the false positive scandal – which The Hague is actually investigating – in which they killed thousands of often homeless people, and they dressed them up as guerrillas to boost their body counts in their counter-insurgency efforts. I mean, these are massive scandals. And the other regional countries that are condemning Venezuela; we saw, on Monday, 11 countries led by Colombia, including Brazil, including all of the usual actors like Honduras and Guatemala, have released statements urging Venezuela to ensure the right to peaceful protest, and not repress the protest. However, they said nothing about the violent nature of these very protests, which of course has not been at all covered in the international media. It’s very hypocritical for countries like Brazil, where the government is unelected and came to power with what many decried as a parliamentary coup; or Colombia or Mexico or Honduras or Paraguay, for that matter, to criticize the quality of democracy and human rights in Venezuela. Moving beyond the region, we’ve seen that the European Union has issued a statement expressing concern for the violence and yesterday’s demonstrations, and calling on all actors involved to show respect for the Constitution and for procedures of engagement, et cetera, which may be, you know, it’s quite ambiguous and alluded both to potential abuses by protestors, but also authorities. And then you saw the left wing parliamentarians within the European Parliament issuing a statement in solidarity with the Venezuelan government, against international intervention in the country. And then beyond that you’ve seen diverse actions in various countries throughout the world in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Lucas, I thank you so much for joining us today. LUCAS KOERNER: Great. Thank you so much for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network. ————————- END

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Lucas Koerner is a journalist at Venezuelanalysis based in Caracas, Venezuela.