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Venezuela unrest continues as shortages persist, protesters demand food

A man ties yellow tape along Sucre Avenue during a protest for food at the Catia neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Tensions rose after customers waited in line for hours and their frustration turned into a street protest. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
A man ties yellow tape along Sucre Avenue during a protest for food at the Catia neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Tensions rose after customers waited in line for hours and their frustration turned into a street protest. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
By Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon Los Angeles Times

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela, where anger over food shortages is still mounting, continued to be roiled this week by angry protests and break-ins of grocery stores and businesses that have left five dead, at least 30 injured and 200 arrested, according to various news reports.

The latest fatality came from the southwest city of Merida, where 17-year-old Jean Paul Omana died Wednesday after being shot Tuesday during a disturbance amid looting.

Widespread violence has been reported there, as well as an attack by protesters on the headquarters of President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV.

As consumers grow increasingly frustrated with ongoing food scarcities and lengthening lines outside stores, protests are turning more violent. Social media reported protests on Wednesday in the Los Teques, Los Altos Mirandinos and Santa Teresa del Tuy suburbs of Caracas, the capital.

A common thread among protesters demanding the government provide food is that they are suffering from hunger and in some cases heat exposure from spending hours in line. Mired in economic crisis, Venezuela must import the bulk of its food items, but supplies have run short because of the government’s cash shortage, triggered by falling oil prices.

The rising violence comes as U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday that his representatives would soon hold talks with Venezuelan officials in a bid to improve frayed bilateral relations. Maduro says his country is the victim of a U.S.-promoted economic war. The U.S. says the increased chaos in Venezuela poses a security threat to the region.

On Wednesday, most shops in the northeastern coastal oil-refining city of Puerto La Cruz remained closed because of fears of looting after armed forces subdued a student protest over the lack of food.

“We can’t take it anymore. Our children ask for food and all we can get are mangoes. Until when?” said Milagros Perez of Puerto La Cruz, quoted in El Tiempo newspaper.

Two of the deaths and 150 of the arrests were reported Tuesday in the northeastern coastal city of Cumana following two days of scattered riots in which more than 100 stores were reported broken into, according to national media. Circumstances of the deaths were still murky Wednesday. Additional police officers have been sent to the city to restore order.

A 4-year-old girl, Britani Lara, was reportedly shot to death Tuesday in the Caracas suburb of Guatire as she stood in line with her mother outside a government-owned Mercal grocery store.

El Nacional newspaper reported that gangs on motorcycles have fought over the right to control and distribute food at the Guatire store and that the gunfire may have been a result of that dispute. Eight others were reportedly injured in the incident.

Violence also was reported at a food protest staged in front of a store in the city of Cariaco in central Sucre state, where 21-year-old Luis Fuentes was killed by a gunshot. Eleven others were wounded, according to El Nacional newspaper.

Residents who live close to the store reportedly attached signs to the entrance demanding the business be closed because of the violence it generates.

“Gang members who want to take over the sale of food in the store threaten those who stand in line with knives,” neighbor Dubraska Gonzalez told El Nacional.

Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication and information responded to an email requesting confirmation and the circumstances surrounding the five reported deaths by referring reporters to the VTV national television channel and to Twitter accounts of government officials.

Speaking on the sidelines of an Organization of American States meeting in the Dominican Republic, Kerry said talks would be held in Caracas and that the U.S. would be represented by veteran diplomat Thomas Shannon.

Kerry made the announcement shortly after insisting that a referendum to recall Maduro be held. Opponents to Maduro collected more than 1 million signatures in favor of a referendum, but claim the government is using delay tactics to avoid a vote.

Maduro confirmed the talks and said he would propose that the two countries reestablish full diplomatic relations. No date for the start of talks was mentioned.

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