Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has blamed opposition demonstrators for the killing of a retired military officer and called it a hate crime. The slain 34-year-old retired National Guard lieutenant, who has yet to be identified, was beaten and shot to death by attackers Saturday night in the town of Cabudare in the western state of Lara, prosecutors said.
They did not link the man’s death to the wave of sometimes violent anti-government protests that have raged for 58 straight days, with a death toll that now stands at 59. “It is a hate crime,” Maduro said on his weekly program on state-run VTV.
“He was attacked by a group of criminals, killers, violent demonstrators who beat him and then finished him off. Is this political opposition? It is criminal terrorism,” the president said.
The nationwide demonstrations kicked off in late March, with opposition leaders seeking the removal of Venezuela’s leftist president, whose already-low popularity has cratered amid severe shortages of food and medicines, among other economic woes.
The government also announced the death of a 20-year-old man injured in the abdomen during a protest Saturday in the city of Lecheria in the eastern state of Anzoategui. He belonged to a party led by a jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. News reports said the slain officer was taking photos during a memorial ceremony for someone who died during the protest wave. People interpreted this as spying and began attacking him.
Maduro said opposition leaders were complicit in the attack because they did not condemn it. But opposition leaders on Saturday did in fact come out against the attack. Freddy Guevara, deputy speaker of the National Assembly, the only government body in Venezuela that is controlled by the opposition, called it a lynching. “Pain must not turn us into that which we are fighting,” Guevara wrote on Twitter.
The opposition said it would step up today’s street rallies aimed at denouncing Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution with a constituent assembly that sidesteps opposition parties. This body will include members from social sectors such as farmers and workers that are seen as loyal to the president.
The opposition says the constituent assembly is a ploy by Maduro to avoid holding early elections as demanded by the opposition and cling to power. “If we allow that fraud that they want to call a constituent assembly, Venezuela will be lost,” said Guevara, warning that pressure in the streets would grow.
“Let’s get ready for an escalation,” Guevara said. But he called on demonstrators to refrain from violence. Voting for the assembly is scheduled to begin in July, according to Maduro.