August 24, 2017 / 2:15 PM / a month ago

Venezuela's injured activists struggle to heal

Yolyter Rodriguez, 56, a housewife and a mother-of-three, who was injured during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government, poses for a photograph at her home in Caracas, Venezuela, August 11, 2017. " REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

CARACAS (Reuters) - Jesus Ibarra, a 19-year-old engineering student, has been barely able to walk or talk since a tear gas canister crushed part of his skull during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro and he fell unconscious into a river that carries sewage.

Chronic shortages of medicine in Venezuela forced his family to ask for drug donations so Ibarra could undergo five surgeries on his skull and treatment for infections from the Guaire river.

Ibarra, who cannot return to his studies any time soon, needs to a sixth operation and therapy. It is unclear if he will fully recover.

“I speak to my son a lot, and sometimes he makes me understand it was not worth suffering this, that he regrets it, that it was a mistake,” said Ibarra’s father Jose at their small home in the sprawling hilltop slum of Petare in Caracas.

“But other times he’s clearly telling me that it was worth fighting for a change he believes in.”

Ibarra is one of nearly 2,000 people injured during four months of fierce anti-Maduro street protests, according to the public prosecutor’s office. Rights groups think the number is probably higher.

Venezuela has been torn by political and economic crises that have led to extreme shortages of food and medicine, crushing inflation and the collapse of the local currency. Its new government structure has been criticized as a dictatorship.

Rubber bullets fired at close range, rocks, and tear gas canisters have caused most of the injuries, doctors and rights groups say. Most of those who have been hurt appear to be opposition protesters, but Maduro supporters, security forces and bystanders have also been harmed.

Yolyter Rodriguez, 56, a housewife and a mother-of-three, who was injured during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government, has her head bandaged by her daughter at her home in Caracas, Venezuela, August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

More than 125 people have died in the unrest since April. Thousands have been arrested.

The unpopular leftist president has said he was facing an armed insurgency intent on overthrowing him.

Opposition politicians have said they were forced to take to the streets after authorities curtailed democratic means for change. They have also accused security forces of using excessive force against protesters.

Slideshow (10 Images)

Culinary student Brian Dalati, 22, said he was passing an opposition-manned street barricade on his way to classes in July when police mistook him for a protester. They hit him and fired buckshot at his legs, fracturing both of Dalati’s shinbones.

“I depend on my siblings to go to the bathroom, shower, brush my teeth, eat, anything. It’s infuriating,” he said. “They didn’t have to do this. It was pure hate. Thank goodness I will be able to walk again soon.”

The government says right-wing media are too focussed on injuries to protesters.

Maduro has pointed to a case in which a 21-year-old man was set afire during an opposition protest and died two weeks later. A Reuters witness said the crowd had accused the man of being a thief, but the government said he was targeted for being a Maduro supporter.

Protests have subsided since Maduro’s government established a controversial legislative superbody three weeks ago, but hundreds of Venezuelans are still struggling to nurse their wounds without medicine and state support.

(Click on reut.rs/2xt4eoS for related photo essay)

Additional reporting by Ueslei Marcelino, Liamar Ramos, and Rodrigo Gutierrez; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer

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