CARACAS, – More than 200,000 protesters took to the streets of Venezuela on Saturday, day 50 of an angry and sometimes deadly showdown with unpopular President Nicolas Maduro, reports BSS.
As with many of the previous marches in crisis-hit Venezuela, police fired tear gas as protesters in the capital of the oil rich country suffering from dire shortages of the most basic of goods.
The opposition blames Maduro for the economic mess and wants early elections to replace the Socialist who took over from the late Hugo Chavez. Seven weeks of street protests have left 47 people dead.
In Caracas alone, some 160,000 marched through the city trying to reach the Interior Ministry in the city center, said Edinson Ferrer, spokesman for the opposition coalition MUD, citing a preliminary estimate.
Police firing tear gas broke up the demonstration.
In the western city of San Cristobal in Tachira state, an estimated 40,000-plus took to the streets. Maduro this week ordered 2,600 soldiers to Tachira to quell street violence and looting.
In Caracas, demonstrators carried signs that read “#We are millions against the dictatorship” and “#No more dictatorship!”
Protesters blame Maduro for Venezuela’s acute economic crisis, marked by shortages of food, medicine and such basics as soap and even toilet paper, and say he is maneuvering to dodge calls for early elections.
“It’s been 50 days of protests. I’m here with my two children, I can’t get any milk, I can’t get any food,” said Mariangel, a 24-year-old businesswoman.
The red, blue and yellow colors of the Venezuelan flag were painted on her face.
Also present were young men carrying makeshift shields of wood and metal and wearing hoods and gas masks.
“This has been a massacre against the people,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said before the march got underway.
“Still, the more repression there is, the more we will resist and fight for Venezuela,” said Capriles, one of whose lawyers delivered a report on the Venezuelan crisis Friday to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights after Venezuelan officials “canceled” his passport, preventing him from flying to New York.
In terms of turnout Saturday’s protests came close to the biggest of the seven weeks of protest rallies, when several hundred thousand people came out on April 19. The demonstrations have degenerated into violence which, besides the 47 dead, has left hundreds injured, 2,200 detained and some 161 imprisoned by military tribunals.
On the other side of town, an estimated 2,000 pro-government workers sang and danced as they staged a rival march to show their support for the president’s controversial plan to elect a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution.
Maduro had been scheduled to welcome the workers at the Miraflores presidential palace, but in the end the marchers did not see the president.
Venezuela is bitterly divided, as locals bridle under all the shortages, soaring inflation — prices could rise by 720 percent this year, the IMF estimates — and some of the world’s highest crime rates.
– Increasing violence –
As protests have turned violent, an increasing number of gunshot wounds have been reported. Federal prosecutors said they are investigating the role of police and military personnel in the incidents.
Some of the shootings took place in Tachira state, near the border with Colombia, where Maduro this week deployed 2,600 soldiers after riots and looting. Protests have swelled since Maduro called for convening a “popular” assembly to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution, with half its members coming from sectors loyal to him.
The opposition says the assembly would allow Maduro to avoid elections. He denies this and has “guaranteed” that presidential elections will be held next year, as required by law.
Maduro insisted Friday that the “popular” assembly would provide a “path to peace, dialogue and consensus,” while the opposition, he said, was offering only “violence and death.”
– Loyal military –
Analysts say the opposition’s biggest challenge will be to keep their marches peaceful.
Protests succeed only when they are massive and persistent, said Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the Datanalisis polling firm. He warned that when demonstrations turn violent, they “lose impact.”
Seven in 10 Venezuelans reject Maduro’s leadership, according to private surveys, amid widespread economic devastation aggravated by the drop in the prices of oil — Venezuela’s chief revenue source — in 2014.
That has left Maduro heavily dependent on military support.
Opposition protests grew after the country’s Supreme Court on March 30 assumed some of the functions of the National Assembly.