Venezuela fires health chief in deadly crisis

Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro fired his health minister after statistics showed infant deaths surging, as elderly protesters angry over medicine shortages planned fresh rallies Friday demanding the socialist leader quit.

The health ministry on Wednesday released data showing deaths of infants under the age of one soared by 30 percent in 2016 and deaths of women linked to childbirth by 65 percent.

The government replaced minister Antonieta Caporale on Thursday with Luis Lopez Chejade, the official journal said.

Wednesday’s data referred to 2016, but Caporale took over as health minister only in January this year.

Hospitals and protesters are complaining of severe shortages of medical supplies from an economic crisis that has fueled opposition calls for early elections.

Elected in 2013, Maduro is resisting pressure for an early vote, calling the crisis a US-backed conspiracy.

His opponents have branded him a dictator.

– Infant deaths –

The ministry’s data said 11,466 babies died in 2016, up from 8,812 the year before. The report gave no comparative rate in relation to the number of births.

Cases of malaria also rose by 76 percent to more than 240,000, even though the disease was said to have been eradicated in Venezuela.

A collapse in prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports has left the country short of cash to import medicine and basic goods.

Protesters interviewed by AFP over recent weeks have said relatives are suffering and dying due to the lack of medicine.

The Venezuelan Medical Federation says hospitals have only three percent of the medicines and supplies they need to operate normally.

“Yet another new health minister. What a disaster this government is!” Francisco Valencia, director of the non-government Coalition of Organizations for the Right to Health and Life, wrote on Twitter.

“Replacing the health minister has become like changing your socks.”

– Deadly unrest –

The opposition blames Maduro for the crisis. Deadly unrest broke out on April 1 as his opponents protested to demand elections.

Security forces have fired tear gas and water cannon at protesters who have hurled stones, petrol bombs and excrement.

The government and opposition have accused each other of sending armed groups to stir up violence in the protests.

The death toll from the unrest hit 38 on Wednesday, when a 27-year-old man was shot dead in a protest in Caracas, the government said.

In the latest demonstration on Friday, retired representatives of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, calling themselves “the grandparents,” marched in Caracas, despite brief scuffles with riot police.

It was a challenge and a test for the security forces, who have repeatedly driven back younger protesters trying to reach the state institutions in central Caracas, in often violent clashes.

“We ask those police officers, who could be our own sons or grandchildren, not to take action against us,” said Emilio Lozada, president of the Venezuela Pensioners’ Federation.

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