March 22, 2018 / 9:55 PM / in 7 months

Venezuelan protesters burn tyres at statue in Chavez birthplace

BARINAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Protesters vandalised the most important statue of Venezuela’s former leader Hugo Chavez on Thursday in his birthplace of Sabaneta, the latest outbreak of discontent over the OPEC member’s economic and political crisis.

Demonstrators took to a town square before dawn, witnesses said, burning tyres around the Russian-donated granite sculpture of a fist-clenched Chavez after several days of protests in the region over power cuts and erratic food supplies.

Since the socialist leader’s death in 2013, Venezuela’s opposition has held several waves of protests against his successor, President Nicolas Maduro. There have been various attacks on symbols of ‘Chavismo’ with one statute having been taken down.

Workers at the statue in Sabaneta said it was not badly damaged. Chavez was born in Sabaneta on July 28, 1954, and raised in a mud hut by his grandmother.

The statue is particularly closely-guarded by soldiers given its symbolic location in the northwestern agricultural state of Barinas, which government supporters regard as the “cradle of the revolution.”

Extra soldiers were on guard during the day to prevent any recurrence of attacks, locals said.

“It’s an act of terrorism, fascism by the opposition,” Pedro Hurtado, a pro-government guide in the town, told Reuters by phone.

Opposition activists in Sabaneta have long hoped to destroy the statue to show their disgust with a government they say has destroyed the oil economy and turned Venezuela into a dictatorship. Maduro calls them U.S. pawns.

“We’re fed up of power cuts, of being hungry. People are taking it out on any symbol of this disaster,” said Humberto Delgado, 63, a farmer and former Sabaneta mayor.

Denny Frias, a distant relative of Chavez who tends gardens around the statue, said he and other workers discovered the damage when they came to work.

“Fortunately, the protest didn’t do much harm. We’ve washed and cleaned the smoke marks,” he said.

Maduro is seeking re-election in a May 20 presidential vote, which critics say is rigged in advance to perpetuate a socialist “dictatorship.” Opposition candidate Henri Falcon has broken with an opposition boycott to stand against Maduro.

Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas and Francisco Aguilar in Barinas; Editing by Girish Gupta and Grant McCool

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