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In Miami Venezuelans gather supplies for street protesters back home

Venezuelans living abroad are collecting box loads of items -- including safety helmets, gas masks and first-aid kits -- to support the crowds marching in their homeland against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

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Alfred Santamaria packs medical supplies to send to protesters in Venezuela at the "Solidaridad Venezuela" event in Hialeah, Florida on May 13, 2017 play

Alfred Santamaria packs medical supplies to send to protesters in Venezuela at the "Solidaridad Venezuela" event in Hialeah, Florida on May 13, 2017

(AFP)
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Venezuelans living abroad are collecting box loads of items -- including safety helmets, gas masks and first-aid kits -- to support the crowds marching in their homeland against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Increasingly violent near-daily protests that began April 1 have left a toll of 38 dead, and hundreds wounded and under arrest.

In Miami, often referred to as the "capital of Latin America" and a city with a large Venezuelan community, meet-ups where donations are collected are increasingly common.

The gatherings are advertised among community members on Whatsapp, Instagram or Twitter, and identified with Venezuelan flags and signs like "Solidarity" or "SOS Venezuela." Lists of preferred items are also posted online.

"I did what I could to buy everything that was on the list and contribute my grain of sand to support these people who are fighting for my country," said Michelle Lewin, a 31 year-old fitness model who lives in Miami.

Lewin dropped two large bags of supplies on a table at a Colombian restaurant where donations were being accepted.

Half of the 225,000 Venezuelans living in the United States reside in Florida, mostly in the greater Miami area.

Goggles and gloves

Most donations are geared towards protecting demonstrators from tear gas, pepper spray and other crowd-dispersal gases used by Venezuelan riot police.

People bring supplies to send to protesters in Venezuela at the "Solidaridad Venezuela" event in Hialeah, Florida on May 13, 2017 play

People bring supplies to send to protesters in Venezuela at the "Solidaridad Venezuela" event in Hialeah, Florida on May 13, 2017

(AFP)

Police also use high-pressure blasts of water from water cannons to break up the crowds. Hooded protesters, sometimes carrying home-made shields, respond by throwing rocks, fuel bombs and bottles filled with paint or excrement.

Liquid antacids -- the kind sold at corner pharmacies -- are good to treat gas-caused skin burns. For eye protection, swim goggles and over-the-counter eye drops are popular.

Also in demand are walkie-talkies, hydrogen peroxide to clean superficial wounds, neck braces, antibiotic cream, and leather gloves for protesters to pick up and hurl hot gas canisters back at the cops.

Destination: Green Cross

Jose Colina is a Venezuelan former army lieutenant who heads a group called the Organization of Persecuted Venezuelans Living in Exile (VEPPEX). He told AFP that he hopes to collect 100 boxes of donations over the weekend. Last week he said he collected 1.4 tonnes of supplies.

The items are sent to the Green Cross, a group of first responders from the Universidad Central de Venezuela that rush in to aid wounded protesters.

"This is a way of doing something, to show that we may be far away but we are not absent," Colina said.

He described the support from Venezuelans and sympathetic Latin Americans in Florida immigrants as "exceptional."

Recently the Green Cross volunteers were blasted as a "paramilitary group" on a state-run VTV television show in Venezuela.

Anonymity rules

Medical supplies, almost all imported, are especially hard to find in cash-starved Venezuela, where the oil-dependent economy is in a free fall.

"We're trying to help the heroes that are fighting for the freedom of our country," said Gloria Mora, who heads a group of Venezuelans living in Miami and is also gathering supplies.

Much of the donation work is done anonymously. Organizers are often wary of interviews, fearing retaliation on relatives and friends still in Venezuela.

Anonymity is especially common online.

There are several anonymous sites at Amazon.com asking for medicine for Venezuelans. Organizers list what they want, and anyone can make the purchase. The whole transaction, including the final destination of the items, is anonymous.

Another anonymous group, "Helmets against Bombs," accepts donations to buy hard-hat safety helmets -- the kind used at construction sites -- and cans of red, yellow and blue paint.

At the crowd funding site Go Fund Me organizers collected nearly $23,000 in nine days. The group's Instagram account then showed pictures of long tables where the helmets were being painted with the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

Absent from the pictures: faces.

Others collect money at Venmo, a mobile payment app. Again, all anonymous.

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