CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities have arrested another eight anti-government protesters, bringing to 19 the number being held amid street demonstrations that President Nicolas Maduro says are being orchestrated by foreign-backed “coup-seekers”.
Ten months after Maduro narrowly won an election to replace his mentor and late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, a hardline wing of Venezuela’s opposition is trying to whip up street protests over rampant crime, economic hardship and alleged state repression.
Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union activist who has pinned his presidency on maintaining Chavez’s legacy, says extreme right-wing politicians backed by “imperialist” collaborators want to bring him down by undemocratic means.
The protests have been sporadic and seldom drawn crowds of more than a few hundred, though activists were hoping for bigger numbers at a march planned for Wednesday in Caracas.
Opposition campaigners said police detained eight people in the western Andean town of Merida on Monday night after students rallied for the release of colleagues in jail elsewhere.
“They simply unfurled banners and handed out banners,” said Tamara Suju, a human rights campaigner who works with the Popular Will party that is promoting the anti-Maduro activism.
The eight in Merida would add to four from Tachira state, and seven from Margarita island, held after other recent demonstrations, according to activists and student leaders. Some have been detained in their homes or workplaces.
Officials say the protests are turning violent.
“I’ve had enough,” an angry Maduro said on state TV on Monday night. “You can accuse me of what you want, I am obliged to defend democracy and the peace of the people.”
The president said extremists were trying to undermine a political dialogue he has begun with the more moderate majority in Venezuela’s opposition coalition. That has included a handshake with his arch-rival and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles during a meeting over crime.
Maduro, who constantly says conservative U.S. politicians are fomenting plans to topple him, vowed to use decree powers granted by parliament against his domestic foes.
“I’m going to look for very strict norms so that anyone involved in these coup-seeking adventures can never participate as a candidate for anything again,” he said.
That appeared to be a reference to Popular Will leader Leopoldo Lopez, a former Caracas district mayor who has been barred from running for office in the past on corruption charges. He says they were trumped up to damage him.
Lopez, 42, said officials forced him off a flight to Tachira late on Monday where he had intended to meet protest leaders.
“The desperate and cowardly actions of a criminal government will not halt the unity in the street,” he tweeted later.
In an apparent rebuke to Lopez and illustrating splits within the opposition, fellow opposition leader Capriles said he did not support the confrontational tactics being promoted by hardline activists.
“We have to find a real solution for people’s problems and avoid ... failed past agendas,” said Capriles, the 41-year-old governor of Miranda state who narrowly lost to Maduro in last year’s presidential poll.
Massive opposition protests in the past helped bring about a brief coup against Chavez in 2002, but he returned after a 36-hour detention when the military swung behind him and supporters poured onto the streets.
Editing by Peter Murphy and Rosalind Russell