SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela – Major Venezuelan cities have been roiled by violent protests in recent days but the unrest actually began far from the capital with a little-known incident on a college campus in a city that now seems under siege.
Just over a week before the co-ordinated Feb. 12 opposition rallies across the country, students at the University of the Andes in San Cristobal were protesting an attempted rape of young woman on campus.
The students were outraged at the brazen assault on their campus, which underscored long-standing complaints about deteriorating security under President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
But what really set them off was the harsh police response to their initial protest, in which several students were detained and allegedly abused, as well as follow-up demonstrations to call for their release, according to students and people who live in San Cristobal, a city on Venezuela’s remote Andean border.
“It was shocking not just to students but to all of San Cristobal,” said Gaby Arellano, a 27-year-old student leader who has been involved in the national opposition campaign. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The protests expanded and grew more intense, drawing in more non-students angry about crime in general, which led to more people being detained. Students at other universities decided to march in Caracas, which grew into a nationwide campaign when the prominent opposition leaders decided to get involved.
The main rally on Feb. 12 in the capital turned violent, resulting in three deaths from gunshots and then the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Now, protests that continued throughout the country Friday, and are particularly fierce in San Cristobal, rarely, if ever, mention the attempted rape.
“I’m protesting because of the insecurity, for the scarcity and the abuse of power that we have been experiencing,” said Marcia Garcia, a 30-year-old mother in the Los Agustinos neighbourhood of San Cristobal, where patrolling soldiers have strung coils to control protesters who lob rocks and Molotov cocktails. “I’m tired of waiting five or six hours in line for a kilo of flour.”
Today, as the anti-government movement has snowballed into a political crisis the likes of which Venezuela’s socialist leadership hasn’t seen since a 2002 coup attempt, San Cristobal remains a hotbed of unrest.
The government on Thursday said it would send paratroopers to aid hundreds of soldiers already in place to restore order and the president has said he would consider imposing martial law in the area.
Maduro, it should be noted, has a very different version of events in San Cristobal, which is in the western state of Tachira that borders on Colombia.
Maduro says the city is under siege by right-wing paramilitaries under orders from former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, and pointed to recent attacks on government-run supermarkets as evidence of a plan to convert San Cristobal into a Venezuelan Benghazi. And the government providing support to the subversives is San Cristobal’s Mayor Daniel Ceballos, an ally of Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed this week for inciting violence that led to three deaths in anti-government protests on Feb. 12.
“Tachira is being attacked from Colombia,” Maduro said. “We’ll defend Tachira with our lives if we need to.”
Uribe has dismissed the charges, saying they’re an attempt by Maduro distract Venezuelans from his own mismanagement of the economy.
Residents on Friday tried to resume their normal activities as the smell of burnt trash still lingered. Public transportation has yet to be restored, many stoplights are out and students are gearing up for what they promise will be an extended fight. As warplanes buzz the sky, there is also widespread resentment of the heavy troop presence.
“Why is the president sending these troops here? As far as I know, the military is supposed to protect Venezuelans, not attack them,” said Jose Hernandez, a 31-year-old construction worker.
San Cristobal, a rural city 400 miles (660 kilometres) from Caracas, is an unlikely place to mount an anti-government putsch. But with its disproportionately large student population and longstanding cultural and economic ties with its more conservative neighbour, it has long been an opposition stronghold.
The state of Tachira, of which San Cristobal is the largest city and capital, was only one of two where opposition candidate Henrique Capriles defeated Hugo Chavez in 2012 presidential elections. Last April, residents of San Cristobal voted nearly 3 to 1 in favour of Capriles in the race against Maduro to elect Chavez’s successor.
Its independent streak may have to do with its isolation, said Arellano, who grew up in Tachira.
“I think people in Tachira have always stood against abuses and being trampled,” she said.
Associated Press writer Andrew Rosati in Caracas contributed to this report.