Recriminations over post-vote violence stoke Venezuela tensions
CARACAS (Reuters) - Residents of La Limonera neighborhood in Venezuela's capital Caracas are still on edge and in mourning after a wave of post-election violence that killed two people in their community.
Neighbors of the low-income settlement say opposition protesters threw Molotov cocktails and fired shots amid nationwide demonstrations after President Nicolas Maduro won a narrow victory against challenger Henrique Capriles.
Nine people died around Venezuela, authorities say.
The opposition questions the government's version of the events, dismissing accusations that various state-run clinics were burned down across Venezuela and suggesting some of the deaths were from the country's notoriously high murder rate.
Establishing the truth is not just a matter of historic record, but a crucial factor going forward in Venezuela's explosive transition to the post-Hugo Chavez era.
Government investigations into the post-vote unrest could lead to criminal charges against Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who won 49 percent of the votes and is refusing to accept Maduro's win.
While Capriles insists Maduro "stole" the presidential vote, the president counters that the trouble afterwards demonstrated that he was planning a coup d'etat. South American neighbors have urged dialogue, but so far there is no sign of that.
The violence has not been just on the street: A brawl in parliament last week between pro- and anti-government fractions left 11 legislators from both sides injured. Two opposition parliamentarians were particularly badly hurt, one with a bloodied and bruised face, another with a fractured nose.
Each side has its own version of the events after the April 14 vote - a pattern typical of the polarization of the South American OPEC nation under Chavez's 14-year socialist rule.
DISCORD AND DEATH
In La Limonera, a "socialist city" Chavez created last year to house some 430 poor families in new tower-blocks, there is outrage at the violence and fear of more. Residents on motorcycles and soldiers now patrol the area, surrounded by middle-class homes.
"You may not agree with me, but you have no right to shoot me, set off rockets, or bang pots and pans every night while my kids are trying to sleep," said Oscar Canizales, 21, a resident who patrols on motorcycle.
When official results showed him narrowly losing, Capriles on the night of Sunday, April 14 called on supporters to demand a full recount by marching in the streets.
A day later, opposition protesters near La Limonera went to a state-run clinic staffed by doctors from Cuba who were hired through a Chavez-era oil-for-services deal.
Witnesses interviewed by Reuters said about 100 protesters surrounded the clinic for around two hours shouting slogans such as "Get out Cubans, we don't want you here," banging pots and pans in a rowdy "cacerolazo" protest.
Maduro sympathizers including hairdresser Rosiris Reyes and carpenter Jose Luis Ponce arrived to protect the clinic from harm, witnesses and relatives said. As the protest died down they began returning home, but never made it.
"From a Toyota, someone starting shooting and shouting opposition slogans. One of the bullets hit my mother in the back," said 15-year-old Yonylexis Reyes, who lives with two brothers in a small apartment decorated with the posters with the faces of Maduro and Chavez.
"She fell off the motorcycle and we took her to the hospital." Her mother died two days later.
Ponce was also shot while returning from the clinic, according to witnesses. A family member said one person was later wounded at his funeral by a shot fired from a neighborhood near La Limonera.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas several days later said Johny Pacheco, whom he identified as another "defender of the clinic," was shot in the head "without being robbed."
Local media quoted Pacheco's family saying he was in fact killed during an attempt to steal his car, a version also given by residents.
At the entrance to the community, the words "Capriles murderer" are written in red paint. A special legislative commission is investigating allegations he spurred the violence, and one minister has vowed to put him behind bars.
The opposition says the violence has been exaggerated in state media to distract from irregularities on the day of the vote. Capriles is challenging it in the country's highest court.
In La Limonera, witnesses confirmed that the clinic where the opposition protests took place had not in fact been set on fire, as asserted by government leaders.
Reuters visits to that and another of the Caracas-based clinics known as CDIs indicated that they had suffered no evident damage and that they were functioning normally.
"If they had attacked us we would not be open, because we would be too scared," said the director of one the centers who asked not to be identified.
Venezuelan human rights group Provea later released a report saying it had found no evidence that any of the CDIs had been attacked - drawing furious criticism from government leaders including Villegas.
Two provincial headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party were set on fire, state media said, but nobody has been detained in connection with those incidents.
Security forces have detained close to 250 demonstrators around the country. The opposition has accused soldiers of beating some of them until they chanted pro-government slogans.
Opposition activist Delsa Solorzano said their only crime had been to bang pots and pans in protest. "We didn't know that having a pan and a metal spoon was terrorism," said Solorzano.
The instability has unsettled markets, with Venezuelan debt prices falling since the post-election violence.
"It is hard to ignore the recent headlines of growing political tension and open outbreaks of violence between the opposition and Chavista politicians. The realization is that the political risk is much higher in the post-Chavez era," said Jefferies' Latin American expert Siobhan Morden.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman)