Pensioners scuffle with police in Venezuela

CARACAS:  Elderly protesters braved pepper spray in scuffles with riot police as they marched in the latest anti-government protests in Venezuela. With wheelchairs and walking sticks or on their feet shouting and waving their fists, some 2,000 demonstrators on Friday challenged police who blocked their way in central Caracas and fired pepper spray to deter them. “We do not want a dictatorship, we want to grow old with dignity, medicine, food and freedom,” said Lourdes Parra, 77, wrapped in a red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flag. Defying calls for early elections, President Nicolas Maduro also rallied elderly supporters, who yelled slogans in support of him and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
“With Chavez and Maduro, the grandparents are safe,” they yelled in a crowd in front of the presidential palace. The demo drew attention to the suffering of Venezuelans, particularly the elderly, in an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food and medicine in the oil-rich country.
Carlos Rivas, 67, stood in the front line of the demo with empty medicine boxes.  “I have no medication and my pension doesn’t buy me anything,” he said.
The health ministry on Wednesday released data showing deaths of infants under the age of one soared by 30 per cent in 2016 and deaths of women linked to childbirth by 65 per cent.
Cases of malaria also rose by 76 per cent to more than 240,000, even though the disease was said to have been eradicated in Venezuela.
The next day the government fired minister Antonieta Caporale, the official journal said. Wednesday’s data referred to 2016, but Caporale took over as health minister only in January this year.
Hospitals and protesters are complaining of severe shortages of medical supplies from an economic crisis that has fuelled opposition calls for early elections.
Elected in 2013, Maduro is resisting pressure for an early vote, calling the crisis a US-backed conspiracy. His opponents have branded him a dictator.
A collapse in prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports has left the country short of cash to import medicine and basic goods. The Venezuelan Medical Federation says hospitals have only three per cent of the medicines and supplies they need to operate normally.
Deadly unrest broke out on April 1. Security forces have fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters who have hurled stones, petrol bombs and excrement.
The government and opposition have accused each other of sending armed groups to stir up violence in the protests. — AFP