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Venezuela: Are cracks starting to show in Maduro's backing? (+video)

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(Read caption) Venezuela, Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil, with some of the world's largest petroleum reserves, is facing its biggest anti-government protests in a decade. As many as 13 people have been killed, 150 injured and 500 arrested in the unrest. The demonstrations, which began as student protests in early February, spread after the first deaths on Feb 12. They are the biggest challenge President Nicolas Maduro's 10-month-old government has faced so far.

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A political ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has publicly challenged his handling of intensifying protests, suggesting a crack in the strong support base the embattled leader inherited from Hugo Chávez.

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 With antigovernment protests entering their third week and reports of violence escalating, there is no sign yet that Maduro's government is in danger of collapsing. But the willingness of a key associate to break party ranks is being seen as a worrisome sign for Maduro, who has failed to capture the kind of popular devotion the late President Chávez commanded.

In a radio interview on Monday, the governor of Táchira state, José Vielma Mora, was sharply critical of his president. "I am against putting down a peaceful protest with weapons," he told Caracas-based Onda radio Monday. "No one is authorized to use violence."

Táchira, in western Venezuela, is where the country's increasingly debilitating demonstrations began. They quickly spread across the country, with participants reaching beyond their original focus of better security to voice deep discontent over the world’s highest inflation rates and shortages of basic goods.

Mr. Vielma described as excessive the government’s deployment of armed forces and fighter jets. He also cited the rough tactics of a National Guard general who allegedly beat detained protesters in Táchira.

"It's a matter of peace; all of those in jail for political motives should be sent home," Vielma said.

The criticism was particularly striking given its source. Last weekend, retired Army general Angel Vivas caused a stir by standing armed on his balcony and denouncing Maduro’s calls for his arrest (he allegedly helped protesters stretch wire across streets as part of lethal barricades). But Mr. Vivas was already viewed as a somewhat rare vocal opponent of the government within the military ranks.

Mr. Vielma, however, played a historic role in Chávez’s rise to power and was seen as standing by Maduro. According to The Wall Street Journal:

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Mr. Vielma, a military officer like Mr. Chávez, participated in the failed uprising that made Mr. Chávez a household name. Six years later, Mr. Chávez won the presidency, sweeping his leftist movement and close allies—among them Mr. Vielma—into power with him.

The governor stressed that he hadn't broken away from the government but said he was in a difficult situation.

According to Reuters, “Socialist Party leaders have for years avoided making comments that could appear to be diverging from the party line, making Vielma's comment all the more uncommon.”

Venezuela’s protests are the biggest challenge so far to Maduro’s nearly 10-month-old administration. The death toll climbed to 13 on Monday as protests continued to flare nationwide, and Maduro announced a five-day public holiday beginning on Thursday in an effort to diffuse tensions, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The government says 529 people have been charged over the protests, with most given warnings. Roughly 45 people have been put behind bars.

Vielma’s comments – which also included condemning the government’s arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on Feb. 18 – were well received by protesters nationwide.

"Look, the members of their own government are doing an about-face," José Luiz Nuñez, a chauffer in Caracas told The Wall Street Journal. "The government knows that this country is a disaster. They are scared."

Over the weekend both Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles called for peace and discourse. But on Monday, Mr. Capriles declined an invitation to meet government officials at the presidential palace.

"This is a dying government .... I'm not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic," he said, according to Reuters. "Miraflores [the presidential palace] is not the place to talk about peace, it's the center of operations for abuses of human rights."

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