Venezuelans stage sit-in on roads to protest government

Thousands shut down main highway in Caracas

CARACAS, Venezuela — Protesters sprawled in lawn chairs, worked on math homework and played cards on main roads around Venezuela’s cities Monday, joining in sit-ins to disrupt traffic as the latest slap at the socialist government.

Thousands shut down the main highway in Caracas to express their anger with the increasingly embattled administration of President Nicolas Maduro. They turned the road into a kind of public plaza, with protesters settling in for picnics, reading books and reclining under umbrellas they brought to protect against the blazing Caribbean sun.

Juan Carlos Bautista passed the afternoon playing dominos.

“We want to be free. I’m here fighting for my children and my children’s children,” he said.

The gathering was largely peaceful, though some protesters wrapped bandanas around their faces and threw stones at police, prompting state security forces to release a cloud of tear gas.

Protesters in at least a dozen other cities staged sit-ins, with some building barricades to stop traffic. In Caracas, protesters dragged concrete slabs, garbage and even a bathtub into the road.

The protest movement is entering its fourth week and has been deadly.

On Sunday, a 21st death was linked to the unrest that began almost a month ago over the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the opposition-controlled congress of its powers. The Interior Ministry said Almelina Carrillo died in a hospital after being hit on the head by a frozen water bottle that someone threw from a high-rise toward a pro-government rally last week.

The current unrest is the most intense the economically struggling country has seen since two months of anti-government protests in 2014 that left dozens dead. But while those protests were led by young people who built flaming barricades in the street, this month’s movement is attracting masses of older protesters, who say they are fighting not for themselves, but for the younger generations.

In Caracas, retired professor Lisbeth Colina said she decided to participate in the sit-in for her grandchildren.

“The side that gives up is the side that loses,” she said. “We must remain in the streets. I’m not scared of the repression they’re throwing at us,” she said.

Maduro said Sunday that he wouldn’t give in to opponents and again urged them rejoin negotiations they broke off in December.

But opposition leaders are rejecting calls for dialogue and demanding the immediate scheduling of elections.

“The government wants to use negotiations as a ploy to divide us, demobilize us, and win itself time,” congress Vice-President Freddy Guevara told reporters. “This protest is an exercise in resistance and a test of our conviction.”

Also on Sunday, Maduro said his government had no plans to expropriate General Motors’ Venezuelan subsidiary. A court last week ordered the seizure of a GM plant and the company responded by shuttering its operations in the country. The State Department and Venezuela have said the seizure was related to a lawsuit against GM by a former dealership.

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Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier. Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .

Fabiola Sanchez And Hannah Dreier, The Associated Press

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