In Venezuelan rural heartland, angry Maduro supporters fuel protest wave

By Keren Torres and Brian Ellsworth
URACHICHE, Venezuela (Reuters) - In the Venezuelan city of Urachiche, which has long been a bastion of support for President Nicolas Maduro's ruling Socialist Party, a radio station broadcast news in September protesting the collapse of the civil service and chronic fuel shortages.
The man who led the rally was an activist named Edito Hidalgo of the Tupamaro Party, who is closely associated with Maduro - a stark contrast to typical Venezuelan street agitators who are violently against the government.
"Our people have the right to live. We want public service efficiency," said Hidalgo on September 22nd at the headquarters of the city of 20,000, flanked by dozens of others who have called for improved access to water, electricity and fuel.
The march ended peacefully. But the next day, nearby towns in the agricultural state of Yaracuy were shaken by protests that troops set off with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Within a week, hundreds of similar protests broke out across the South American nation, from western Zulia state, which was prone to blackouts, to the isolated Caribbean shores of Sucre in the east, before troops halted the demonstrations.
The riots showed how Venezuela's agricultural heartland remains a tinder of social unrest and how even the Socialist Party stalwarts are losing patience with the hardships caused by a crippling six-year economic crisis hastened by a six-month coronavirus quarantine.
In interviews with a dozen people in Urachiche and the nearby towns of Yaritagua and Chivacoa, residents described anger and fatigue over struggles to get by without basic services.
Almost all of them asked not to be identified and pointed to possible reprisals and intimidation by security forces.
During a visit to four cities in Yaracuy in early October, the protests subsided. Troops and military vehicles remained stationed on the streets.
In a telephone interview, Hidalgo said the march he led had nothing to do with the demonstrations that followed and that citizens were angry at the lack of basic services and difficulties in obtaining food.
"Our march was totally peaceful," he said. "People go around with sunken eyes because they can't get protein."
The Venezuelan Ministry of Information did not respond to requests for comment.
Socialist Party officials say public service issues are the result of US sanctions designed to force Maduro out of office and often accuse opposition leaders of orchestrating street violence.

Rural Venezuela has been a Socialist Party stronghold for more than a decade, largely because government institutions are usually the only ones able to help isolated communities struggling to find work, shelter and medical care.
Urachiche, around 320 kilometers west of Caracas, was so dedicated to the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez that it once created a currency of exchange as part of an experiment in the socialist economy.
But the life of smallholders in the hills around Urachiche who grow beans, corn and coffee has steadily deteriorated during the economic crisis in Venezuela.
30-year-old Carlos Pineda used to transport his goods to the market in his truck, but now the lack of fuel forces him to walk into town for hours with 50-kilo sacks on his back.
Mules are sometimes also available to carry goods, but residents fighting hunger have in many cases been forced to eat the animals.
"Some people do it with mules, but there aren't many animals left: they ate them," said Pineda, who was sitting in Urachiche's main square and preparing to sell a sack of black beans that he had brought from the mountains .
Access to electricity, running water, and fuel has steadily deteriorated in rural Venezuela in recent years as the government prioritizes urban areas like the capital, Caracas, especially after a massive week-long blackout in 2019.
"They forgot about us. No gas, water, food and now also no electricity," said Maria Mendoza, 38, a clerk who said she no longer intends to vote for "the process" - a catchphrase that sometimes does was used to describe the Socialist Party.
Organized by Hidalgo, the Urachiche activist, the September 22 march went largely unnoticed in a country that is used to seeing angry citizens on the streets.
But within days, videos on social media showed clashes between security forces in nearby towns, some showing gunshots and protesters bleeding from repeated volleys of rubber bullets.
From September 22nd to 30th, 701 protests broke out across the country, the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflicts said in a report published last week.
Authorities responded by arresting 35 people in Yaracuy and at least 50 across the country.
Police arrested Dagni Salcedo, 19, a motorcycle supplier in the town of Yaritagua, according to his mother Sullehil Rodriguez, who said they grabbed him when he finished a delivery, put a hood over his head and threatened to shoot him.
"My son is being beaten. He's a worker - you can ask any of the neighbors," said Rodriguez in front of the police building where he is being held. She drives 36 miles every day to bring meals to her son, who recently recovered from COVID-19.
"It's no secret that there is no gas, water, food or electricity."

(Reporting by Keren Torres and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)

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