- Title: Venezuela's 'Chavista' heartland seethes with discontent
- Date: 19th June 2017
- Summary: CHAVEZ SALUTING DURING MILITARY PARADE
- Embargoed: 3rd July 2017 17:39
- Keywords: Chavistas crisis birthplace Barinas President Nicolas Maduro unrest shortages hunger Venezuela
- Location: SABANETA, BARINAS STATE AND CARACAS, VENEZUELA
- City: SABANETA, BARINAS STATE AND CARACAS, VENEZUELA
- Country: Venezuela
- Topics: Conflicts/War/Peace,Civil Unrest
- Reuters ID: LVA0046LY35FN
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: In the dozy agricultural town of Hugo Chavez's birth, soldiers guard an immense statue of the former Venezuelan leader while nearby opposition activists dream of pulling it down.
The Russian-donated sculpture of a fist-clenched Chavez, in a square of Sabaneta near where he was born in a mud hut, has withstood nearly three months of anti-government unrest that has convulsed Venezuela since April and killed more than 70 people.
Surrounded by fertile plains and home to nearly 40,000 people, Sabaneta is a politically sacred spot for the ruling "Chavismo" movement, now led by President Nicolas Maduro, but it has not been immune to protests roiling the nation in demand of elections to end socialist rule.
Even though much of the attention has been on the capital Caracas, the city of Barinas has seen the worst of the anti-government unrest. Violence on May 22-23 left seven people dead, hundreds of shops looted and the city's half million people traumatized.
With some businesses on strike, anti-Maduro protesters barricaded streets and faced off with National Guard soldiers, witnesses said. Pro-government gangs joined the fray and, according to local authorities, 500 shops were looted while at one point a crowd of 2,000 people took over a major police base.
In scenes unthinkable during Chavez's 14-year rule, the rioters in Barinas stormed and burned the headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party, stoned a house where the late leader had lived as a youth, and defaced images of him on the streets.
A few weeks later, soldiers watch over gas stations, courts and other key buildings while many businesses remain closed with signs saying "already looted" and workers repaint the ransacked party building.
There are still sporadic protests and fear is pervasive.
Rights activists say dozens of protesters have been detained, some beaten savagely on the knees with baseball bats and one covered in excrement and urine while in custody.
The anger in the state of Barinas, as elsewhere around Venezuela, is fuelled by widespread hunger and shortages after four years of brutal recession. There is special bitterness in Chavez's home state that locals say should be a prosperous bread basket for the nation due to its fertile farming conditions.
"I really want to take to the streets, to keep doing what he started. He went out onto the street to give our child a better future. I want to go out and offer our baby a better future. He is no longer here and we can't do anything about that now, but I can move forward and show my child that he can have in a better Venezuela," said Arianna Espinoza, 20, whose husband, Yorman Bervecia, 19, who took part in a May 22 demonstration near a National Guard military base.
He never came home, shot dead in the chest.
As well as elections, the protesters are demanding solutions to the crisis-hit economy, an end to rampant corruption, freedom for jailed activists, foreign humanitarian aid, and autonomy for the National Assembly legislature won by the opposition in 2015.
Barinas' turn away from "Chavismo" dates from that election, when voters elected five opposition lawmakers for six seats.
Maduro calls his opponents "terrorists" bent on a violent coup and is resisting calls to bring forward the next presidential election scheduled for late 2018. He is setting up instead a super-body known as a constituent assembly with powers to rewrite the constitution and override other institutions.
An election for that assembly is set for July 30 but the opposition says it is rigged to guarantee him a majority so they are boycotting the process.
Despite Venezuela's economic decline and anti-government unrest from the Andes to the Amazon, Maduro retains a hardcore of support and his approval rating of just above 20 percent is respectable compared to some peers around Latin America.
That reflects the deep reverence among Venezuela's poor for Chavez, who picked Maduro as his successor and urged people to back him, lingering suspicion of opposition leaders long viewed as an out-of-touch elite, and disgust at violence in protests.
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