Venezuela soldiers guard Chavez symbols in seething heartland | Reuters

By Andrew Cawthorne
| SABANETA, Venezuela

SABANETA, Venezuela 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.

“It will fall one day soon, you’ll see,” said activist Angel Dorante, noting the vandalism and destruction of Chavez statues and symbols elsewhere in Venezuela.

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.

Locals have been banging pots and pans at night and took to the streets recently during a power cut. They were dispersed by security forces with tear gas, witnesses said.

In the tatty state capital Barinas, where Chavez studied and lived as a youth, the trouble has been far worse. Many people have turned on the ruling Socialist Party in a poor region that was once their heartland of support.

Even though much of the attention has been on the capital Caracas, 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.

“There was a social explosion,” Jose Luis Machin, Barinas’ opposition mayor, describing how some…

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