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Venezuela seizes General Motors plant amid antigovernment protests

| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 10:12 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
A woman gestures at riot police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017.
AFP/Getty Images
Rescue workers assist an injured man after clashes with the riot police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017. Venezuelan riot police fired tear gas Thursday at groups of protesters seeking to oust President Nicolas Maduro, who have vowed new mass marches after a day of deadly unrest. Police in western Caracas broke up scores of opposition protesters trying to join a larger march, though there was no immediate repeat of Wednesday's violent clashes, which left three people dead. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A demonstrator clashes with the riot police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017.

General Motors announced Thursday that it is pulling out of Venezuela after authorities seized its auto plant, in a fresh sign of the turmoil gripping the South American country as anti-government protests swell.

The plant takeover happened as huge crowds of demonstrators marched against President Nicolás Maduro's government, calling for new elections and a return to democratic rule. The move against GM could further strain relations between Venezuela's leftist government and Washington.

GM called the expropriation of its factory “an illegal judicial seizure of its assets” and announced it would cease operations in the country, where it employs nearly 2,700.

The company is not the first foreign business whose assets have been confiscated by Venezuelan authorities, but those actions have typically been preceded by repeated public threats from the socialist government.

Venezuelan officials offered no explanation for the seizure of the GM facility. Some analysts saw it as part of a pattern of confrontation between the Maduro government and manufacturers as the economic situation deteriorates. But the timing of the move also led to suspicions that Maduro may be looking to escalate tensions with the United States and blame his government's struggles on a brewing confrontation with the Trump administration. Maduro claims his opponents are colluding with U.S. authorities to overthrow him.

“It fits a broader pattern, in the sense that the government's response to surges in opposition activity tends to be the deepening of the revolution,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, using the government's term for its socialist makeover of Venezuelan society. “There are those at the top, including Maduro himself, who appear genuinely to believe that this is a revolution and the ultimate goal is the replacement of the capitalist economy with one that is entirely state-run.”

On Wednesday, a Venezuelan court in the western state of Zulia ordered the American company's assets frozen and its property seized, siding against GM in a suit filed by a former GM dealer in 2000, according to Venezuelan news accounts. Why the court issued the ruling 16 years later, at the peak of protests, was unclear.

The automaker said the judicial order was “arbitrary” and “in total disregard of (GM's) right to due process, causing irreparable damage to the company.”

Auto manufacturing has virtually come to a halt in Venezuela amid a broader economic collapse under Maduro.

The economy contracted by an estimated 18 percent last year, as the country faced one of the world's highest inflation rates and suffered widespread shortages of food and medicine.

Once one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, the oil-rich country has witnessed a broad, painful withering of industrial activity.

Protests against Maduro continued Thursday. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators, but the crowds appeared to be smaller than during Wednesday's marches.

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