Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has fired his health minister after ministry data published this week showed the country’s medical crisis significantly worsening.
The government said it was replacing Antonieta Caporale, a gynecologist who held the post of health minister for four months, with pharmacist Luis Lopez.
In announcing the move late Thursday, Vice President Tareck El Aissami did not provide a reason for the change. “President Nicolas Maduro is grateful to Doctor Antonieta Caporale for her work,” he wrote on Twitter.
The news comes as elderly protesters, angry over medicine shortages, joined in Friday with demonstrators demanding the president step down. Venezuela is in the fourth year of a recession caused by a collapse in crucial oil exports that has led to widespread shortages of basic goods, including food and medicine.
The Health Ministry released data this week that showed cases of infant mortality rose 30 percent, maternal mortality increased 65 percent and malaria cases jumped 76 percent last year. The ministry also said there was an increase in cases of diphtheria and Zika.
The report was the first release of Health Ministry figures in nearly two years, part of a wider government data blackout.
Maduro is resisting pressure to hold early elections, calling the economic crisis a U.S.-backed conspiracy. Opponents of Maduro blame his socialist policies for the crisis. A month and a half of sometimes violent protests has led to the deaths of 38 people.
Elderly join protests
In the latest demonstrations Friday, thousands of pensioners marched in the capital, Caracas, calling their protest the March of Grandparents.
Riot police with helmets and shields used pepper spray several times to control the crowd, while the elderly threw punches and yelled curses.
Chanting “Freedom!” and “Down with Maduro!,” the elderly protesters made it onto a highway but were blocked from their intended destination, the state ombudsman’s office, by police with armored vehicles. A representative of the office listened briefly to their grievances on the street instead.
The crowd, including plenty of octogenarians plus a nun and one white-haired man dressed as Santa, sang Venezuela’s national anthem in front of the security cordon. Opposition leaders joined them, hugging and linking arms with the pensioners.
Since launching protests against Maduro in early April, Venezuela’s opposition has sought to vary tactics by staging silent and candlelit marches, for instance, and rallies for women, musicians and medics.
Each time, the ruling Socialist Party has tried to match them. On Friday, other elderly Venezuelans — dressed in red to support the government — marched to the presidential palace.
Some material from this report was provided by Reuters.