VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — General Motors announced Thursday that it was shuttering operations in Venezuela after authorities seized its only factory, a dramatic escalation of the chaos engulfing the South American nation amid days of deadly protests.
The plant in the central city of Valencia was confiscated on Wednesday as anti-government protesters clashed with pro-government groups in a country battered by economic troubles including food shortages and triple-digit inflation. GM called the move an illegal judicial seizure of its assets.
The Detroit automaker said in a statement Thursday that other assets such as vehicles were taken from the plant, causing irreparable damage to the company. GM has about 2,700 workers in the country, where it's been the market leader for over 35 years. It also has 79 dealers that employ 3,900 people, and its parts suppliers make up more than half of Venezuela's auto parts market, the company said.
General Motors' announcement comes as Venezuela's opposition looks to keep up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro, taking to the streets again Thursday after three people were killed and hundreds arrested in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in years.
It's not the first time the Venezuelan government has seized a foreign corporation's facilities. In July of last year, the government said it would take a factory belonging to Kimberly-Clark Corp. after the American personal care giant said it was no longer possible to manufacture due to a lack of materials.
But the move against GM, the United States' biggest automaker and one of its most recognizable brands, was a much more powerful statement, and could lead to a further erosion of relations between the two countries. There was no immediate reaction from Washington.
The seizure came as tens of thousands of protesters demanded elections and denounced what they consider to be an increasingly dictatorial government. They were met Wednesday by a curtain of tear gas and rubber bullets as they attempted to march to downtown Caracas.
Across the country, the clashes have been intense. Pro-government militias, some of whose members were armed, were blamed for two deaths, including that of a teenager in Caracas who was heading to a soccer game with friends. Overnight, a National Guard sergeant was killed and a colonel injured when their squad was attacked with gunfire while trying to control disturbances in a city near Caracas, the chief prosecutor's office said.
The three killings bring to eight the death toll since protests began three weeks ago over the Supreme Court's decision to strip the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers, a move that was later reversed amid a storm of international criticism.
As protesters with burning eyes headed home, the opposition called for another round of street demonstrations on Thursday.
"If today we were millions, tomorrow even more of us need to come out," said opposition governor and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who last week was barred from running for office for 15 years.
The Supreme Court's decision has energized Venezuela's fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.
Opponents are pushing for Maduro's removal through early elections and the release of scores of political prisoners. The government last year abruptly postponed regional elections the opposition was heavily favored to win and cut off a petition drive to force a referendum seeking Maduro's removal before elections late next year. The opposition sees the government measures as turning Venezuela into a nearly full-blown dictatorship.
But the government hasn't backed down.
Maduro, addressing supporters at a much smaller but still large countermarch of mostly state workers, said he was "anxious" to see elections take place sometime "soon" and repeated his call for dialogue, something many in the opposition see as a stalling tactic.
"Today they attempted to take power by force and we defeated them again," said Maduro, adding that in recent hours authorities had rounded up several armed opponents seeking to carry out a coup.
He didn't provide any evidence to back up the coup claims, and the opposition rejected them as desperate attempt to intimidate Venezuelans from exercising their constitutional right to protest.
As tensions have mounted, the government has used its almost-complete control of Venezuela's institutions to pursue its opponents. On Wednesday alone, more than 500 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to Penal Forum, a local NGO that provides legal assistance to detainees. It was unclear how many people remained in custody.
Foreign governments are also warning about the increasingly bellicose rhetoric coming from the government. The U.S. State Department said those who commit human rights abuses and undermine Venezuela's democratic institutions would be held accountable.
"We are concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in ways that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Wednesday.
Juan Carlos Hernandez reported from Valencia and Joshua Goodman reported from Caracas. AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher contributed from Detroit.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman
More Associated Press reporting on Venezuela's problems can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone