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Venezuelan unrest continues amid student protests and rising death total

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After two weeks of increasingly violent protests, commuters in Venezuela awoke this morning to a fresh set of tactics being employed by the students and politicians who stand opposed to Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.

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According to USA Today, protesters in the country's capital of Caracas erected barricades composed of various bit of junk and garbage that were intended to prevent city dwellers from reaching their jobs and schools. One protester explained, "This is brutal but we've got to paralyze the city. Sadly, we have to use these techniques to overthrow the government."

It seems the opposition to Nicolas Maduro 10-month old government are beginning to feel more and more desperate about the situation in Venezuela. With reportedly high crime rates, growing food shortages and inflation topping 56%, it's no surprise that the government opposition is feeling the sting of what they see as rampant government oppression.

Since these student-led protests began two weeks ago, revolt has consumed the country, bringing international attention to Venezuela and causing the deaths of as many as 12 people, the latest coming just this morning as the latest round of protests engulfed Caracas.

Rising death tolls have done little to move either side towards negotiations, as the opposition claims that Maduro's government is responsible and Maduro himself counters with mournful public statements decrying the need for the opposition to resort to violence. For the record, both sides have drawn blood in this conflict.

Over the weekend, for example, two citizens died at the hands of both sides' brutality. On Saturday, a woman died from wounds that resulted when a soldier in the Venezuelan National Guard shot her in the face with buckshot (which is apparently the preferred method for dispersing hostile crowds in Venezuela). Just the night before, a motorcyclist was decapitated when he drove into a steel cable that had been stretched across the street by protesters hoping to stop traffic.

This last death has actually resulted in one of the conflict's odder sideshows. Using the motorcyclists' death as motivation, Nicolas Maduro apparently ordered the arrest of Fmr. Gen. Angel Vivas, one of the oppositions most vocal supporters and the man who, as Maduro claims, gave the opposition the idea to stretch steel wire across the street in the first place.

In spite of being apparently isolated by state forces - who cut his power to stop him tweeting (which he does, a lot) - Vivas has continued a fairly constant stream of messages via social media and images of him walking through his compound sporting a flak jacket and toting an assault rifle have made their way to every corner of the Internet. Venezuelans have crowded around the general's mansion in a swell of support as the standoff continues.

Maduro's opposition isn't all locally grown, either. In recent days, the violence in Venezuela has prompted several world leaders to speak out against the regime. Sen. Marco Rubio was quoted as saying, "Nicolás Maduro and his thugs should know that the world is watching, and that they will be held accountable for their cruelty and violations of human rights … The people of Venezuela have suffered long enough and, as they continue taking to the streets in peaceful protest, I stand with them and against the Venezuelan government’s brutal and lethal tactics."

In response, Maduro brushed aside these allegations by calling Rubio crazy. Specifically, "the craziest of the crazies."

Don't let that give you the impression that Nicolas Maduro will be easily ousted. Time and again, Hugo Chavez's successor has demonstrated an ability to skirt criticism and use tragedy and death to his advantage. He used the decapitation death mentioned above to launch an assault on Gen. Vivas, a longtime political agitator; he used the protests to find legal grounds to incarcerate the opposition's leader, Leopoldo Lopez, for arson and conspiracy (he originally tried to tack murder onto the charges, too); he claims that the country's food shortages are the result of an international conspiracy against him. In other words, the guy is good at slinging mud.

On top of that political prowess, Maduro also has the immeasurable support of the country's poor. You see, Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, rose to power by currying the favor of Venezuela's vast impoverished community. He effected sweeping changes that saw the country's most destitute actually begin to have lives worth living. And, Nicolas Maduro continues that tradition.

As a result, Venezuela's poor (and there are a lot of them) may be hesitant to put someone else in power. As Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank put it: "They perceive that there are parts of the opposition that want to go back to pre-Chavez Venezuela, which basically ignored the concerns of the poor … They don't want to lose what they think they've gained."

A political science professor at Drexel University, George Ciccariello-Maher, added, "The Chavista government has been in power for more than 14 years and has won a larger number of elections than any other government essentially on earth because they mobilized the poor and have a strong support base among the poor, and also a chunk of the middle class. This support base is not going anywhere, and it's not going to disintegrate because a relatively small number of students are protesting in relatively middle class areas of the country."

With the country evenly split and dwindling resources causing desperate acts from both sides, it looks as though the conflict in Venezuela won't be winding down any time soon.

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