Venezuela’s opposition leaders are bidding to maintain pressure on President Nicolas Maduro by taking to the streets again – just hours after three people were killed and hundreds arrested in the biggest anti-government demonstration in years.
Tens of thousands of protesters demanding elections and denouncing what they consider to be an increasingly dictatorial government were met by a curtain of tear gas and rubber bullets as they attempted to march to central Caracas on Wednesday.
Dozens had to slide down a concrete embankment and into the Guaire River to escape the noxious fumes. Across the country, the clashes were equally intense. Pro-government militias, some of whom were armed, were blamed for two of the deaths, including that of a teenager in Caracas who was heading to a football 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, officials said. In several cities, protesters described being terrorised by armed militia members who circled them on motorcycles.
As night fell, a group of youths tore down signs and billboards to build barricades from which they threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at riot police. The three killings brought 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 energised Venezuela’s fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Mr Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime. Opponents are pushing for Mr 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 favoured to win and cut off a petition drive to force a referendum seeking Mr 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 has shown little interest in backing down.
Mr Maduro, addressing supporters at a much smaller but still large counter-march of mostly state workers, said he is “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 Mr Maduro, adding that in recent hours authorities had rounded up several armed opponents seeking to carry out a coup. He did not provide any evidence to back up the coup claims, and the opposition rejected them as a desperate attempt to intimidate Venezuelans from exercising their constitutional right to protest.