SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) - Piles of glass, a trashed refrigerator and the burned remains of a car litter the streets of the Pirineos neighborhood in the Venezuelan city of San Cristobal, giving it the look of a community under siege.
In fact, the residents of this middle-class area have created the disorder themselves as part of anti-government protests demanding President Nicolas Maduro resign.
Open sewer grates expose gaping holes in the street. Debris piled across intersections blocks traffic. Residents set the rules as to which cars can pass through and when.
“This barricade is a community effort. The neighbors held an assembly and we’re all in agreement,” said one burly man who asked not to be identified, as hooded teenagers unloaded sacks of rocks from the back of a pick-up.
“We call this resistance. We’re not going to ease up no matter what the governor or the president says.”
Businesses are mostly shut and public transport suspended.
The sporadic demonstrations that kicked off two months ago in San Cristobal have turned into a national opposition protest movement and shuttered this city of 250,000 known as the “Cordial City” for its residents’ reserved Andean chivalry.
Protesters say this western region of Venezuela near the Colombian border, the tail end of the Andes mountains before they drop off toward the Caribbean, suffers some of the worst of the country’s rampant crime and most severe product shortages.
They denounce what they say has been brutal repression of protests by National Guard troops as a sign the country needs new leadership. The authorities argue the security forces have shown restraint in the face of hooded, stone-hurling hooligans.
Government leaders excoriate the protesters as vandals seeking to destabilize the government, noting they have worsened the very problems they complain about by restricting deliveries of food and disrupting public order to the benefit of gangsters.
Supermarkets, shoe shops and even discos have been looted by groups of motorcyclists under cover of darkness this week.
The San Cristobal demonstrators, ranging from well-heeled professionals to students toting Molotov cocktails and makeshift gas masks, say the roadblocks will remain in place until the president listens to their demands.
“Citizens feel the government is not meeting their expectations, and they think expressing themselves through these protests is helping change the country,” said San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, 30, a vocal supporter of the protests.
‘A COLD CELL’
Venezuela’s border region has long struggled with violent crime due to the spillover of armed groups from neighboring Colombia, which has suffered half a century of war with drugs-funded Marxist rebels.
Venezuela’s chronic food shortages are also more severe here because people can buy generously subsidized staple goods and drive them across the border into Colombia for a quick profit, leaving fewer products available for local consumption.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez used sporadic protests here in January as a platform for national demonstrations decrying inflation and crime. At least 13 people have been killed in street melees since he led a February 12 march in Caracas, and he is now behind bars on charges of fomenting violence.
Maduro has vowed to restore order in San Cristobal and the surrounding state of Tachira, sending in troops and his interior minister, an army major-general, to oversee the effort.
He says Ceballos, the mayor, is working with right-wing politicians from nearby Colombia to stage a coup.
“It’s just a matter of time before he ends up in the same cold cell as (Lopez),” Maduro said last week. “We’re not going to let them set this country on fire.”
Moving around San Cristobal requires agile motorcycle drivers willing to weave through side streets, around burning tires and through small openings in barricades that are helpfully left behind by the very neighbors who erect them.
San Cristobal’s students are feted by opposition sympathizers across the country who envy their capacity to shutter their city. Protests in the capital Caracas remain largely confined to night-time melees in affluent areas.
The opposition hopes that maintaining prolonged disturbances will eventually force a change of government.
This strategy, which until now shows no sign it will oust Maduro or affect the critical oil industry, could backfire as it did with similar efforts against late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last March.
During his 14-year rule, Chavez’s most vocal adversaries often vowed to march and rally until they forced him to quit. But in the end, the dispirited activists would quietly return to their normal lives, weeks or months later, due more to their own exhaustion than crackdowns by security forces.
Opposition leaders have this week alone twice declined to attend meetings that could lead to the political dialogue they have demanded, entrenching the view of Socialist Party sympathizers the protesters are little more than saboteurs.
Funerals and public mourning for activists slain in street violence draw new supporters to the protest movement.
Opposition mourners held a funeral procession on Tuesday for 34-year-old Jimmy Vargas, who died the day before during an opposition demonstration. Witnesses said he was hit with a tear gas canister and fell from a balcony overlooking the protest.
Mourners with shovels moved debris to let pall-bearers through a barricade that includes a tank-like vehicle pulled from what was once a nearby military monument. A statue of a soldier, cut off from the waist up, stands by the vehicle amid a jumble of barbed wire, garbage and rubble.
Pall-bearers carried the coffin from an ornately decorated church to the spot where he died several blocks away.
There Vargas’ mother, Carmen Gonzalez, 58, stood in front of the coffin holding her son’s motorcycle helmet and a red rose above a crucifix dangling from her neck.
“The National Guard ambushed him,” she said. “I ask the president to let these students demonstrate, leave them alone, my God, I beg you as a brother and a son.”
Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman