CARACAS – The second of three ships loaded with gasoline from Iran approached fuel-starved Venezuela on Wednesday amid simmering social unrest over a lack of goods and services that's sparked protests across the South American nation.
More than 100 street demonstrations have flared up in remote towns over the last week. Despite each being relatively small, they have raised concern among Venezuelan authorities, who have responded forcefully, sending in soldiers and local police, activists and residents told The Associated Press.
The Iranian tanker Forest arrived Tuesday at a Venezuelan port carrying 275,000 barrels of gasoline, and the Fortune vessel pulled into Venezuelan waters on Wednesday, said Russ Dallen, head of the Miami-based investment firm Caracas Capital Markets, who tracks Venezuela shipments.
The Faxon — the third Iranian tanker en route — is expected to reach the South American nation this weekend, Dallen said, adding that the flotilla is delivering an estimated 815,000 total barrels of fuel.
The authorities have not commented on the latest fuel shipments from Iran, a close ally to the government of President Nicolás Maduro that is also targeted by strict sanctions from Washington.
However, Iván Freites, secretary of the United Front of Petroleum Workers of Venezuela and a Maduro critic, said the Iranian shipments fall short of solving the nation's deep shortages.
In recent weeks, Venezuela — which has the world's largest oil reserves — shut down gas stations nationwide due to shortages, sparking long lines with frustrated drivers waiting hours and days to fuel up their cars.
Venezuela’s domestic consumption is around 100,000 barrels a day, so the new Iranian shipments do little to meet the demand, Freites said.
Freitas sees no end in sight to the gasoline shortages because he said most of Venezuela's refineries are paralyzed due to a lack of investment and maintenance. The Cardon refinery is the only one now operating, producing roughly 20,000 barrels a day.
Maduro's government blames the lack of gasoline on U.S. sanctions aiming to drive him from power and replace him with opposition politician Juan Guaidó. U.S. officials, however, counter that the production decline under Venezuelan rule, marked by corruption and poor management, started long before the sanctions.
Five Iranian tankers earlier this year delivered 1.5 million barrels of fuel and additives, temporarily easing a severe gasoline shortage that Venezuelans had endured.
The latest shipment of Iranian fuel didn't impress residents of a small farming town of Urachiche in Yaracuy state. It was the site of protests among fed-up residents in the streets last week for five straight days.
“The people taking to the streets because there's a lack of services,” said an Urachiche merchant, who spoke with the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the authorities.
The man said that the demonstrations died down over the weekend after soldiers arrived. Unrest among residents continues to simmer because authorities have done nothing to ease inflation that makes their money useless, and because of a lack of natural gas in their homes.
"We're cooking with firewood,” the man said.
Marco Antonio Ponce, coordinator of the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, which charts the nation's unrest, said the recent protests mark a new trend because they are occurring in small towns that haven't typically experienced it.
Ponce attributed these demonstrations to “the deepening of the crisis” in regions that lack water and electricity often for more than a week at a time — on top of the gasoline shortage running for more than a month.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict reported 748 protests last month with a daily average of 25 demonstrations.
Venezuelan officials have not commented on the recent protests.
At least 30 people have been detained and several people injured among human rights violations that include “illegal raids on the protesters’ homes,” reported Provea, one of Venezuela's most important humanitarian organizations.
A mission of United Nations experts earlier this month accused the Maduro government of “crimes against humanity,” highlighting the cases of torture and killings allegedly perpetrated by security forces that used techniques including electric shocks, genital mutilation and asphyxiation.
Venezuelan authorities have rejected the report, claiming it is full of “falsehoods” and that it was written at the behest of Washington in its ongoing attacks against Venezuela.