(AFP) Caracas — Hundreds of anti-government protesters marched against Cuban meddling in Venezuela’s domestic affairs.
Under the late elected socialist revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez, Venezuela forged tight ties with Cuba, becoming its closest regional ally and economic mainstay of the Americas’ only communist regime.
The close bilateral alliance, which includes military and security cooperation, is still pursued under President Nicolas Maduro’s year-old government.
At least 28 people have been killed and 400 injured in the student-led protests that began February 4 in western Venezuela and spread to Caracas and other cities.
Oil-rich Venezuela has seen almost daily anti-government demos as tens of thousands of people vent their rage over the soaring violent crime rate, spiraling inflation and a lack of basic household goods like toilet paper.
Clad mostly in white T-shirts, marchers waved signs such as “Cuba get out of the Armed Forces,” “Get out Cuban spies” and “If we keep this up, we will be the Castrocuban Republic of Venezuela.”
Marchers were called out to the streets by the Popular Will, an opposition organization led by Leopoldo Lopez. He has been jailed since February 18.
The chanting throngs, sounding noisy horns, tried to march on the Cuban Embassy to rally.
But authorities blocked them from getting to their target, and demonstrators headed to La Carlota military airfield instead.
The bilateral alliance also includes energy, food, defense and health care.
Manuel Rangel, 24, waved a banner with a portrait of Cuban revolution icon Fidel Castro: warning “Get out Invader!”
“We completely reject Cuban involvement in our affairs, of the Castro brothers in our Armed Forces and in our institutions,” the university student said.
Some analysts say there are Cuban advisers and Cubans taking part in Venezuela’s security. Caracas does not comment on the claims.
Cash-strapped Cuba depends almost entirely on Venezuela’s largesse billed as solidarity aid to keep afloat its ailing, Soviet-style centrally managed economy.
Cuba’s top hard-currency earning export is the $6 billion Havana earns each year from sending its medical staff overseas on government contracts.
On the defensive, Maduro said: “I repudiate the entire nazi-fascist campaign that these right-wing cave-dwellers are waging against the Cuban people,” promising to bring ties even closer to Havana.
– Venezuela, Cuba’s neighborhood ATM –
Unless Cuba can pinpoint and exploit the oil reserves it believes it has, and fast, Havana must depend on its Venezuelan economic lifeline to survive.
Maria Godoy, a 50-year-old homemaker, said “Cuban military presence in Venezuela also is to blame for the (deadly) repression at demonstrations” here.
But people are mainly on the streets, Godoy said, because of the economic crisis in a country that has increasingly centralized its own economy.
“We’ve been fighting on the streets for a month. So how has the government improved anything?” she asked. “It hasn’t. Everything is worse. There is nothing on supermarket shelves.”
Workers from the subsidized foods program held a pro-government protest.
“We will defend Chavez’s legacy. It is sacred. The fascist right-wing will not plunge the country into chaos,” one told state television.
– Debate about a debate –
Meanwhile, opposition figure Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in last year’s elections, said he was discussing with the government some format to hold a debate about the current crisis.
Government-controlled media do not feature such debate.
Maduro, often criticized as being rather low on charisma, then shot back on state media that Capriles “has no character, and is two-faced. If someone wants to come for talks, they should do so with respect for the president. If they don’t want to, then to hell with them, damn it.”
Capriles responded to Maduro, who has called for dialogue on the crisis, on Twitter.
“You are pitiful… You quiver at the very idea of a debate. You have painted yourself into a corner,” Capriles said.