Manitoba's Venezuelan community is joining expatriates across Canada and around the world this weekend to issue an SOS on behalf of their former country.
An economic crisis, rampant crime and food and medicine shortages in the oil-rich South American country have sent demonstrators into the streets and they're being shot at, said Marta Muller.
"I was just talking with my mom a couple of days ago, and you could hear the gunshots everywhere," said the Venezuelan expat, who helped organize an "SOS Venezuela" rally in Winnipeg today. It starts at 3 p.m. outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
In Venezuela Friday, a university student beauty queen slain this week during a political protest was mourned.
Family members and friends of 22-year-old Genesis Carmona say the former Miss Tourism 2013 was shot by members of the armed militias known as "colectivos," who opened fire on a demonstration in Valencia, Venezuela, on Tuesday. She was a victim of what government opponents say is indiscriminate violence used by supporters of President Nicolas Maduro to stifle dissent across the country. Maduro, successor to the late Hugo Ch°vez, is under fire for the country's problems.
The government says the Carmona incident is under investigation but has suggested she may have been shot by an opposition protester, a suggestion that drew scorn at the private mass and graveside memorial attended by several hundred people.
National Guard troops and members of pro-government militias have swarmed through the streets of Caracas and other cities firing volleys, at times indiscriminately, in repeated spasms of nighttime violence in recent days.
Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, said the government is engaging in "brutal repression," in some cases breaking into apartment buildings to arrest people authorities accuse of being part of a plot for a coup against Maduro.
"What does the government want? A civil war?" Capriles asked at a news conference Thursday.
Muller, who arrived in Canada as an exchange student 11 years ago and stayed, said she never expected the situation in Venezuela to get so bad.
"It's a dictatorship trying to control people by placing fear in them so they can stay in power," said Muller.
She left after Ch°vez became president and cracks in Venezuela's economy were starting to show. She said people began raising concerns but they weren't being shot for it.
"Now the military forces and national police are shooting people and killing people and the government is trying to hide these deaths," said Muller, who lives in Selkirk. The government imposed a media blackout and blocked the Internet.
"The government shut down all of the news," Muller said. "They're attempting to hide the violent events and violations of human rights and the economic crisis," she said.
"University students are out on the streets today with phones or cameras showing the violations the military is doing."
In cities such as Winnipeg, members and supporters of the Venezuelan community are rallying to raise awareness and fill the media void, she said.
"We want the world to hear what's happening." She said cities across Canada and around the world are holding SOS Venezuela rallies this weekend.
"There needs to be communication. The government needs to listen to the people and answer with something other than gunshots."
-- with file from The Associated Press