By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan authorities briefly rounded up more than 30 people on Margarita island for heckling President Nicolas Maduro, activists said on Saturday, in what appeared to be a rare public confrontation with the unpopular leader.
Videos published by activists, purportedly from the Margarita locality of Villa Rosa on Friday night, show scores of people banging pots and pans and jeering their president during a visit to inspect state housing projects.
The display of anger followed a vast march in Caracas on Thursday that opposition leaders say has emboldened Maduro’s foes after 17 years of socialist rule in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.
After Maduro left Villa Rosa, a rundown area known in the past as a pro-government stronghold, intelligence agents moved in, opposition and rights campaigners said.
More than 30 people were detained, but all except Braulio Jatar, a local pro-opposition lawyer and journalist, had been released by Saturday afternoon, according to the Penal Forum rights group.
The government did not comment on the incident in detail, but Information Minister Luis Marcano published a video on Twitter showing Maduro blowing kisses, pumping his fist and being cheered in Margarita.
“What you didn’t see in the videos manipulated by the right wing,” Marcano wrote.
‘PEOPLE LOATHE HIM’
Since narrowly winning an election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013, Maduro’s popularity has plummeted due to an economic crisis. The opposition say this week’s protest drew more than a million people in what appeared to be the biggest such demonstration in more than a decade.
Even so, it is extremely unusual to see Maduro openly booed. His public appearances are normally carefully choreographed to show only cheering supporters wearing red shirts.
“The people loathe him and last night they made that very clear with the pots-and-pans protest,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who published three videos of the incident on his Twitter feed.
The images could not be independently verified by Reuters.
Buoyed by Thursday’s self-styled “Takeover of Caracas,” the opposition are planning further street actions to demand a recall referendum against Maduro this year.
But with the election board dragging out the process and Maduro vowing there will be no such vote in 2016, it is hard to see how the opposition can force it.
If a referendum is held next year instead of this year, and Maduro loses, it would be a Pyrrhic victory for the opposition as his handpicked vice president would take over for the ruling Socialist Party for the remainder of his six-year rule which ends in 2019.
The president, whose poll ratings have dropped to just over 20 percent, says the opposition is seeking a coup against him with the connivance of the United States.
“We defeated hatred, fascism and coup mongers,” Maduro said this week, adding that arrests of activists and captures of weapons and explosions show his foes’ violent intentions.
According to Penal Forum, more than 90 other people were still in custody after round-ups nationwide this week related to Thursday’s protest. The government has not confirmed numbers.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)