CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Elderly Venezuelans frustrated with medical shortages and the flight of grandchildren from their troubled South American country joined anti-government street protests demanding elections Friday.
Lines of police officers blocked thousands of protesters from advancing in the capital city of Caracas. White-haired demonstrators with raspy voices berated officers for not letting them through.
"Respect the elderly!" one yelled at the young officers standing shoulder-to-shoulder with plastic shields.
The protest organized by the country's opposition coalition was billed as the "March of the Grandparents" and comes on the heels of six weeks of demonstrations against the embattled government of President Nicolas Maduro. Many of the elderly marchers said it made them angry to see a once prosperous nation devolve into a country with triple-digit inflation, shortages of basic necessities like food and medicine and one of the world's highest homicide rates.
A report released by the Ministry of Health this week underlined Venezuela's deteriorating public health. According to the study, 756 women died while pregnant or shortly after giving birth in 2016, a 66 percent increase over the previous year. The deaths were caused by hemorrhages, high blood pressure and infections. Cases of infant mortality rose 30 percent.
Health workers have been warning about rises in infant and maternal deaths, but the data were the first official statistics to be released publicly since 2012.
Vice President Tareck El Aissami announced late Thursday that Health Minister Antonieta Caprole was being replaced by Luis Lopez, previously secretary of health in the state of Aragua. Officials gave no reason, though opposition figures alleged Caprole had been fired for releasing the data.
At least 38 people have killed in a wave of unrest that has followed a Supreme Court ruling stripping congress of its last powers, a decision it later reversed amidst a torrent of international criticism. Most of those killed in protests and overnight looting have been young men in their 20s and 30s.
Maduro has vowed to resolve the crisis by convoking a special assembly to rewrite the nation's constitution, a proposition that has further infuriated the opposition.
Some of those attending Friday's marches in cities around the nation said they have barely enough food to eat. Others said they were marching for their children and grandchildren. One man with a full white beard wore a Santa Claus cap.
Protesters were trying to make their way to the office of the national ombudsman, whose job is to stand up for citizens' rights but who the opposition has tagged the "defender of the dictator." Protesters have tried to reach the office on several previous marches but have been consistently pushed back with tear gas and rubber bullets.
"We are their fathers and grandfathers and we are going to get there," said Arnoldo Bentiez, an opposition lawmaker.
Other elderly Venezuelans dressed in red to support the government marched to the presidential palace.
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.